Portrait of a city in her many moods

PLYMOUTH’S ambition to be mentioned in the same breath as other great waterfront cities such as San Francisco and New York has found an ally.

A photographer with an international reputation following his work in the US, London and the Danish capital, Copenhagen, has devoted a book to the Devon city.

Robin Maddock’s standing as one of Britain’s brightest talents has been further enhanced by God Forgotten Face. The project has won praise on both sides of the Atlantic.

Whether the book will be such a hit with the city’s marketing people is another question. Don’t expect the usual homage to the Hoe and the Barbican. There are no tourist-postcard-style images of sunlight gleaming on yachts in the Sound or of Smeaton’s Tower shrouded in mist.

The people in Robin’s book don’t stroll, smiling, hand-in-hand through pristine streets clutching designer shopping bags.

They moon and goon in fancy dress, go paddling off the Hoe in the dawn light after a hen do.

They snog by the city centre sundial, munch burgers while riding their mobility scooters, squeeze their flabby buttocks into a thong and sunbathe by a war memorial.

Romantic misty light does make an appearance in Robin’s book – to soften an unloved residential tower block. He uses the contrast of a crystal-clear sunny winter’s day to capture a pedestrian underpass in its glory of zig-zagging concrete stairs and metal railings.

If that all sounds unflattering, it isn’t.

An essay by Owen Hatherley in the book , has kind words for Plymouth.

The city is neither melancholic nor grim but shares with other Blitzed cities “a vitality that most heritage cities would die for”, says the writer on architecture, politics and culture.

The book is honest, affectionate, warm and humorous. Perhaps that is because there is a bit of Janner in Robin.

He wasn’t born in the city, and he spent his formative years in Singapore, where his father worked. But there were regular visits to see family here – his father is from the South Hams and went to school in the city.

“I have very strong memories of coming here in the ’70s and ’80s, the Navy Days and the rest,” he says. “There has always been a bit of Plymouth in me.”

So when he was looking for another documentary project after the success of his first book, Our Kids Are Going To Hell – following police on drug raids in Hackney, east London, where he was then living – Robin returned to Plymouth.

“It was the city in England I knew most about,” he says.

The idea was not do a book that was “clever”. That would have been a book about him, he says.

“I did not want to do something that said, ‘wow! look at me!’.

“If I wanted to show danger, I would have gone to somewhere more dangerous. If I wanted to show poverty, I would have gone to somewhere poorer. If I wanted to show somewhere sunny and happy I would have gone somewhere sunnier and happier.

“I wanted it to be normal. It is part of my normality.”

And so he could not do it in the manner of National Geographic magazine in the 1950s “come in, photograph the tribe and then walk away.

“It’s not an objective view. It is one person’s view.”

Robin, 40, has been feted by The New York Times and the magazine attached to one of the world’s great museums, the Smithsonian, as a force in UK photography. In the UK, The Sunday Times and the British Journal of Photography have both praised his Plymouth book.

Although he has made his career in photography, he did not go straight into the art form. He studied archaeology at the University of Wales before doing a master’s degree in photography at the University of Westminster.

“I am not a great portrait photographer,” he insists.

Most often he “picks pockets” – taking the image without the subject knowing.

“I would be away before they knew what was happening.

“I can sense atmosphere. If they are in fancy dress they are asking to be photographed.

“I try to take a picture without conversation.

“If they let you come up close with a camera, they are letting you take a picture.

“If I get talking to somebody, I keep talking. I don’t say, ‘right. I am going to take a your picture now’.”

He was struck by the warmth of the people he photographed and the positive reactions of those he talked to.

“I wanted to take pictures inside a gym in Devonport. I thought I would go in and come flying out through the window. But the people there were more friendly than I could have imagined, incredibly welcoming.”

The one relationship that did suffer during the project was that with Bianca, now his ex-girlfriend.

As well as dedicating the book “to Plymouth and the kindness of its strangers” he is says it is “for and against Bianca”.

“I had to leave her and spend more time in Plymouth to complete the project. The break-up was quite acrimonious, but not now.

“I wanted to show her that what happened probably made the book better, that the results were good.”

As for his relationship with the city, that has changed, too.

He committed himself to Plymouth, spending a couple of years photographing, photographing and photographing. The connection became so strong that he now has a home here, although he divides his time between the UK and California.

He is pleased to see that Plymouth is “getting its confidence back for the first time since World War Two, new industries are coming in and there new buildings.

“It has been disconnected from the centre of media production in London and even in the information age that makes a difference.”

Robin was this week working on arranging an exhibition of pictures from the book, which is pencilled in for mid-November. In the spirit of the project, he wants the show to be accessible to all and not in a gallery. “Somewhere like the Royal William Yard is an amazing space, but I am hoping it will be in Drake Circus mall, because it is so successful and everyone goes there,” he explains. He will be having a signing in Waterstone’s in the mall next Thursday, 6.30pm-8pm – and will give away a copy of the book to anybody who can find themselves inside.

He retains a home in the city but has been spending more time in California recently, for work purposes.

He makes his living from a variety of sources. His work is with Getty, the photographic agency, and in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which also commissions pieces. And his well-received books include Copenhagen City of Bicycles.

He also does a few newspaper and magazine stories a year.

The New York Times commissioned him for a project in California. For that, he put aside his usual digital camera – in fact the Canon 5D Mark 1 had failed on his final shoot in Plymouth. Instead he picked up a 35mm film camera, a ping pong ball, a carton of milk and got to work in Los Angeles and San Francisco, shooting in black and white. Each San Francisco image features a splash of milk, while the table tennis ball bounces through every LA frame.

“I don’t know how it came about,” he says, smiling. “Sometimes it is better not too talk too much; that takes something away. I didn’t want to do a sociological work. After every heavy project, I like to do a lighter one.”

California has one big advantage over south Devon. “When you walk around Plymouth on a sunny day it really is a wonderful place.

“I am crazy about Devon and I have loved getting to know Plymouth – there is no need to go into Cornwall.

“But the weather… that’s why I like to live in California. There are a lot of things wrong there – I can’t handle the people. But the weather is fantastic.”

The title, God Forgotten Face is a play on a line in the poem Plymouth, by Philip Larkin, which speaks of “Gold forgotten face”. The book is published by Trolley at £25 and available from Waterstone’s, Drake Circus Mall.

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