Monday, 3 June 2013

Beneath The Surface / Hidden Place - Nicky Bird

Beneath The Surface: Hidden Place. Edinburgh. Bookworks
ISBN-13: 978-0906458075

In this book Nicky Bird once again examines social histories, investigating locations that have changed over time (but within living memory) and undergone some form of re-invention. Her approach to these stories is to create montages using found photographs, overlaying them onto an image of the scene as it stands today. The two blend into one another creating a ghostly effect that set up dialogues between the past and the present.

The cover of the book has an insert that folds out to reveal a clever map that shows a topography that has radically changed. Again, the overlay technique is used so that the viewer can see what was once tower blocks and a large public space replaced by smaller, individual houses, gardens and network of streets on a Scottish housing estate.

The artist collaborated with a number of people at different locations that came forward with their images and personal histories. It is noted in the accompanying text by Kirsten Lloyd, curator at the Stills Gallery, Edinburgh, that these images and anecdotes are hidden histories - the social aspect of peoples lives and knowledge not to be found in any archive. Two processes are taking place in parallel here. - the archaeological investigation of the changed location alongside the gathering of snapshots and anecdotes. These separate threads are then brought back together using the montages.

There were a number of visually arresting images:

A snapshot of a young child posing for the camera on top of a children's slide in a public play area - a massive tower block dominates the horizon behind her. Blended with the image is a row of smaller density new houses that show how much the landscape of the space has changed.

A family gathering outside a bungalow, their old wooden front fence fading away as the modern image reveals instead a hard standing with a parked up VW camper van - indicating levels of prosperity and changing aspirations that have taken place between the two scenes.

One image of some young adults inside a phone box didn't work quite so well for me. The other images were all taken outside and the montages were skilfully blended to meld with the new landscapes. I found it harder to read this image - the old interior background looked so radically different from the new one it was harder to visualise the montage as one image.

The book also showed the exhibition interiors. I really liked the table top with glass insert used in the Foxbar exhibit. The viewer could sit at the accompanying bench and examine the topographical maps that appeared to be laminated to the wooden surface. Like the insert book covers the same technique of overlaying the two topographies was used. Points on the map also indicated the spots referenced by the montages.

An inspiring piece of public work was also created at the site of a harbour that has now been filled in and grassed over. An old image of three young men posing and submerged to their necks in the harbour water has been incorporated into a glass or acrylic panel. The panel has been installed in-situ at the site and by looking through the panel to the grass area beyond a montage is created in the viewers own mind. I should imagine that the effect is quite powerful with the two scenes so radically different to one another.

I really enjoyed reading this book and thinking about the topics that Nicky Bird has raised. The work made me think back to my People and Place assignment 3 last year where I returned to photograph the site of my childhood home. I'd taken some old photographs back with me for my sister to hold to indicate our connection to the place. Bird's work has made me realise that there are so many different approaches to a subject and I might have a re-look at the work I have done there and maybe attempt to try a similar experiment myself.


A re-working of one of my assignment 3 images from the People and Place course. Using Nicky Bird's montage technique I played around with the opacity and colour saturation in Photoshop to blend the images together. The montage effect works best if an object can be meshed together in the images. Here I've lined the old photo up with the utility box and allowed its edge to bleed through into the old image.

I'm quite pleased with how it turned out. Particularly as my sister appears to be looking backwards in time at her younger self - the smallest girl in the middle of the family group.


  1. Looks like and interesting book and your re-working is very effective.