Photographer John Perivolaris will be pursuing his engagement with the Washington Wilson photographic archive with a two-week residency in Aberdeen during March. His project, ‘Cities of Ghosts: photographic dialogues with George Washington Wilson’, is supported by the Aberdeen Humanities Fund. Working with GWW Director Ed Welch, Perivolaris will identify a series of Washington Wilson’s Aberdeen images and return to their locations in order to consider how the urban fabric has changed over the intervening century. The locations will be re-photographed by Perivolaris using a large-format, 4 x 5 camera similar to the type that might typically have been used by Washington Wilson’s team of photographers. An exhibition is planned for autumn 2015 in the University Library, presenting Perivolaris’s images alongside those of Washington Wilson, and staging a dialogue between old and new images of the city which explores the photographic representation of space and urban identity as the city moves through time.
Perivolaris discussed his initial thoughts on the project in conversation with Welch during a scoping trip to Aberdeen in October last year. Its title comes from a quotation Perivolaris found while working on papers in the Washington Wilson archive. The photographic collector Jonathan Ross, a contemporary of Washington Wilson’s, refers to the first photographic views of city streets as “cities of ghosts” because of the way in which long exposure times meant that figures passing through the frame while the shutter was open were glimpsed only as traces or blurs of movement. Washington Wilson’s images, on the other hand, for Ross, were among the first to capture city dwellers more clearly, and give a proper sense of their physical presence in, and constitution of, urban and civic spaces.
At the same time, Ross’s phrase evokes the peculiarities of cities as places in time, where different temporal rhythms co-exist, interact and clash. Most obviously, perhaps, the relatively short half-life and steady turnover of human beings as they ebb, flow, age and die, are in contrast to the mineral solidity of the urban environment; and there is arguably no more solidly mineral environment than the granite of Aberdeen’s streets and buildings. Except that cities themselves change, of course, albeit at rhythms of much lower frequency. Indeed, one of the distinctive and intriguing features of Aberdeen is how it displays successive waves of urban change and ways of conceptualising urban space. There are times when walking round the city can feel like being in a vast, full-scale, pop-up textbook of urban design and architecture, from the grand, nineteenth-century avenue of Union Street, to the hopeful, international modernism of the social housing on Gallowgate, reaching into the sky to give its inhabitants the best views in the city.
Yet as Owen Hatherley notes in a coruscating account of his own walk around Aberdeen, the city council over the years has presented a baffling mix of vision, ambition, clumsiness and ineptitude in its approach to urban planning, most recently evident in the controversy surrounding the new Marischal Square development. The substance, materiality and transience of urban forms and life are recurring themes of Perivolaris’s work on urban space. For the past few years, he has been taking portraits of passers-by under a concrete bridge in the London borough of Shoreditch, drawn at once to the peculiarly organic qualities of concrete as a building material; to its subtle effects on light at different times of the year; and to the appeal of disrupting the routine of daily journeys, engineering a moment of stillness in the city with his request for them to pose for a portrait. More recently, a long-planned trip to Paris coincided with the aftermath of the terrorist attacks there, and he found himself capturing the atmosphere of spectrality which lingered in the city’s streets in the days after the attacks and the Republican march which followed them.
The idea of cities as spectral places, haunted at once by the past and the future, is one which, in a different way, is also relevant to Aberdeen. A sense of existential uncertainty has grown in recent weeks, the city entering a jittery phase of insecurity as a fall in the price of oil compounds the fatalistic acceptance that the end of the North Sea oil boom is closer than its beginning.