5th October 2023
5th October 2023
My original intention for this project was simple but, I hoped, provocative. I was to take one image every minute of my morning commute, and in this sense extend the regimentation of the labour-process into its exterior boundary through the temporal constraint of the interval. This was to have three effects: first, it would reference photography’s role in the scientific development of modern labour discipline. This harks back to the original ‘Animal Locomotion’ studies of Eadweard Muybridge, and to Frank Galbrith’s ‘Chronocyclegraph’, as two innovative attempts to map motion. The former deployed rapid sequences of imagery which, when combined together, appear to our eyes as a kind of early gif; while the latter pioneered long-exposures in which the limbs of workers, decked out with small lights, would be tracked in order to identify potential (in)efficiencies in the production process. Such images would then function ‘as an empirical instrument yielding “scientific proof” and as a pedagogical instrument for readjusting the worker’s body against a standardized grid’,  thus further submitting them to the demands of Taylorist scientific management.
Second, by transplanting the photographic logic previously used for the intensification of production to the sphere of circulation, it was to point towards the changed spatio-politics of contemporary capital. As is well known, since the 1960s the manufacturing centres of global capital have shifted to the periphery. With this came the construction of a vast logistical apparatus premised on containerisation and just-in-time shipping, and the recomposition of the economies of the core towards services, many of which exist to facilitate this smooth circulation (transport, hospitality, inventory, construction, advertising, financial services, and so on). The flipside of such a process is the prominence of what Joshua Clover terms ‘circulation struggles’: ‘occupations, riots, critical infrastructure blockades … requiring no privileged access to the production process, unfolding in an ambiguously public space policed by the state, often interfering with the circulation of commodities.’  Often led by surplus populations, or at the very least by forms of under-employed and fragmented proletarians, such struggles speak to a conjuncture defined by deindustrialisation and an attendant ‘weakness of traditional labour movements’. This theme is further intensified by the most immediate photographic reference point for the series: Allan Sekula’s ‘Untitled Slide Sequence’ (1972), in which the passage from private to public, from work to non-work, was captured at the exterior steps of the Convair Division aerospace factory in Pennsylvania. It should also be said that the phenomena of production and circulation was there at the inception of documentary film in the Lumiere Brothers’ ‘Arrival of a Train’ and ‘Workers Leaving the Factory’, both dated 1895, the latter of which Sekula’s 1972 work is an explicit reference to. That I have endeavoured to shift this mode of representation from the factory gate to the capillary transport links of post-Fordism should therefore prove suggestive.
Finally, these thematics met at the technical level to produce a third effect: the aesthetic constraint which the interval was to provide thus symbolised photographies tussle between its documentary or scientific logic, and its poetic or romantic, a tussle which I was to grapple with at every moment of composition. (Note that the frequency and length of the intervals was an arbitrary choice, but the total time in which I had to conduct the photographs was limited by the real structure of the working day; it was not possible for me to stall, like Cartier-Bresson, waiting for the ‘decisive moment’ if I was to be at the office for 9AM). In this sense it was to speak to Jacques Ranciere’s Proletarian Nights, a contemporary gesture to the liminal space - occupied in his text by figures like carpenter-philosopher Gabriel Gauny - in which workers ‘prepare and dream and already live the impossible,’ demanding that they ‘should be treated as beings to whom several lives were owed.’  By performing the commute as a site of aesthetic potential, I thus sought to give truth to Ranciere’s claim that the ‘possibility that doesn’t lie in people's physical strength may lie in their eyes; the possibility that doesn’t lie in their eyes might be in their mind; the possibility that isn’t in the workshop might be in the street’.  And such a possibility, in conjunction with the aforementioned mapping function, was to be not just a romantic gesture but a militant one, too.
Quite quickly, my hopes hit up against the weight of the real. The first problem was that I could not execute the intervals with anything like the same level of exactitude required by the aforementioned time-management studies because of my participation in the motion itself; the crowd-dodging and tapping-in-and-out and general chaos of the underground made this near impossible. The second was the challenge posed by photographing inside the train carriage during rush-hour, which was not primarily technical (I had already loaded a film with a sufficient ISO) but social and aesthetic. It is no exaggeration to say that in the Jubilee line at 8AM it is hard enough to lift one’s phone out of their pocket, let alone to raise the camera to eye-line and compose an image. Even Walker Evan’s mischievous apparatus with which he was able to take his candid subway photos, concealing his 35mm under his overcoat and shooting blind with a cable release, could not have peered past the wall of bodies which awaited me. Finally and simply, I succumbed to the aesthetic level: I felt the one minute interval was not long enough to provide for sufficient visual variety, and I therefore struggled to maintain fidelity to the conceptual logic of the sequence. In hindsight, perhaps these non-images and repetitions would have been evocative in themselves, but I have chosen instead to treat the failure to realise the original intention of the project as instructive - not least because it narrativises the very thematics with which I am dealing (art in its heteronomous and autonomous dimensions; the commute as a site of scarcity, blockages, and potentiality). What remains is therefore an uneven version of the original idea, but one whose central concerns should nonetheless remain in operation.
1. S. Lalvani, Photography, Vision, and the Production of Modern Bodies (State University of New York Press: 1996), p.154
2. J. Clover, ‘The Political Economy of Tactics’ in Verso Blog (2022)
3. J. Ranciere, The Nights of Labor: The Workers Dream in Nineteenth Century France (Temple University Press: 1989), p.viii-xi
4. J. Ranciere, ‘The Proletarian and His Double’ in Staging the People (Verso: 2011), p.26