On today’s post I want to share with you the story behind my own book, Tales from Beneath the Arches, which was published in March 2017.
The idea for this project had been formulating in my head for some time while I lived in Taipei between 2013 and 2015. However, it was really Peter Bialobrzeski’s visit in August 2014 for the printing of Cairo Diary that gave me the final inspiration I needed.
I had become fascinated with the urban structure of Taiwanese cities. They functioned entirely differently to the cities of Europe that I was familiar with. One evening, waiting for a bus home opposite an elevated freeway, I noticed a small cabin built underneath the road. It was a community centre, with a meeting in progress. Next to them, and still underneath the freeway built above, was a basketball court, with a game in session.
I marvelled at how these spaces were used – at how little regard the people below had for the traffic and noise that sped above them. They found such spaces and utilised them, repurposing them for their needs. I thought of such places back home in Ireland, where I’m from, and London, where I used to live, and could never imagine something similar. Derelict, empty spaces with a tinge of danger is all that came to mind.
Without doubt ,Taipei has a lot more elevated freeways running through the city than your average European city. In this sense it very much seems to be modeled on the American city that is built around the personal automobile, at the expense of the pedestrian. Taipei is paying for this legacy now many years later with high levels of pollution and whole areas of cities that have been ripped up to build highways.
After noticing this, I began noticing other ways in which the spaces underneath the freeways was being repurposed. I found recycling centres, parks, houses, farms. No space, it appeared, could not be reused for something else beneath these concrete skies. Above all, I was curious about how the people of the city interacted with these behemoths that had been imposed upon them by the powers that be.
Peter’s visit to Taipei, and watching him shoot what later became Taipei Diary, inspired me to go back to photographing. I had, in many senses, given up – frustrated by my inability to get what I saw in my head to come out on film. Peter showed me the power of composition, watching the light, and mostly patience to wait until you get a really good image – not an ok one.
On a bus one day he talked about Neon Tigers – his seminal project published by Hatje Cantz in 2002 and winner of numerous awards. He told me how he had become inspired to document this futuristic world that was developing in Asia above the street level. In one image he showed me, taken in Bangkok, I saw chicken sellers at the base of a freeway, and expensive accommodation and office space above the freeway. The freeway was dividing the new rich from the old poor.
I decided to take this viewpoint to document the city I lived in, Taipei, but to instead focus on the ‘chicken sellers’ – to explore how the world at street level had been transformed by the building of these freeways, and how they responded to the new world built above them.
I completed the project over the next few months before leaving for Japan in early 2015. It was the most committed to a project I had ever been and I came back with over 2500 images. I have such fond memories of completing this project as I had never been so engaged in a project before. It was all I thought about, and executing it was a thrill.
It took me over a year and a half to narrow down my selection to just 50 images. Once I got to this point I began to reach out to friends to ask them what they thought of the idea behind the project, and which images they thought served the project best. My thanks to Kyler Zeleny, Yanina Shevchenko, Sander Meisner and Lars Rolfsted Mortensen for their encouragement and insight.
I struggled for a long time over what type of book it should be – and in reality I wasn’t sure I would ever have the discipline to push myself through each decision and get the book done. It seemed so much easier to work on other artists’ projects instead.
Finally, I had it down to 35 images and I began to work on the sequencing. Following advice from others I began to pay attention to not just the content and the colours, but also the lines of the photos in how I sequenced the images. This was a big help and really brought a new dimension to the work as a book.
I was so lucky too to come across Sandra Kostler, who had shot a project in Taipei many months before called Postsadness Taipei and helped me by writing a wonderfully illustrative essay on the situation in Taipei. Her words helped to illuminate the ideas behind my images.
I am also grateful to Anna Cooke-Yarborough for her map of Taipei that will help readers understand just how prominent elevated roads are in the Taiwanese capital.
After months of editing, tweaking and re-tweaking the images themselves and the layout, I was ready to go to print. The final part was to decide on a name. While I was completing the project itself in Taipei, one of my all time favourite artists – Gravenhurst – passed away. Indeed, the name ‘The Velvet Cell’ is taken from one of his songs. So it felt appropriate to do so again. I repurposed the name of his song ‘songs from under the arches’ for my own project. I felt like ‘Arches’ was a great way to connect my idea of bridges with those in Asia, which are usually devoid of such features – being mostly functional.
Thanks for reading. If you have any questions, please leave a comment below!