Bob Mazzer: ‘Underground’

Where is the ‘Landscape’?

On initial inspection, readers can certainly be forgiven for questioning the logic or wisdom of discussing Bob Mazzer’s recent monograph Underground within this blog. Since his days as a projectionist in a King’s Cross cinema, Mazzer has photographed people travelling on and around the London Underground, and his book is a celebration of the diversity of the capital’s commuters and visitors and the – at some times wonderful, and other times terrifying – atmosphere of the place. The use of a small format camera, the emphasis on human subjects and of course, the urban location might most immediately site Mazzer’s series within the documentary sub-genre of street photography – save for the fact that these are all, almost exclusively, not taken on the streets but beneath them [1]. Definitions of ‘landscape’ often tend to emphasise examples of the topographical things within an area of land [2]. But what happens when the photographer dwells on such things rather than taking in a more all-encompassing composition? [3] Does this matter particularly? Isn’t the relationship between those elements, or how they are juxtaposed, define the the real ‘landscaping’ [4] – rather than the detail of what those things might happen to be?

'Waterloo & City Line, 1980s' © Bob Mazzer. Courtesy of Howard Griffin Gallery

‘Waterloo & City Line, 1980s’ © Bob Mazzer. Courtesy of Howard Griffin Gallery

Mazzer’s interest isn’t in the transport infrastructure per se, but the people who use it and the collective identity that they bring to it. The great time period that the project covers, from the 1970s to today, gives a sense of the shifts in styles, tastes and socio-political attitudes over the decades. We might therefore consider the work as a ‘survey’ in a scientific sense: through the almost obsessive nature of Mazzer’s picture taking (if, I am led to believe, his Leica is not around his neck it’s being held up to his eye), his keen observations, and importantly; the relatively confined geographic nature of this study, we are presented with as much a record of place as a record of its users, which, unlike the people who have made use of it over the years to commute, socialise and holiday, has remained relatively constant.

'Trying to open doors, 1980s' © Bob Mazzer. Courtesy of Howard Griffin Gallery

‘Trying to open doors, 1980s’ © Bob Mazzer. Courtesy of Howard Griffin Gallery

Using journeys to make photographic projects is a staple of documentary practice. From Walker Evans and Robert Frank’s road trips across America to Paul Graham’s seminal work of British colour documentary, A1 – The Great North Road, and more recent projects such as Chris Coekin’s The Hitcher and Paul Gaffney’s We Make the Path by Walking, the methodology (and act) of moving through the landscape is often just as important as how it is framed within the viewfinder. Another body of work that makes and interesting counterpoint to Mazzer’s are Paul Fusco’s blurry shots from the open window of Bobby Kennedy’s funeral train that record – literally – a cross section of society on one particular day, as the train cut its transect through a sample of the American landscape.

'Kensington Lads, 1980s' © Bob Mazzer. Courtesy of Howard Griffin Gallery

‘Kensington Lads, 1980s’ © Bob Mazzer. Courtesy of Howard Griffin Gallery

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I don’t believe Mazzer’s Underground does really belong in the field of landscape, but it gives us an opportunity to consider the porous – and perhaps pointless – nature of neatly defined genres. It also reminds me that the most interesting photographic subjects we are ever most likely to capture will not be found in exotic locations, but right under our noses. Moreover, it’s the interaction between people and place, rather than just the arrangement of the ‘stuff’ within the frame, which is what’s most interesting to focus our lenses on.

[1] It was an interest in the discrepancy between the values we place on the terrain above the surface compared to below it that led me to explore the underground landscape during my postgraduate studies. See Threshold Zone and Turnstile on my personal website.

[2] See for instance, the definition of landscape for the ‘100 Mile Radius’ Photography Prize.

[3] Robert Adam’s tree stumps in Turning Back and Atta Kim’s rocks in In-der-Welt-sein come to mind.

[4] WJT Mitchell asserts in Landscape and Power (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994) that the verb ‘to landscape’ has more relevance than the noun ‘landscape’, in terms of defining the nature of the genre.

Bob Mazzer is represented by Howard Griffin Gallery, London.

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