Bridget Smith: interview

Time Out meets Bridget Smith, who‘s spent a decade poking her lens into arcane London societies and now fancies making a movie about the ’imaginative reality‘ of model railway nuts

  • Bridget Smith: interview

    Bridget Smith, 'William Morris Community Centre Users Association, Walthamstow'

  • Inside London’s buildings – be they faceless 1970s blocks, street corner cafés or elegant Georgian townhouses – there are cultural activities taking place far below the radar of media interest which nevertheless play a vital role in forming the social fabric of city life. From the North London Beekeepers and the Order of Women Freemasons to the Kennel Club, the Indian Workers' Association and the London Chess League – the capital’s clubs, associations and societies bring Londoners together through shared hobbies, ideas, faiths, nationalities and sporting interests. Over the last ten years, Bridget Smith has been documenting these clubs, not by recording their members but by photographing the environments where their activities take place. The resulting images are now being published in a book called ‘Society’.

    ‘In past work I’ve documented completely fabricated environments, from Las Vegas to themed motel rooms,’ Smith explains, ‘but for this project I wanted to focus on the human aspect and reveal something about London, where I have lived for the past 23 years. These images are all interiors, but they’re not just about the buildings. They’re evidence of what people care about and are passionate about. What interests me is people’s imaginative life and how that creates these spaces. The Latin American Golden Years Club may be in a drab building in
    Camberwell, but inside it’s been transformed it into a colourful and sunny part of South America.’

    Smith’s use of slow exposure, combined with the available lighting – which could be spotlights, fluorescent strips or chandeliers – brings a richness of colour to her images. Whether she’s highlighting the oak-panelled opulence of the Vintners’ Hall in Blackfriars or the Southall Working Men’s Club with its scuffed, checkerboard linoleum and cork-effect ceiling tiles, there’s a similar feeling of warmth: ‘That’s important because it shows both the vibrancy and inclusive nature of these clubs. In some ways they’re exclusive because you have to be a member, but that’s also what’s connecting people.’

    Like all aspects of London life, the nature of its clubs and societies is constantly changing. Hackney’s ex-military, General Browning MOTH (Memorable Order of Tin Hats) Club probably isn’t attracting many additional members but new societies are emerging with the establishment of new communities, such as Dalston’s Congolese Youth Association. Others, such as the Brownies (the only club Smith has been a member of) may seem old-fashioned to urban pre-teens but still have a healthy membership.

    ‘Society’ has been supported and produced by the General Public Agency (GPA), a creative consultancy who work on cultural and commercial projects in the public realm. For them it’s not just an art project but information they can feed into other areas of their work. ‘There’s a lot of talk about how all-encompassing culture is,’ explains the GPA’s Clare Cumberlidge, ‘but it’s still a struggle to promote the idea that culture isn’t just about going to Tate Modern, the theatre or to a football match. What we learn from producing a book like this is just how broad culture is and how an artist can visualise and represent that.’

    Smith has recently made two short documentary films in which people, rather than places, take centre stage. The first is about a man who works in a small observatory in Dundee and the other follows a possum trapper in New Zealand. But it’s still the importance of these individuals’ imaginative lives that draws Smith in. ‘When he was nine years old, the guy from the observatory missed the first moon landing on TV because his parents forgot to wake him up,’ she explains. ‘Now he’s obsessed with watching space footage.’ So, is there a series of films to be made from the ‘Society’ project? ‘I would like to make a film about the Model Railway Club,' Smith acknowledges. ‘Because they literally are constructing their own imaginative reality.’

    ‘Society’ is published by General Public Agency and SteidlMACK on October 1.

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