Thom and Beth Atkinson,
First Edition, October 2015
Missing Buildings seeks to answer war artist John Piper's vision to preserve the ruins of the Second World War in London. This extensive body of work, made over the last five years, studies both the physical and the imaginative landscape of the London Blitz.
Over a million of London's buildings were destroyed or damaged by bombing between 1940 and 1945. From the mysterious gap in a suburban terrace to the incongruous
post-war inner city estate, London is a vast archaeological site, bearing the visible scars of its violent wartime past. 70 years after VE Day, Thom and Beth's photographs search for evidence of the Blitz, both real and mythological, in order that we might memorialise what remains and contemplate its effects upon the British psyche.
Thom and Beth Atkinson are brother and sister.
Gianpaolo Arena: Could you tell us something more about how your project 'Missing Buildings' started?
Beth Atkison: We're both interested in the way stories, folklore and history leaves traces on the landscape – places where a mythology has shaped the way we understand and interpret a place. I think we both got that feeling having moved to London. For us, it's a place where the Blitz story is so powerful – not just in terms of its physical effect on the city, but its effect on our notions of ourselves. It is a form of myth. So, long story short, we decided to try and figure out how to take photographs that conjure that feeling.
Thom Atkison: We began by walking and talking. Initially, we tried a few different ways of photographing the idea but the final form of the work eventually evolved and settled. For me, that's the point when it really started, perhaps a couple of years into shooting.
Gianpaolo Arena: Did you start the project with the idea of making a book?
Beth Atkison: I think it became clearer towards the end of shooting that the project was something we wanted to share with others and making a photobook felt like the most appropriate format for that; not as temporary as an editorial piece, not as exclusive as an exhibition. The photos in the book are only selection of the hundreds of sites we photographed in the book and editing our work, reshooting and getting the pacing right happened at the same time as the book design itself. It grew into a book. I think it would have been too intimidating to plan it as a book project from the beginning.
Thom Atkison: No, we didn't. We spent 6 years shooting Missing Buildings and, before that, perhaps a couple of years thinking about it and trying things out. We didn't decide to make a book until much later on, when we could see it would work as one.
Gianpaolo Arena: How do you approach the landscape and the urban spaces while working on your project?
Beth Atkison: Walking around, trying to find photographs rather than researching sites meant we were reading the landscape for clues and imagining would could have happened there. We were projecting our own stories and mythology onto to the landscape rather than documenting facts.
Thom Atkison: The work was all made by walking. We looked at maps, choosing a rough area of London to cover, then travelled there by car or public transport. Once there we set out on foot to search. The search for pictures wasn't systematic – we just followed our noses. If we found a potential site, we'd walk around it and study it for a while, deciding how well it might would work as a picture. Much of the time we'd move on without making a picture.
Gianpaolo Arena: What has been your favorite photo-book in the last few years?
Beth Atkison: I think my favourite recent-ish photobook is "Another Language" by Mårten Lange. It's a simple idea but sort of mystical. It doesn't need explaining – it just tells it's story entirely visually. Photography and landscape are those other languages. The photos are beautiful but together they talk to each other and rhyme with each other. I love that book – I think about it all the time.
Thom Atkison: I also like Mårten Lange's book very much. Another recent-ish favourite is Jem Southam's book, "The River Winter". Again, it's very visual and there's a simple, visceral joy in looking at the work. Underlying it all is another mythology – a subject I find endlessly fascinating. There's a great depth to the work – it keeps you coming back, thinking and feeling but never really reaching an end point where it feels exhausted or totally understood.
Hwæt Books is a photobook publishing imprint founded in 2014 by Thom Atkinson. Our first publishing project is Missing Buildings by Thom and Beth Atkinson. Hwæt is an Old English word used in the telling of stories. It has been translated as Hear me! What ho! Hark! Behold, Listen, How or So.