William Eckersley and Alexander Shields
Left London

Self-publishers William Eckersley and Alexander Shields reveal the capital’s ragged edges and stale secrets.


Inspired by Shields’ Masters course in graphic design and drawing influence from the pair’s excursions into the capital’s shadowy squat party scene, Left London bears witness to some of the transience and abandon that drips and decomposes throughout the city. Selecting 140 images from a crop of more than 20,000 shot over a 12-month period, Eckersley and Shields map out the metropolis focusing on themes of industry, transport, health and leisure. That many of the buildings featured vanished from one visit to the next not only shows up the city's staggering rate of redevelopment but also suggests that the photographers' explorations barely scratch the surface of this ramshackle underworld.

As the book’s creators are well aware, documenting London’s abandoned landscapes is nothing new; and with the advent of blogs, photologs and low-cost web space, the city's archives become ever more expansive and accessible. Yet the virtual domain and the tactility of print remain worlds apart; urban explorers busily fill the web with photos of London’s forgotten folds, but all intimacy is lost in transmission. Besides, committing such memories to media that will itself turn dog-eared and musty through time seems far more apt.

The oversized-A4 format of Left London affords a spacious layout; Eckersley and Shields make considered use of juxtaposition, double spreads and blank pages, while much-needed chapter indexes let you pinpoint your path about the city. Prolonged exposures are often used to intensify light sources, and though some shots don’t, in isolation, strike you as particularly impressive, when placed in sequence untold stories unfold and a sense of pace develops.

The journey begins with Industry. Arriving under dreary Stratford skies we explore the vast, rubbish-strewn innards of a battered factory before heading southwest to the bare iron bones of a Whitechapel warehouse. Via nodes of neglect in Hornsey, Fulham, Holborn, Greenwich and Bermondsey, we reach the Millennium Mills building, sullenly staring out over the Thames as an icon of the industrial decline that ravaged London’s docklands in the eighties. In Transport we follow the photographers through Holborn’s desolate tram tunnels and out into the wild, wooded train platforms at Crouch End; we visit the bombsite of a Dalston body shop, where car parts protrude from the rubble and ubiquitous graffiti offers evidence of previous clandestine visitations.

Health is the chapter that pulls you in time and time again. These seem the emptiest of all the locations; there’s a fuzzy, surreal ambience as you move about abandoned operating theatres, wards and corridors past pipes, pumps, padded chairs, medical detritus and poignant paperwork. A discarded photo here offers the only glimpse of the human form throughout the book – as a woman looks up at the hospital staff who linger by her bedside, we are left wondering what her prognosis was.

Finally we come to Leisure. As the 2012 Olympic Committee boast of ‘the finest world-class facilities for London’, the pertinence of this final section resonates eerily from striking images of swimming baths, lidos and sports clubs, formerly grand but forsaken when financial bloodlines ran dry. If Health is the most deserted chapter in the book, Leisure certainly seems the most despondent.

With the Olympics forcing a facelift of East London’s most deprived and dilapidated boroughs, there’s no denying a timely and thoughtfully presented document has been crafted here. And whether you think Left London occupies a compelling creative space in the field of photojournalism or is simply worthy of space on the coffee table, the effort that has gone into the project can only be commended. Had Eckersley and Shields chosen not to form a publishing company and present this historical artefact to the world, this surely would have been an opportunity missed.

 Reference: interview with Alexander Shields at Garage Magazine
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