Last Saturday I popped to the National Portrait Gallery for my customary nose round – and was surprised and delighted to see they’ve bought some photographic portraits by my friend Spencer Murphy. Indeed, I was so incredibly excited to see a friend’s work there that I interrupted an elderly couple who were mumbling lovely things about his portrait of Benedict Cumberbatch (above).
“It’s great isn’t it!” I gushed breathlessly, probably looking like a bit of a nutter, “And guess what, my friend did it...!”
It just so happens I’ve been looking for an excuse to re-post an article I wrote about Spencer a few years back for the Association of Photographers journal - this does seem like the ideal occasion.
First, allow me to set the scene a little. It was 2006, and Spencer had been awarded the AOP bursary to pursue his interest in waste sites. He’d become very interested in making ravishing, moody photos depicting dumping grounds of various descriptions - and the bursary gave him the chance to cast his net a little wider. He knew that (as my visual diary will attest) I’ve got my own fascination with finding beauty in unlikely places. He also knew that his first destination, Scotland’s so-called ‘Anthrax Island’ had long been on my list of places-I’d-love-to-visit. He came up with the suggestion that I could come along and provide a bit of company, plus help with some low level assisting (which generally speaking amounted to holding an umbrella or carrying an occasional bag). When we got back, I wrote this little piece about what we got up to...
The Multimap printouts bundled in the glove compartment of Spencer’s car promised a tour of Britain’s most beautiful scenery. Yet the schedule notes scribbled in their margins told a different and parallel story; an often embarrassing catalogue of waste disposal sites and nuclear dumping grounds set at the most conveniently sequestered corners of the UK.
Take our first destination, Gruinard. This tiny yet sheltered island near the coast of Westeross, north Scotland, had been selected by the MOD in 1942 as the site for a number of top secret germ warfare tests. TNT bombs, detonated on the crest of the island, spread anthrax spores over a flock of unfortunate sheep restrained nearby in wooden crates. Scientists carefully observed the symptoms and efficacy of various concentrations of poison on these animals, as they perfected their embryonic biological weapons. The flocks of infected sheep, now a midden of corpses, were burnt to ashes then sealed up in a cave.
The MOD had finished with the island - but Gruinard could not be returned to the people. It was contaminated with invisible and deadly pathogens, destined to lie dormant in the soil for hundreds of years. The island’s fate became the focus of local and national debate. What on earth could be done with it? It remained ring-fenced in miserable barbed wire and forbidding red MOD warning signs, before an eventual clean-up operation of mind-boggling expense was deemed the only solution. Every inch of the island’s topsoil was burnt, then soaked in formaldehyde and bleach.
Although declared safe, the locals still clearly felt a measure of mistrust. When Spencer and I booked into our B&B, the face of our pleasant host turned thunderous at the very name. Gruinard was a blot on the local landscape that clearly embarrassed and pained him in equal measure.
“You’re not actually going out there?” he asked incredulously. Spencer told him we’d chartered a boat for the following day and briefly explained the nature of his project - though it seemed to cut little ice.
“Be sure you take your boots off before you step back across my land”, he said threateningly.
The next morning, we waited in the B&B. The atmosphere was tense and troubling. Spencer was silently worrying through the practical details of today. Undeniably it was a risk. He’d driven the entire length of the UK, to charter a boat at great cost from someone he’d never met before, carrying his irreplaceable equipment out to an island no-one visited – an island until only recently contaminated by an aggressive, fatal disease. We sat in silence watching a replay of the previous night’s Big Brother.
At three PM we parked the car in Dundonnell to meet our ferryman. He was a cheerful red-head in a thick black jumper with a firm handshake, who explained that he was also the local builder, the proprietor of the village coffee shop, owner of the nearest B&B and – should we have call for one during our brief stay – the undertaker.
It was a lovely calm, sunny day as we clambered into the boat. A fresh wind roared through our ears as we powered off. The route from Dundonnell was circuitous, taking us the entire length of Loch Broom before moving into open waters. Finally the engine cut out a short way from the shore of Gruinard, which loomed large and dreadful before us. So there it was. A dark brown island with two long tapering shores and a hill at its centre.
The water was getting rough as we jumped down into a small motorised dingy. We sped to Gruinard’s rocky, forbidding beach, then turned off the engine. Our guide explained it was best to wait for the choppy water to throw the boat naturally onto the shingle.
The waves, to my horror, were big and seemed to be growing. I can’t swim, and feel scared of water deeper than the bath. Out here with no-one to see us, I felt sure that if our boat went over we’d quickly drown. Spencer clutched his camera bag, meanwhile, in a different kind of horror, praying that a wave wouldn’t soak it and ruin his treasured kit. We came close to the beach for a second, as the front of the dingy momentarily dashed the stones… but in a second the tide threw us back even further. After a moment it threw us in again - nearly there, then back out with a woosh, like some aquatic fairground ride. Finally our guide took a chance and vaulted over the front of the boat. He was knee deep but standing safe by some miracle on the shingle of Gruinard with the rope in his hand, tugging with all his might. Spencer leaped over the front of the boat and lent me a hand as I finally emerged somewhat more pathetically, my confidence dented and my trousers soaked.
Here we were, then. Spencer and I watched with some measure of trepidation as the speedboat, complete with our ferryman, disappeared from view. We had five hours completely alone on this island. For a few moments, we enjoyed the sheer thrill and novelty of this situation and stood there cackling like naughty schoolchildren.
After calming down, I took some time to wander off alone and examine the ruins of crofting cottages on the shore, before starting a slow ascent of the island’s steep central hill. The carpet of brown scrub looked deceptively flat and smooth, but underneath it’s surface lay jagged rocks, interspersed with deep sodden bog. Every step threatened a sprained ankle. I finally made it onto the brow of the hill, to be joined moments later by an exhausted Spencer, who emerged from the other side faltering under the weight of his heavy camera apparatus. I greeted him with a smile and we sat down on the rocky ground to eat sandwiches and drink our flask of coffee.
Spencer explained he’d done a circuit of the whole island. Aside from looking careworn and barren, the MOD had been careful to leave no trace of their encroachment upon the history of this place. There were no leftover warning signs, no obvious bomb craters, no sheep graveyards. I toyed with a rabbit skull at my feet, noticing that there were rabbit bones everywhere.
“We’ve probably got anthrax on our hands by now…” I said jokily as I took a hearty mouthful of my sandwich. This was a strangely modern wasteland, unique in Spencer’s itinerary. It was a place that kept its threats well hidden, its horrors locked in the soil amidst beguiling Highland splendour. It was rather easy in any given moment to forget that we were sat on the site of the very first deployment of a biological weapon. This humble rock had therefore played a role in the history of modern warfare, effecting a paradigm shift from firebombs and smoking craters to the subtle microscopic viruses capable of wiping out generations with black necrotic skin ulcers, vascular leakage, and respiratory collapse. I brushed the breadcrumbs off my coat and screwed the cap back on the flask.
Spencer set up, while I sat absently watching him. To his tripod he fixed an old fashioned plate camera complete with a bright red hood to keep out the daylight. He quickly snapped a Polaroid to check the light.
“Far too bright” he said, “and I don’t like that sky.”
I’d already seen Spencer’s techniques at work the previous autumn. We’d been sent together on a magazine assignment to Western Ireland – illustrator and photographer paired up by an eager editor. Despite my initial cynicism, it soon became clear that Spence was, like me, introspective and self-questioning in the face of the complexity of the world and how to represent it. Till I met him, I must say I’d thought a lot about how to represent landscape in my own work and never come up with a good answer. Landscape photography, too, had never done anything for me. Mentally I’d long since dismissed the idea that the enormity of landscape could ever be summed up in a photo. The power of a moment’s experience, involving every sensory organ, could in it’s photographic version surely only be seen by the viewer as a mere slug trace of the original?
One morning on that Ireland trip, however, we’d driven out to the seashore before 5am, in total darkness. I sat drawing a picture of the car dashboard while Spencer hurriedly set up his tripod precariously atop a slipway down to churning, threatening ocean. It was so dark I couldn’t see a single thing outside. Spencer set off long photographic exposures lit only by the tiny first rays of dawn, a daylight so spare we could barely even make it out. That’s when the truth hit me. He wasn’t capturing his firsthand knowledge of the landscape via his camera, he wasn’t validating the experience of his eye by replicating it on a negative.
The camera was experiencing a completely parallel version of the moment with him. The final prints were real/surreal images, their lapping waves reduced to smoky spectres, the scene revealed gradually in a form the eye alone couldn’t realize; lit across long stretches of time by tiny morsels of light. His photographs held their own unique discoveries and delights, and like all the best artworks, heaped an extra layer of feeling onto raw experience.
Spencer tried another Polaroid.
“Not quite there yet” he said, sitting down beside me to wait some more. The old cliché seems to dictate that photographers work best fast and snappy, thriving on bright light, but for Spence the opposite seems true. A single Spencer Murphy photo will often be the end result of hours spent waiting for the brief periods of semi-darkness at either end of the day, often at the most inclement times of year and in the most exposed places.
Thus it was that in this fine tradition we stood stock still on the crest of that island for the remainder of our stay, beginning to feel the bite of the wind turn icy, and watching the unwanted sun gradually descend below the brow of the hill. These were strange, in-between hours. Occasionally Spencer took a light reading or a Polaroid or – even more rarely – an exposure. As the day became silvery and our shadows disappeared we finally heard the sound of a speedboat powering back down Loch Broom, coming to fetch us.
Seascale was a town without motion, a bedridden pensioner. Our hotel was clean and cosy but its chintzy carpets and loud wallpaper belonged to a different era. The clock had stopped here decades before.
“Well… we bought this place in 1980”, the manager explained as we signed the register, “and it was still fairly bustling then, I have to say. People even used to come here on holidays. But of course that all changed in 1983.”
That year, he explained, there’d been a discharge of radioactive material from nearby Sellafield, onto Seascale beach. A Greenpeace investigator had died, and soon there inevitably followed a swathe of tabloid features about “The Village of Death”. Seascale’s already ailing life as a family resort was killed stone dead in that moment.
Sellafield was founded in the 1940s. It was Britain’s first weapons grade plutonium production facility, built in an era when progress was valued far higher than safety. Its early actions were born of the same Cold War thirst for weaponry that had quite happily showered Gruinard island in anthrax. In 1957, a fire in the reactor had spread radioactivity across the surrounding countryside, necessitating a massive cull of livestock at local farms. Worse and more unbelievable – for nearly twenty years the nuclear waste produced by the plant was simply diluted and discharged quietly, day after day, through a pipeline into the Irish Sea.
“You won’t get anywhere near the place” warned the manager when we told him we’d come to take photographs. “They’re on amber alert after the London bombings. You won’t stand a chance.”
Spencer dropped me at the Sellafield visitors centre and drove off to have a look at the nearby nuclear dump at Drigg. We arranged to meet a few hours later.
I wandered into a huge warehouse building, greeted by a friendly lady offering me a range of leaflets. This, she explained, was the only part of the Sellafield complex open to the public. Through the double doors I could learn all about the delights of nuclear energy. I wandered round a lurid interactive display, aimed at demystifying Sellafield for children and parents alike. It was a bizarre maze of audio soundtracks and strange buttons that lit odd displays in vain attempts to deconstruct terrifying terms like “vitrification” – a well-meaning, yet over-zealous and rather intimidating museum. I quickly gave up on it.
In the shop on the second level I bought Spencer a stick of Sellafield rock as a joky souvenir, then paused at the head of the stairs. An enormous window offered a delicious panorama of the entire power station, the first time I’d seen it. It looked like the crazed imagining of some 18th century paranoiac visionary, a city’s worth of weirdly shaped buildings dominated by vast towers. It was incredible – both beautiful and terrifying. I grabbed my sketchbook and dashed out the front door of the centre, determined to get closer.
Outside there was a car park and a road leading back to Seascale. There was no obvious path in the other direction. I forced my way through a few hedges and came to another road. I followed it for a while and reached a huge, imposing gate. Vehicles and personnel were being searched as they came and went through generously manned barriers. I decided to make a few sketches from the safety of the public footpath outside.
A chap in a suit strolled past and gave me a shifty glance. I knew it had to be a significant look. It was the sort where you don’t even turn your head, you just flick your eyeballs. As he surveyed me, his eyebrows raised a little. I saw his pace quicken and he produced a mobile phone. I sensed threat. My mouth went a little dry, and for a second I considered retreating through the hedge. Almost instantaneously, I heard the scream of sirens. The barrier flipped up and a van marked “Police Dogs” tore up to me, halting almost at my feet. I nearly laughed out loud at this excessive reaction to little old me – a bloke in a rather silly jacket, armed with a clicky pencil.
A bespectacled policeman sidled up to me.
“Good afternoon sir. Can I ask you what you’re doing please?”
Minutes later, I sat in the van, glumly trying to explain about Spencer’s Wasteland series.
“Well… err… I’m with this bloke. He’s not with me right now actually…”
The policeman produced a stop and search form, and asked if I would co-operate by supplying my name and address. It was all over very quickly. He gave me a copy and suggested I head straight back to the Visitor’s Centre.
“You didn’t break the law,” he assured me kindly, “but it’s our job to watch people.”
Spencer picked me up at three. We both agreed that the story of my encounter with the police was a hilarious and exciting new development. Eagerly, we parked back in the town and resolved to approach Sellafield from the other side this time, down Seascale beach. I’ve visited my fair share of dank off-season resorts but Seascale takes the award for most forlorn and godforsaken. Litter decorates the grey shoreline like a shameful carpet. The sand is gritty, punctuated by tufts of scraggy black weed. A single lonely railway line runs parallel to the shore. In the distance rises a vast and ominous citadel of exhaust funnels, industrial buildings and cooling towers.
Spencer and I sat down to eat on the garbage strewn beach. The wind began to howl, blowing sand onto our food as we passed a cold, uncomfortable mealtime. Half-way through, Spence cast his sandwiches aside to start photographing an oil soaked bird corpse.
Continuing along the outer perimeter of Sellafield, we met enormous fences decorated with yellow signs, promising that guard dogs would deal swiftly with interlopers. The railway line split. One track proceeded up the coast, while another went ominously inside the gates. The complex has its own freight station to dispatch waste along the passenger rail network to disposal sites across Great Britain. The Greenpeace website offers a “nuclear rail timetable” to demonstrate the scary frequency and predictability with which this deadly radiation crosses our countryside, unguarded. If breached by terrorists, the freight containers, many of which pass through London only metres away from domestic buildings, would spread radiation for miles and cause mayhem. Spencer and I were about to discover that this most silent section of the Sellafield perimeter was, precisely for this reason, the most jealously guarded.
I wandered off to the far end of the fence. In front of the security gates I found a passenger railway station for employees. I sat down and started to sketch it, in a world of my own. Moments later I heard the sound of a vehicle on the tarmac. I turned my head, in mild annoyance, to see another van marked “Police Dogs”. A young WPC strolled over to me. I closed my notebook.
“Are you a trainspotter, love? What brings you all this way down here?”
I smiled and gave her a quick lowdown on myself and Spencer. I was getting used to this. I showed her my previous “stop and search” form and she examined it closely.
She couldn’t seem to get her head around the idea that someone might want to come and photograph this place for aesthetic reasons alone. Presumably previous trespassers had been journalists or activists with an agenda to push. To her it seemed ridiculous, funny even, that anyone would come to Sellafield without some seditious intent. She smiled and wandered off, but I was left to continue thinking this one through in my own mind. Why was Spencer here? I don’t think that even he could answer that one himself, at least not with a neat soundbite. Obviously there’s an environmental aspect to his Wastelands project. It’s a relevant topic in these times of enhanced sensitivity about our impact on the planet. Yet I think it would be an insult to say that environmental comment alone is what the project “is” – for that would reduce it merely to a collection of documentary evidence. If Spencer had conceived his series with a pre-existing “green” agenda, then the scenes of waste would be presented in a more detached, perfunctory manner surely – not luxuriated in, nor treated so well by his lens. The care and delight with which the pictures are lit and photographed provide their own manifesto, for although they may be places of confusion and uncertainty, to Spencer they are also places of beauty which first and foremost excite his enthusiasm, regardless of their strange and sordid origins.
I began to make my way back down the perimeter. Rounding the corner, I noticed Spencer’s distant figure talking to a man in uniform. To my left, through the grille of the metal fences, I noticed that the WPC in the van was driving alongside and keeping eye contact. Every so often she spoke into her radio. It was reassuring in a way to think we’d raised such concern. Tonight I could rest safe in the knowledge that Sellafield was seriously well guarded.
When I reached Spencer, he was alone again and cheerfully waving his own “stop and search” form. We began to wander back. Before we crossed the railway tracks we allowed ourselves one last look back to the power station. The strange vista of Sellafield overlooked a golfing green, in a ludicrous juxtaposition of recreational space and forbidding industrial architecture. The clouds, no longer fluffy and floating, had formed into solid objects with their own threatening weight and shadow. The natural light was starting to dwindle, the skies were promising rain and here we stood in lone appreciation of the twisted beauty of Sellafield. I smiled inwardly and imagined telling my hairdresser what I’d done on my holidays…
All photos by Spencer Murphy. www.spencermurphy.co.uk