MISSING BUILDINGS. THOM AND BETH ATKINSON
by Peter Holliday


© Thom and  Beth Atkinson from the series ‘Missing Buildings’

Now 75 years after the first German ordnance fell on London, the first photobook from London-based photographers Thom and Beth Atkinson, ‘Missing Buildings’, documents the silent spaces left behind by the indiscriminate violence of the Blitz during the Second World War. Taken amongst the heart of the British capital over a period of 6 years, their photographs are reminiscent of scenes of an abandoned war-torn city, devoid of its human populace. Where buildings once stood between the architecture of the old and new, a violent past remains obscured. But the project is also a testament to the regeneration and urban redevelopment that would follow in the post-war years. These empty mythological sites lend themselves to our imagination and remind us that perhaps the legacy of war and its aftermath are more profound than the event itself. ‘Missing Buildings’ explores the physical legacy of the London Blitz during the Second World War. What were your initial inspirations for this series? What did you discover?

Thom Atkinson (TA): The starting point for ‘Missing Buildings’ was really just an instinctive feeling. We’d both been living in London for a while and, in different ways, we both felt very aware of this particular history of the Blitz. Perhaps our motivation was to try to understand the feeling we had about London and the connection we felt to what had happened there. I think this is just the result of being British and being the generation that we are - the Blitz is a kind of mythology to us and we felt drawn to it. Like a lot of people, our grandparents
were involved in, and affected by the bombing of London. To some extent, it’s an event which has formed us and our perception of who we are.

© Thom and  Beth Atkinson from the series ‘Missing Buildings’

‘Missing Buildings’ was photographed over 6 years as a collaboration between you and your sister, Beth Atkinson. Tell us about this process. How did your approach towards this series change within this time?

TA: The project was made by walking. We’d walk through London every Sunday, talking and looking. That process of walking and thinking things through together over such a long time was what made the project. I think we gave it enough time and effort to evolve by itself. It gave us a chance to develop an genuine instinct for finding and photographing the sites, and it allowed us to think about it slowly and come to an understanding about what we were doing. It got deeper and more elusive as we went on, which, for me, means that a piece of work is going in the right direction.

From the Georgian terraces to the Brutalist housing blocks your project documents both the pre-war and post-war architectural landscape of the British capital. What is it about London’s buildings and urban planning that interests you?

TA: When you scratch the surface, the landscape of a city reveals so much. Within the particular slice of history we were looking at, we found loss and disaster, but also endurance and recovery. The architecture and planning of London betrays the human dreams, ideals and disasters which created it.

© Thom and  Beth Atkinson from the series ‘Missing Buildings’

The juxtaposition between contrasting architecture is an important visual aspect of this project. Can you tell us more about this image of Fellows Court in Shoreditch?

TA: We found this site near to a couple of others on Hackney Road, near to Old Street. When you really have to wrestle with a picture to make it work, it sometimes becomes a picture of that struggle between your ego and the reality you’re photographing. This picture just worked, without a fight. Perhaps it represents something about the huge change the war caused, both in terms of architecture and planning, but also in terms of ideas and visions for Britain. The bombing was an act of destruction, but ultimately also of creation.

© Thom and  Beth Atkinson, Fellows Court, Shoreditch, from the series ‘Missing Buildings’

Is there a particular theme you wish to emphasise within ‘Missing Buildings’?

TA: For us, the main interest is in mythology. The Blitz is a profound moment in the story and mythology of Britain and Britishness. We hope that, looking beyond the surface level, our pictures point at that.

What do you mean by “the mythology of Britain and Britishness”?

TA: By that I mean the national story - the narrative which Britain derives its identity from. The mythologist, Joseph Campbell, described myth as being like a group dream. Just as the individual’s dreams interpret and process events, so a society dreams collectively, giving meaning to and coming to terms with its past. 

You seem to have adopted the deadpan aesthetic within this body of work. Why did you choose to photograph this way?

TA: I’m not sure it was necessarily a rational decision, rather we just found ourselves doing it and felt right about it. Looking back, it has a certain kind stoicism and reserve which fits. I think there’s also something desolate about it. People are absent in the pictures - the buildings and the gaps become subjects or portraits. To me, it feels like the morning after an air raid - surveying the damage.

© Thom and  Beth Atkinson from the series ‘Missing Buildings’

You founded your own publishing house, Hwæt Books, in 2014. ‘Missing
Buildings’ is your first imprint. What inspired you to set up Hwæt Books?

TA: Hwæt Books was founded as a way to self publish ‘Missing Buildings’ and, potentially, other future books I want to make. I’m interested in Britain and in mythology. That interest has been around long enough now that I don’t think it’s going away. Hwæt is the first word in the Anglo Saxon epic poem Beowulf - it means something like “Listen” or “Hark” or “So”. It’s an introduction to a story. It fits with the ideas I find myself interested in. Actually, I’ve enjoyed publishing so much that I’m thinking about trying to publish other photographers’ books. I like the idea of a small but well curated bookshelf full of photobooks about Britain and England. Perhaps just one book every year or two. If I can find a way to do it right, I’d like to do it, but we’ll see.

© Images of the book ‘Missing Buildings’ published by Hwæt Books, in 2014

Do you have any preferences in terms of cameras and format?

TA: We shot ‘Missing Buildings’ on a 5x4 view camera. It’s become a cliché to say it, but I think we both appreciate the slowness and deliberateness which this brings to making pictures. 

Is there any contemporary artist or photographer, even if young and emerging, that influenced you in some way?

TA: My own influences have been very important to me - heroes really. I assisted a photographer called John Spinks for several years. It was a relationship which changed everything for me. He’s building up to publish some wonderful work in the next few years, which has been in the making for half a lifetime. I’m in awe of it. 

Three books of photography that you recommend?

TA: ‘Small Wars’ by An My Le, ‘Working From Memory’ by William Christenberry, and ‘The River Winter’ by Jem Southam.

Tell us more about projects that you are working on now and plans for the future.

TA: Aside from possible ideas for growing Hwæt Books, we’re both working on projects individually. I’ve been working on another thing about Britain, war mythology and the English landscape. It’s bigger and more complex, so it’s a long term thing. I’m in no rush - it has to be right. I hope to make a book of it, if I can get to the bottom of it. 

‘Missing Buildings’ by Thom and Beth Atkinson is out now on Hwæt Books. It was published on 8th October 2015, marking the 75th anniversary year of the London Blitz.


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LINKS 
Thom Atkinson 
Beth Atkinson 
England