I walked the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, observing the burden of deindustrialisation, the areas of regeneration/gentrification, and the water’s tranquil flow over 127 miles. I saw the traces of humanity that mark possession, use and abuse. A ruined mill’s struggle for redevelopment, a make-shift garden house at the water’s edge, detritus dissonantly framed in shining water. Nature’s shrubby undergrowth filling the gaps of humankind’s neglect signposted by graffiti. Trees growing through the ruins of early capitalism where horse-drawn boats were once loaded.
This is not a eulogy to lost industry but an experience of anxiety weighing on a place with only pockets of regeneration (Aditya Chakrabortty, 2011). After decades, ‘levelling up’ is the latest stuttering initiative aimed at fixing the UK as one of the most geographically unequal countries in the world (Bourquin et al., 2020). The canal’s route shows inequality within the regions it flows through.
My work celebrates the diversity of meanings and experience found in the everyday condition, along the waterway’s journey through marginal and affluent space. A strength of photography is that despite photographs being heavily mediated, through their indexicality they offer the experience of looking intensely at the subjects represented. Something often missed when walking distracted through the landscape. The project shares a psychogeographic drift, an experience of reality that is not glossed over with images of the bucolic, white washing the landscape in readiness for leisure and tourism. There are no people in my images, only their traces. These marks are joined to the living and the long-gone through an actor-voiced narrative, sound recordings and samples from oral histories.
My motivation for making the work evolved as I explored. When I found the canal to be a back-route, mostly empty of people (even more so once the Covid-19 pandemic took hold), the work became the portrait of humanity through its traces; a cultural landscape of past activity. These remains of the everyday condition are often rendered invisible in socially shared and publicity image. I would like the photographs and film to convey a sense of poignant calm and encourage viewers to take a closer look at things that often go unnoticed. To experience the fractures as well as the beauty. To discover their own stories in the run-of-the-mill.
Andrew Fitzgibbon is a Yorkshire-based photographer, whose practice focuses on portraiture and the socialisation of landscapes. He is a final year BA (hons) photography student with the Open College of Arts, a member of Craven Arts, and the Redeye Network. He can be contacted through the social media links above or by email.
Share Your Own Story
I am looking for stories shared by the community along the canal to shape my upcoming exhibition, including extracts from some of the stories in the show. If you think you can help and would like to know more, please follow this link to my website where you'll also see some of the stories shared so far: www.fitzgibbonphotography.com/share-canal-stories. Alternatively, you can contact me immediately through the social media and email links above, WhatsApp or Messenger (where you can record a message if more convenient than writing).
Find Out More About the Canal
In addition to the body of photographic work, a research paper critiques the contemporary visual representation of the post-industrial landscape of the canal. Mike Clarke, canal historian and chairman of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal Society, shares a wealth of information on the canal through his website. However, in a few words, construction of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal began in 1770 and took over 40 years to complete. The canal is 127 miles long with 91 locks, each holding an average of 80,000 gallons of water. At one-time, it was an artery of the industrial revolution, allowing the expansion of the textile industry and growth of the northern cities. Over 1,000 boats used to work the canal. It was nationalised in 1948 and commercial traffic ended in the mid-1960s.
If you enjoyed my short film, I would ask that you make a donation of what ever you can afford to the small rural food bank that supports my local community in these difficult times. My Just-Giving page is linked below. Thank you for what ever you can give.