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Permanent Tourist

A personal website by Mark Howells-Mead

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Behind Covent Garden Opera House
When I see black and white photographs of London at night, I am reminded of when I used to go in to the city from where I lived in England, either to visit friends or just to experience the hustle, bustle and lively atmosphere. I was born in the centre of London and lived there for the first six years of my life, which may be why I feel that it is my home town. I’ve always been drawn to the city and a kind of imaginary view of it; first inspired by pictures in a D.I.Y. folder belonging to my father of brickwork, white painted wood and green frondy plants, which came to define my later, invented view of Seventies London.

In later years, I spent quite a lot of time in London late at night, walking alone around the streets with a camera bag and tripod, photographing nightlife and buildings, semi-oblivious to the rain and party- and theatre-goers all around me. I particularly remember taking one photograph, which is currently in a wooden frame on the wall of our bedroom. I printed it onto bromide paper back in the days before I used a computer to edit images, and I can honestly say that it’s one of only a handful of photographs of which I’m really proud, from the mid- to late nineties. It was taken behind the Covent Garden Opera House at some unearthly hour and is a little shaky, as it was a hand-held shot of well over a second. The streetlight next to a building site fence illuminates a corner of a dark street, through which ghostly figures blur their way to unknown destinations. I don’t remember the circumstances in which I took it, but a vague memory of a late-night trip to take photographs using black and white film and available light – the tungsten and neon variety – comes to mind. The rich depth of the blacks and the softness of the print are quite beautiful, to my eye, as they’re individual to what would now be called “old fashioned” printing techniques. Creating something like this print really makes me feel like an artist, as opposed to the shoot-edit-upload routine of digital work.

It’s the city I miss, though, rather than the darkroom work. I know, from trips I’ve made back to London to visit my family and friends since living in Switzerland, that I would never want to live there. The noise, pollution, cost, business and danger put me off, particularly since moving to a much more rural area and becoming used to the peace and quiet. Living where we do, it’s a long journey to see any kind of real culture; whilst Berne is only half an hour away on the train, real photographic exhibitions and a multitude of museums and large galleries are half a world away.

London is a very big, full city, which people who haven’t spent a lot of time there see as being threatening and dangerous. There’s no denying that London is dangerous and dirty, crime-ridden and polluted. But, for me, there are many corners which I find exquisitely beautiful. Perhaps it’s an stylized view of the city I have. I used to love walking through Green Park in the summer, travelling on the tube between galleries, sitting on a bench on the South Bank, photographing the monstrous concrete tower blocks and geometric underpasses of the Barbican centre, browsing through bookshops in the Tottenham Court Road area. Watching tourists in Trafalgar Square, apparently now a pigeon-free haven of calm and expansive warm stone, and browsing the market stalls at Camden Lock.

I’m looking forward to visiting again, to taking Jo around the city and showing it to her through my eyes for the first time. Not by taking her around a tourist trail – she and her family are from Kent, and she is familiar with the city – but by showing her the places which I find interesting and beautiful. London will, I think, be more attractive to me now as a place to visit, as I have several years’ distance and will see the city not just with fresh eyes, but with a decidedly increased photographic ability.