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Hilary Powell
By Nick Bowman
Posted on 5/4/2021 11:00 PM
How fortunate the Society is to have such an inquisitive Chairman as Paul Shelley. Whilst out on one his cycle rambles around London in November, he came across a sea container with its doors open…the base for Hilary Powell, an artist who believes in ‘thinking through making’ - whether through chemical print experiments or even collective roller skating. Photography plays an essential role in her practice whether as a means of research or as part of the creative process for her projects.

Hilary's work takes in a process ‘of deep engagement with urban sites and their history, materials, people, poetry and politics’ and she talked through many of her projects explaining the role photography plays in their development and creation. Amongst those projects she included The Multistory, a look at the redevelopment of the BBC’s facilities at White City, specifically the East Tower. Inspired by an upside down Jackanory photo she found, it took the form of a film of local people recruited from nearby housing estates reading from a chair positioned on the top floor of the tower whilst the building around them was destroyed.


From the BBC, we moved to Wagner’s Ring Cycle played out in the marshlands of Purfleet. She spent six months exploring and photographing the area and meeting the locals. A studio on the site of the Royal Opera House workshops inspired the idea of the Ring Cycle. As Hilary said, “Ring Cycle is an audio-visual symphony that transposes Wagner’s epic cast of gods and mortals into a contemporary Thameside landscape. From river maidens on concrete barges (above left) to exiled gods and flaming shopping trolleys (above right), this allegory of industrial capitalism takes place on the fringes of London just inside its own ring of the M25.”

From Purfleet we moved to Stratford and specifically the changes that impacted on the local community as a result of the redevelopment of the area following the awarding of the Olympic Games to London. Initially the area had been overrun with photographers documenting and in many creating a very negative perception of Stratford. ‘The Games’ subverted the idea of Olympic heroism by showing people using scrap materials and demolished buildings as props to celebrate their achievements (below left).


The Art of Dissent (above right) – a pop-up book fused new photography with historic images. Fifty-one copies were created in an industrial space on the edge of the Olympic Park over four days as a commentary on urban change and the impact on local communities. Urban Alchemy took place at the same time as the Olympics as Hilary became artist in residence for the area south of Stratford which had a history of print innovation, and was now seeing widespread speculative development. Using remnant materials salvaged from demolished buildings, she created a series of portraits using stone lithography.


In South Wales, her experience in lithography enabled her to create 150 portraits of steel workers (above left) putting photos onto tin cans – tin types. In Tilbury, this approach has been used to etch images of port workers on to SIM cards and in gold lockets (above right) which will feature in a show at the Museum of London.


The next project with partner Daniel Edelstyn reflected on ‘creditocracy’ and the role of money and debt in society. Setting up a ‘Bank’ in Walthamstow (above left), Hilary and paid community workers began printing money and bonds which were sold to raise a total of £40,000. Half went to local charities, and the other half to buy up £1 million worth of debt. This debt was then loaded into a Transit van which was blown up within sight of Canary Wharf in an event entitled, ‘Big Bang II’ (above right). The film of the ‘Bank Job’ (below left) will be released in cinemas on 28th May 2021.


Currently Hilary is working on ‘Power’ (above right) which focuses on energy democracy by encouraging her local street to move to solar energy.

The evening was a fascinating flying tour of Hilary’s past and present projects and her use of different types of photography including ‘camera-less’ photography. It provoked a lively discussion at the end of the evening about the importance of extensive research and how this was similar to the experience of members who have undertaken MA degrees. For her, research and photography is often the spark which brings a project to life and this was also true for some members.

A particularly interesting and enlightening evening which demonstrated the value of having an holistic approach to photography and how we can all benefit from looking beyond simply picking up a camera and taking pictures. A more thoughtful, reflective approach may well lead to better work of greater depth and longevity.

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