May 15, 2022
Photographing the banal is nothing new. It was arguably luminaries like William Eggleston and Stephen Shore in the 1970s who pioneered the genre. Using laser-like powers of selection, combined with vivid, saturated colors, they found photographic art in the everyday things around us, from park benches to outdated billboards.
Now, fifty years later, Instagram is elevating that fascination with the mundane to mainstream. The hashtag of choice is #banalography. Search it and you’ll get nearly a quarter of a million posts.
An enthusiastic banalographer is Tom Hicks, a librarian at the University of Wolverhampton, specializing in recording images of the nearby Black Country. I recently joined him, along with a dozen other people, on one of his regular photography walks.
Inspired by a lifelong interest in typography, his earliest photos were of graphics in the cityscape, like factory signs or old storefronts, which he posted to his @blackcountrytype Instagram account (and website : blackcountrytype.com). People in the Black Country often make their own signs. They don’t want to spend money on a designer.
He soon widened his search to embrace other oddities and patterns, including an old corrugated movie theater roof covered in bright green lichen and a pink-painted garden fence with a church spire on top. A series on Wolverhampton Doorways was inspired by a postcard he had on Doorways of Dublin. The bright colors and the blue sky are very present.
His photos made a strong impression. After three months on Instagram, she was offered an exhibition space in central Birmingham.
He currently uses a relatively basic iPhone with a single wide lens. He always opts for a square format, and tackles his subjects head-on. His main advice is to take relatively wide shots and crop later, in case any of the details on the edge of the frame turn out to be of interest.
To facilitate cropping, he is considering supplementing the iPhone with a dedicated camera. The higher resolution would allow for a greater possibility of creating pictures within pictures.
“Anything can be made into good photography, really,” Tom enthuses, noting the lack of beautiful mountains or beaches in the Black Country; “we have to find alternative subjects. Abandoned car restoration projects, weathered corrugated factories, apartment buildings and multi-storey parking lots are all sources of strong trends.
“There are no people in my photos,” he says, “but they have something to do with people.” He cites his photo of the Wolverhampton station car park which he says ‘has the power of nostalgia because a lot of people are walking away and coming back, through the station. Plus, “the British Rail symbol is a great design that people love.”
With banalography, social media helps to make what used to be a very artistic branch of the medium more accessible. As someone who myself has been drawn to these sorts of topics over the years, I love and appreciate this because it turns something that was previously thought to be potentially boring and mundane, into something striking and interesting. ‘interesting.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of Amateur Photographer magazine or Kelsey Media Limited. If you have an opinion you would like to share on this or any other photography-related topic, email: [email protected]