Depicting the Psychogeographical Encounter - Allan Grainger

Psychogeography is the point where psychology and geography meet in assessing the emotional and behavioural impact of urban space. Coverley (2010: p. 1)*

Psychogeography embraces a bewildering array of ideas ranging from the surreal, to avant-garde experimentation, to political radicalism, that finds inspiration in writers such as Thomas de Quincy, Rousseau, Guy Debord and Iain Sinclair. My intention is to draw from the many discourses provided by writers on psychogeography, and the narratives of the street, to produce visual depictions that provide new ways of apprehending our surroundings and transforming the familiar streets of our everyday experience into something new and unexpected.

The Greenwich Foot Tunnel, 2015

The Psychogeographical encounter is the over-arching approach to my practice and within the frame of these tableaux there are various methods of engagement: the one I have focused on in this article is memory.

The methodology and structural conception of these tableaux are formed by individual pictures being stitched together into a single tableau which produces a result that reflects the initial Psychogeographical encounter: it shows a way in which memory can be approached in a photograph. Memory lies not only in a speculative remembrance shaped by a subjective interpretation, but also through the use of memorative signs that offer a way of entering into a social and political dialogue. On reading Svetlana Boym’s seminal work ‘The Future of Nostalgia’, that considers memory and memorative signs though a discourse of the two seemingly different types of nostalgia - restorative and reflective - I was able to find another way in which to consider urban encounters when producing these tableaux.

The British Library, 2014

In February 2016 I presented a paper, ‘Depicting the Psychogeographical Encounter’ as part of the Lisbon Symposium on ‘Memory Photography and Place’ that focused on the elements in the picture that displayed aspects of memory. I put forward the proposition, amongst other things, of the well established idea that memories are fundamental to being human, and added that, to prevent them becoming like sand through our fingers we re-tell narratives – the palimpsest of layered remembrances – in order to hold onto a fictitious telling of our journey so far through this veil of tears. Photography is a way of holding memories; as soon as a photograph is taken it becomes a memory of things past that can be considered sometime in the future as something historically relevant to the present.

Barbirolli Square, Manchester, 2015

We might also appropriate photographs, which act as triggers that supplement our ‘memory matrix’. The forming of these ‘picture memories’ might morph into other narratives, creating dialogues as the picture begins its slippery process away from early nascent moments, and yet paradoxically the picture remains anchored in its a priori intent; this dialectic sets up a contradictory reading of memory, the picture becomes an objective/subjective trickster of memory that performs a fabricated lie that wants to tell the ‘truth’, but can’t. This view of memory is further complicated by the idea of what existential ‘truth’ is within the photograph, or are we as Walter Benjamin suggests dealing with ‘optical reality’ and therefore can our engagement with the physical world only rest on metaphor?

The Imperial War Museum North, 2015

 The idea of appropriation got me thinking about the 1982 American neo-noir science fiction film Blade Runner: Deckard, a special police operative known as a "Blade Runner" played by Harrison Ford, is confronted by Rachel, a nexus 6 android, as she tries to prove to him that she is not a nexus 6 replicant. Rachel shows Deckard a collection of photographs when she was a little girl; Deckard is not convinced, and tells Rachel that they are someone else’s photographs, someone else’s memories. Rachel comes to realize that what she thinks of as her memories are in fact someone else’s, which have been planted in her android cerebral cortex; we, like Rachel cling onto the notion that our memories are absolute, for to give them up, as Rachel fears, would be to become a non-human. So we ultimately appropriate memories and construct false narratives around them in order to make sense of things past and present: Roland Barthes photograph of his recently dead mother, captured as a young woman in the celebrated winter garden picture, becomes our memento mori. Atget’s melancholic Parisian street scenes become our deserted streets.

So what of these pictures I show here; are they just one persons memories or can they be part of a collective consciousness that become ubiquitous memories. Their intention was to be urban narratives, formed by temporal studies over many hours and therefore in a sense they are layered memories that evoke a visual urban discourse. Certainly the memorative signs that Svetlana Boym writes about are present in some of this work.

Parliament Square, 2015

In the case of the picture of Parliament Square, London, the monuments of Churchill and David Lloyd George fixed my interest and as Boym might suggest these monuments functioned as restorative ‘memorative signs’: I had read that the two politicians had never got on, and so with this in mind I set up my tripod and camera and created a juxtaposition that reflected to some extent the antagonism the two men had towards each other – Churchill turning his back on David Lloyd George. The scene then started to be populated with occurrences that were at odds with the overbearing seriousness of these two permanent institutionalized blocks of metal, figures that are set against the edifice of democracy, (the Houses of Parliament) which became a backdrop for the irreverence taking place in the foreground: a street scene overflowing with theatricality perhaps reflecting the workings of a true democracy.

The effect of time on the edifice of society – Queens College, Oxford. 2015

In my picture ‘The effect of time on the edifice of society’ my intention was to show several ideas within a single tableau. My initial thought was to create a visual contrast that reflected a social schism. Yet, as with many photographs there are layers of meaning that are present in a scene that can be excavated for closer study. By taking up a position similar to that which the photographer Henry Fox Talbot did in 1844 I was able to consider the original picture of Talbot’s study of the walls of Queens College, Oxford. The picture he took was the first image in his famous collection of books ‘The Pencil of Nature’. He was fascinated by the effect time had on the walls of Queens College. Talbot took a rather pessimistic view that the crumbling walls signalled an irreversible decline in the structure of the building – the picture must have been for him a kind of a memento mori. The walls in my picture have been repaired, yet interestingly there appears to be a section of the original wall that has been left. A memorative sign one might say. Svetlana Boym’s “memorative signs” create a correspondence between this inner landscape, our inner landscape, and the external world, the collective knowledge of the ‘real’ within this picture. These ‘memorative signs’ are part of the archeology of a tableau, existentially and virtually layered, which attempts to define an urban landscape. Memorative signs are also evident in the ‘Whitehall’ picture: the tableau sections are taken over several hours and produce a rich tapestry of the urban environment that contains memory, memorative signs and social/political metaphor.

Demonstration, Whitehall 2015

Psychogeography is the framework in which to respond to how different places make us feel both emotionally and intellectually. The tableaux hold a wide socio-political vista, the ephemera of the everyday, and the over-looked quotidian. They attempt to show a connection to place that is a fundamental factor in our existence and how memories play a significant role, which can often be ignored in the everyday maelstrom of urban life.

*Merlin Coverley, 2010: . Harpenden.


Allan Grainger is a photographic artist whose work considers notions of place, culture, identity and belonging within the urban landscape; his practice centres on an interest and depiction of Psychogeography. Allan has had a long career in photography working on professional and art commissions with clients such as Saatchi and Saatchi, Barclays. In 2015 Allan was commissioned by the Lucy Bell Fine Art Gallery to produce ten tableaux of Manchester. Allan has curated and run workshops. He is currently completing a History of Art degree. He is a member of the Greenwich London Independent Photography group and a participant of Crossing Lines, Goldsmiths, University of London.