Writing on photography

Review: Detritus by David O’Mara

Love a nicely made book as I do I often find myself frustrated by what can only be described as the superficial fetishism of certain sections of the self-publishing world. Too many times I’ve picked up a beautiful looking book only to open it and find it full of sub-par photographs, lacking concept or coherence. As they say, never judge a book by it’s cover, but judge it mercilessly by what’s inside. Partly for this reason I’m a bit of a fan of newspaper format publications, which by nature of their production values usually have to work harder on the content front to grab and hold a viewer’s attention.

Recently I got hold of the first four copies of Detritus, a self-published paper by London based photographer and artist David O’Mara. Each issue features a different project by O’Mara, each focusing appropriately on various forms of detritus, the transient material leavings of other people. Although I had four issues of Detritus to go through I just want to highlight issues two and three here as they were the ones which particularly resonated with me.

Issue two, relates to the Heygate Estate in Elephant Castle, an imposing brutalist housing complex built in the 1970’s and which has been on the architectural equivalent of death row for over a decade, as the local council and developers quibble about its demolition. In the meantime it’s become something of an urban playground attracting a strange mixture of people. Amongst them photographers, for whom it’s a sort of easily accessed Pripiyat, a deserted ghost town in the heart of the city, and also as O’Mara notes, quite a number of movie crews who use it ‘to play out their apocalyptic fantasies’.

O’Mara juxtaposes a series of fairly typical photographs of Heygate’s derelict and vandalised blocks against a series of degraded family photographs found on the estate to great effect. The rescued photographs, many deteriorated almost to the point of incomprehensibility, are a reminder of what I’ve often complained photographers forget, the people and the lives lived in Heygate. The mixing colours of the disintegrating photographs are quite beautiful, matching the garish colours of the graffiti daubed across the estate, and a fitting testimony to the disintegration of the area’s community – now ‘decanted’ to new housing stock –  and its diminishing collective memory.

Issue three consists of a series of photographs taken during O’Mara’s day job as a decorator, often working in houses several centuries old. Here he notes how despite the tendency to describe his work as restoration it actually more often involved ‘the stripping away of physical features…which are witness to earlier generations of inhabitants…the evidence of previous lives, all to be erased’. It’s something I’ve observed is often a pressing concern in the museums where I sometimes work. Conservation always runs the risk that in protecting or restoring one period of the past it might necessarily result in the complete destruction of another.

O’Mara expands this idea to his own relationship with work, the way a day sometimes condenses into just a few remembered moments, obliterating any real sense of the passage of time. This project and the act of photographing as he works are both an attempt to claw some of this back for himself. As a series Detritus works nicely, because while there are definite themes running through each project, their separation into their own publications gives them room to work rather better than if they were forced together into a single volume. You can see more of O’Mara’s work and order copies of Detritus from his website, here.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography