A work in progress
The North Circular, or A406, is a road with its own environment. It could be described as noisy, dangerous, and suffocating but also for many, bizarrely, home.
From 2009 to 2015, Louis Quail took photos of London’s North Circular. With six lanes of traffic at its narrowest, it is effectively a motorway; yards from the doorsteps of the residents. It is traversed by over sixty thousand cars a day and yet, paradoxically for most of those drivers remains unseen. Quail was driven by a curiosity to discover more about these residents and the people who walked along this road, along with a morbid urge to examine the differences between the utopian vision for the road when it was conceived in the first half of the 20th century, and the dysfunctional reality of the present.
The people he photographed had a mixture of feelings about the road: some like Joy seemed to like living there: ‘I like to see the world go by. I see people walking up and down, and in a way the road keeps me company.’ Alternatively, Muhammad who has lived there since 1983 is more pessimistic: ‘The North Circ is just a way of life now, there is no pleasure in it. Its just a day to day bread and butter miserable way of life.’ Regardless of their outlook Quail was acutely aware that this road offered a multitude of challenges for the residents who ended up living there, including physical danger: Muhammed’s side garden has endured several crashes; Kim’s dog Kismo actually got out to the road and her son has been mugged three times; but more insidiously and just as dangerous perhaps Quail realised was the pollution. Many of the participants either had breathing issues like Asthma or knew of friends nearby who did.
Back in 2013, the North Circular was described as one of the most polluted roads in the city of London. In 2021 not so much has changed, with some notable exceptions like the introduction of the ULEZ zone. The health effects of air pollution are serious. According to WHO one third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease are due to air pollution. … Microscopic pollutants in the air can slip past our body’s defences, penetrating deep into our respiratory and circulatory system, damaging our lungs, heart and brain.
The original pictures were limited in their ability to draw attention to this pressing issue of air pollution and the work was not prioritised. It was not until the space afforded by the Covid 19 crisis gave Quail the chance to re-consider an old idea that the work progressed once more. He realised by exposing the photographs directly to the road, he could try, visually and physically to capture the evidence of the air pollution. In the process of doing this, he transformed the original flat images into three-dimensional objects whereby a storm of black soot degrades the photograph, altering the emotional content and drawing attention to the normally invisible pollutants – the tiny particulate matter no bigger than 2.5 or 10 microns thick – that get trapped in our bodies with such damaging effects. The process focuses thoughts towards the problems of air quality in a simple and graphic way. And although the work was still about the North Circular, he saw it could also be useful in representing the wider issues of air quality affecting all of us.
The title for the project, Double Exposure, is a play on the two types of exposure Louis has made. In the original photographs he is exposing the film in his camera to the light bouncing off the road in order to make an image. In the second exposure Quail is capturing not light but the road side pollutants directly on to the print.
He sees the road as an important, if intensified, symbol for much of human activity, emblematic of our drive for modernity and ‘progress’ at the expense of the environment of which we are still part of. Louis is still very much experimenting with this process and idea, with time Louis wants to develop the work here seeing the road as a source of inspiration. He plans for example, to develop relationships with other organizations studying air pollution. One idea he would like to explore is how we can use electron microscopy to improve visibility of the most damaging particles found on his photographs, which are only 2.5 microns thick. He is currently looking for new collaborators developing the idea shown here and considering other ways to visualise the dangers of Air pollution.