Our Dark Materials

Posted: July 18th, 2023

Slowly but slowly the work moves forward. It has a new name and is exploring a new technology (for me at least), with the latest incarnation using electron microscopy. Read below for the latest update.

The North Circular is a road with its own environment; noisy, dangerous and suffocating, but also for many, home. It’s been named the most polluted road in London, and with one-in-5 deaths worldwide linked to pollution, it begs the question: who would live here?


The work photographed between 2009 and 2015 started with this simple question. Then, during lockdown, I had the opportunity to revisit the project. I theorized that if up to a quarter of global warming is attributed to the motor vehicle and vehicle emissions are the biggest cause of London’s air pollution, I could connect the subject of climate change to vehicle emissions to amplify discussions around both of these environmental issues.


In 1952 the great London ‘pea soup’ Smog led to the clean air act of 1956. This inspired my realization that making the invisible pollution visible was key to the success of the project. By hanging the original photographic images as prints on the side of the road, I found I could directly evidence the dangerous road dust, physically transforming the original photograph and changing the emotional impact of the picture.


However, despite amplifying the significance of the dust with close up photography, a problem remained: the real killer is invisible to the naked eye. The particulate matter 2.5-10 microns wide, that slips past our bodies’ defences is so small, you can fit a thousand on the full stop at the end of this sentence. These particles then penetrate deep into our respiratory and circulatory system, damaging our lungs, heart and brain. What we were actually seeing on the prints although visually effective and dramatic, was actually, at the safer end of the scale. I was eventually able to resolve the issue with his use of electron microscopy. We can finally see the invisible killer in the last image of the quadriptych.


I believe debate needs to be improved. Also, ideas around how we trade our personal health and that of our planet for seductive convenience needs to be challenged. The title ‘Our Dark Materials’ references the Pullman novels, but is also about materialist culture.


The first quantitative estimate of carbon dioxide-induced climate change, was made by Svante Arrhenius in 1896. The first production electric vehicle was made by Thomas parker in 1884. We could have chosen electric vehicles when we first discovered burning carbon was heating up the planet, not in the 1980s but in the 19th nineteenth century. No doubt back then, as today, cold logic struggled to be heard above fevered disinformation. Climate change deniers and petrol heads are all part of the equation. The fact is, air quality and global warming are inextricably linked. The wild fires in Canada this year, contributed directly to poor air quality in the Midwest USA.

This work points to a logical way forward. To progress, we have to quench our passion for the motor engine quickly, and reduce the dangerous levels of ‘hot air’ that cloud rational debate!


Double Exposure

Posted: July 14th, 2021

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.

Kim, North Circular , London.

Kim, North Circular , London, 02/05/2012

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.


Thermal prints exposed to Air Pollution from between 10 days to a month on average, 2020-2021



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.

The Daily Tweeter Lockdown Project

Posted: July 8th, 2021

Covid restrictions are being relaxed today (edited July 19)  and  it feels like there is a tilt of the axis which could mean that we learn to live with Covid in a much more normal, open and dear I say it positive way. Much of the last 18 months since Lockdown has been sad, mundane , frustrating and not very inspiring to be honest but at least I have been blessed by not being personally affected in any major way. In May 2020 I was prompted to make a small series which focused not so much the Covid crisis but actually on the context of it with an idea that with the much larger bio diversity and global warming crisis looming , this kind of obsession with all the constantly changing detail of lockdown is a bit like looking at the trees and not seeing the wood; or to put it another way, the runaway train heading in your direction is still 15 minutes away so still time to get a cup of tea and a sarnie from the platform café! This view is not to negate the importance and tragedy of the Covid crisis but perhaps I’m saying we and the media must learn to hold more than one idea in our heads and to give as much urgency to a crisis that is looming than to one that is here already.




The Daily Tweeter Lockdown Project-Bird Snaps and Headlines in the Month of May 2020


Doesn’t it seem like yesterday when everyone, every day was talking about Brexit? Then Covid 19 came along and now no one ever mentions it. It seems to me the ‘affairs of men’ can be very fickle and yet at the time we obsess over the headlines; let them consume our every thought and conversation. As a response to the anxious chatter of the 24 hours news cycle, I decided to shift my focus and photograph a bird a day from my garden and home.  Modern birds have been on the planet for a lot longer than we have, and yet we take these remarkable creatures for granted. As lockdown compounds existing mental health problems or even gives rise to new ones, like #coronapsychosis (linked to “the dramatic increase in media coverage of the virus’) it felt like turning the camera on those birds could remind us of something important: we are part of the natural world and the more we forget this, the more we suffer as individuals and as a society. The UN environmental chief is right in seeing the virus as Mother Nature’s warning.  Conversely, the cure for many of our modern malaises are found in the natural world. Bird-watching for example, is a tonic to many mental health issues. By running a daily headline over the print of my bird shots (inspired by the metadata shown on pre-digital machine prints), I’m inviting the viewers to reframe and widen their perspective, and take solace from this. Even one month on, the daily news seems less incendiary and in a year, who knows what we will be talking about.