Jim Rice's answer-phone message at first seems like a triumph of optimism over sense. Deptford Creek, the beach where you are most likely to find him, is not known for its aquatic turbulence. And yet, after more than two years of hanging out down there, in south-east London, Rice insists he has caught a wave: 'This thing has gone from strength to strength - it's like I'm on a roller-coaster and I can't stop it.'
The 'thing' is Rice's latest project, a series of photographs of Deptford Creek - its pubs, warehouses, power-stations and shipyards - which he began in 1990, when the demolition men moved in to prepare for redevelopment. The wave is the critical acclaim on which he has been riding ever since. First came the coveted Ilford Photographer of the Year award, then a series of exhibitions at the Hales Gallery in Deptford High Street. Next year there will be a major show at the Barbican, and finally, of course, the book, which is due to be published by the Manchester Cornerhouse.
Talking to Rice, it is sometimes difficult to relate the author with what, on paper, appears to be such an earnest undertaking. This photographer may have been 25 years in the business, but he still describes it as a hobby ('It's a kick that I get paid for it'). And while from his prints you know him to be a meticulous technician, when you ask him about the how and the why, he is disarmingly laid back. Take, for example, his account of how it all began: 'Well, I was born in Deptford, and . . . (long pause for reflection) Anyway, I was walking past the barge place and I stopped and had a chat with one of the welders who says, 'It's all gonna be knocked down, you know.' 'What, the Creek?' I said. 'Yes,' he said. And I thought to myself, 'Interesting - one or two shots here' '.
Does Rice, a Deptford boy, resent the fact that his childhood playground is being razed? Apparently not. 'I think it's a good thing, because it will bring money into the area,' he says; adding, by way of confirmation, that the 'marina and the new buildings and the flowers and all that' will provide the material for his next project; and 'the people in their houses and having drinks in the hotel' the one after that.
Rice claims his pictures are intended primarily as a record. 'The nice thing about them is that in a hundred years' time people will look at these photographs and say, 'So that's what the place looked like]' ' Some visitors to the current show at the Hales Gallery, however, might disagree; you can imagine the Deptford locals strolling in and muttering to themselves, 'I never knew the old Creek could look like that.' For there is relatively little in Rice's remarkable portfolio that is identifiably south-east London in the 1990s. What these dark, lugubrious scenes remind one of most are the 1930s American workhouses as portrayed by the socialist photographer Lewis Hine. Rice's men, like Hine's, stand stern and proud for the camera - their faces soiled, the grit of a harsh environment embedded in every pore. And just as Hine set out to prompt reform with his survey of the atrocious conditions suffered by American labourers, Rice's photographs feel as though they are born of a mission.
For a start, these pictures are all unified under one bleakly moody technical banner. Throughout, black takes precedence over white. Where there is light, and it is often artificial, it is sharply focused. He habitually highlights only fractional details of, say, a cog, a piece of tubing, a fallen brick, the worker in their midst, against a tableau of relentless flat shadow. In the wider landscapes, the white tends to be filtered out through the camera or dodged in on the print, so that the industrial insignia all but merge into the polluted recesses of the sky.
Many of these landscapes could be read as an assault on the miscarried hopes of the boom years. There is one shot, for example, of the semi-demolished power station, in which the shell of a tower is left standing in a plot of rubble. Visible through the mist in the background is another tower: Canary Wharf. The one building appears to mimic the other - though it is difficult to say which one is doing the mimicking. The high camera angle imbues them with an absurd parity. Are these dignified faces really not supposed to provoke our sympathy? Are the piles of collapsed concrete really not intended to echo the loss of yet another historic fragment of the Thames? But appeal to Rice a second time about the political or sentimental content of his work and he replies with a curt 'Naah. The workers down on the Creek are fighters - but they accept what is coming to them.'
What is so striking about Rice's photographs, though, is that they are absolutely not, as he claims, 'a record for future generations'. If he meant to show the workers in a positive light (complete with their 'hearts of gold'), then he would seem to have overridden his authorial intentions. For, within the confines of these photographs, many of his subjects give off anything but an air of equanimity.
Rice has turned his home patch into a disappearing world, with all the attendant sense of an injustice being done, a beleaguered community fending off the encroaching marketplace. And it is worth noting that the anthropological circus has already begun. Shortly after some of his pictures were published in this newspaper's Saturday magazine, Rice heard from his friends in the yard that a string of tourists had come traipsing through the Creek taking snaps.
'Dirty Deptford' has acquired a new exotic status - thanks to an aesthetic insight which operates, if not deliberately, then naturally. 'I choose a shot because it's strong,' he says, when asked about how he edits his contact sheets. 'People have gone through this stuff and started explaining why they like it. They just lose me. I think, I like it because I like it, not I like it because of this that or the other. I can never understand why people see this that and the other in a shot. I just go, I like it because I like it - it's a good shot . . . '
And so Rice goes amiably on, as if to remind us that he is, after all, a surfer - best judged by the way he shoots a tube.
Jim Rice is at the Hales Gallery, 70 Deptford High Street, London SE8 (081- 694 1194).
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