THE BROADER PICTURE / A short life in the fast lane

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TRAFFIC cones mean tail-backs, hold-ups, diversions, frustration. The photographer Steffan Hill decided that these pieces of moulded plastic were an icon of misery for our times and a year ago he started taking pictures of them. 'Cones' opens at the Photographers' Gallery on 8 April. The 26 images are designed to describe the life of a traffic cone, from its birth in the factory to its death ditched in a canal. Several hugely important questions are pondered along the way: What's the best way to cone-off a closed lane? How high can you stack cones? Why do so many of them end up in students' bedrooms after parties? (The cone is second only to the supermarket trolley as an object of desire for petty larcenists.)

Hill took the cones as he found them - in alarmingly thick ranks, or spattered with mud or squashed on the road. But he went further. With unstinting commitment and an extraordinary disregard for his own personal safety, Hill rode with the conemen. A van worked its way slowly down the road with its rear doors open; men inside eased the cones off the back; someone on the ground pulled them into line. And Hill was on hand, watching, listening, understanding cones as no outsider ever has . . .

The exhibition may chiefly work as a play on the conventions of documentary photography, but Hill hopes the pictures also make a quiet point about Britain's roads. Subject to unforeseen traffic weight, they are giving up and breaking apart. Hill fears a world in which you can't see the tar for the cones. He is also keen that we should know the cost of all this coning. Next time you accidentally mash one beneath the front wheels, consider that each cone costs the taxpayer pounds 10 to produce. How many miles of traffic cones sit on our roads at any one time? 'It's impossible to know,' says the man at the Department of Transport. 'It's a volatile situation.' But perhaps one could arrive at a ballpark figure by calculating the length of the country's road network and then subtracting five yards.

'Cones' by Steffan Hill is at the Photographers' Gallery from 8 April to 1 May. 071-831 1772 for details.

(Photographs omitted)