The Broader Picture: The Same Time, the Same Place

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ONE DAY next week, the painter and polymath Tom Phillips will walk from his home in Peckham, South London, to take 20 photographs. At 10.20 am he'll take a picture of a house in Grove Park, then one of Camberwell School of Art, then a newsagent, a bit of Ruskin Park, a housing estate . . . And at about 6pm, he'll go home. Tom Phillips, who describes himself as a 'habitual person', has done this one day between 24 May and 2 June every year since 1973 - walking a set route, stopping at a set place at a set time, taking a picture no matter what can be seen through the lens. Over 20 years, a fascinating, complex portrait of an urban landscape has emerged. Unpublished, unexhibited, the project is a powerful private rebuttal of the 'English obsession with pastoral imagery'.

The photographic process itself is straightforward. At each site Phillips makes three exposures, always with the same camera (a now obsolete Praktica), the same type of film (Kodachrome X) and the same exposure time (one sixteenth of a second). The relative merits of each photograph are then argued for some time by family and friends until one image is selected to take its place in the official record. The sites are within a circle of half a mile radius at the centre of which is Phillips's former family home in Grove Park (he now lives a quarter of a mile to the east). Some sites were chosen for their visual interest, others for their banality, and some because they held special significance to the artist.

Site 6, a shop in Camberwell Church Street, simply looked odd. Owned by a man with a spirited sense of exterior decoration, it has been, over the years, a provider of legal and photographic services, a Polish restaurant, a hotel, a nursery, a ballet school. These changes have frequently been accompanied by bold colour schemes - maroon and black, yellow and blue - and by placards opposing local noise irritants: a 'Stop the Beeps' sign was directed at the nearby pelican crossing, built in 1979; 'Stop the Bells' objected to campanology practice at St Giles church. Occasionally, through what Phillips calls the 'alchemy of chance', the photographs have managed to capture a national mood or theme. In 1982, the year of the Falklands War, an armoured personnel-carrier appeared at Site 13 - a public convenience in Vale End, East Dulwich. The following year, as if in response, a CND logo adorned the lavatory wall. It had gone by 1984.

Phillips has braved dangerous dogs and suspicious local hoodlums; he has been insulted by council workers who took him for a time-and-motion snoop. He has been questioned by a policeman outside the waste depot opposite East Dulwich station, who wanted to know if he had just photographed a man running past carrying a safe. (Phillips had missed the thief, and the rare opportunity for a work of art to serve as police evidence, by five minutes.)

The photographs, says Phillips, reflect a love of 'community and city life . . . The project's unglamourous nature appeals to me, and it has become another way of rooting myself here in South-east London.' To Phillips, the task has become an obsession, but the photographs remain neutral, expressing neither lament nor celebration. 'The sites change and often those changes appear random and without reason. Grassy parks are walled off. Local landmarks are torn down, and poorly designed buildings erected in their place. But this project is essentially about acceptance of things as they really are. Boring and irritating as they may be I must not attempt to influence them.' The ritual will continue into the 21st century. Phillips's task will remain the same: it is, he says, 'to be the dumb recorder of an extaordinariness I cannot yet see'.-

(Photographs omitted)