On some mornings, I wake up at four o’clock. I hop on my bicycle, strap down my bulky 4×5 film camera, and, in certain cases, travel for over an hour. I want to photograph London’s table tennis tables in the soft light of dawn, and by midday, I know they’ll already be too crowded. I prefer the stillness of these early hours, when the tables are empty and waiting to be played.
Play is a formal study of tables in London. Upon seeing these images, a photo editor once compared me to “New Topographics” photographers, who, in the 1970s, documented seemingly “banal” structures on the outskirts of urban life–including factories, warehouses, parking lots, trailer parks, and other industrial sites.
I’ve worked with more conventional fine art subjects in the past–landscapes and seascapes, in particular–but like the New Topographics photographers, I’ve become obsessed with a subject other people generally ignore. These are empty places, devoid of people–much like those stark industrial parks in the 1970s.
Still, I diverge from the New Topographics artists in one crucial sense. While they pictured a modern suburban world that had in many ways lost its “innocence,” I’m looking for moments that do just the opposite by transporting me back in time.
In these London tables, I find relics of a bygone era. In an age when the average adult can spend most of their waking hours staring at a screen, these tables strike me as anachronisms. They represent a time where children and families spent their days outdoors, playing face-to-face.
As I’ve learned, these tables aren’t nearly as “anonymous” or “empty” as they might seem at first glance. It’s sometimes difficult for me to catch them when they’re unoccupied by players, and in some cases, they’ve blended completely into the fabric of the city. I find them in parks, but I also find them under busy motorways.
The images in Play have helped me to better understand where I live. In East London, for example, where I am based and where many other artists live, the tables seem more creative. In the West, they’re more modern, spare, and minimal. In these unlikely monuments, I find traces of history, and although they all seem the same, it’s their differences that capture my attention.
I don’t play at these tables myself. I scout these locations, take one exposure, and keep moving. Sometimes, people approach me and ask questions about what I’m doing, but for the most part, I keep to myself. I haven’t introduced myself to any of the players, nor has it occurred to me to do so. At most, I may return to the same table two or three times to ensure the light is right.
I’m a quiet person, and I’m comfortable being alone, but Play is less about loneliness than it is about the possibility–and the promise–of connection. Maybe I’m too hasty in thinking screen time and isolation are the way of the future. Maybe the New Topographics photographers were too, when they assumed something similar, all those years ago. I don’t know who put these tables here or why, but people return to them day after day–even in the bitter winter snow.
I don’t stick around long enough to witness the rush of players arriving after work to see their friends and catch up over a game, but I know it will come after I’m gone. That knowledge drives me to get out of bed, lug around my heavy camera, and ride my bike until my legs are sore. It’s anticipation–not wistfulness–that runs through my veins on those dark and solitary mornings.