Beautiful Stevenage by Michael Rolph

Michael Rolph’s new exhibition Beautiful Stevenage at Campus West is an ironic twist on the photographer’s home-town and a salute to American Photographer Stephen Shore’s seminal photographic series American Surfaces.
Shore, whose work raised the status of everyday American icons and street furniture to high art, describes his work as ‘thinking without words’ and his photographic modus operandi as the attempt to convey the ‘emotional weight in any situation through images’.

Looking at the ‘non-spaces’ and ‘un-places’, the forgotten corners and uncared for parts of Stevenage, which Rolph has deftly captured with his own camera, it’s clear that Shore’s ideas have made a lasting impression and had a profound influence on the development of this emerging photographer’s remarkable visual vocabulary.

Celebrating the banal or the ‘ordinary’ and forensically monitoring the deterioration of Stevenage’s originally utopian urban fabric, Rolph brings any number of impressions from the recent history of post war photography to his work: there is an impressive sculptural beauty in his evocation of abandoned shopping carts, or the way that non-descript 1960s apartment blocks rise majestically above the city’s tree-line bringing to mind comparisons with the typologies found in the work of German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. As senior staff of the influential Düsseldorf photography school, The Bechers built an international reputation with their obsessively repetitive photographic renderings of industrial motifs like grain silos or water towers.
There is also an almost ‘apocalyptic’ emptiness in Rolph’s images inviting interesting comparisons with the work of another German photographer Candida Höfer, whose museum or corporate interiors – which, like many of Rolph’s, are always devoid of people - contain the implicit promise of human presence, either just out of sight or just out of reach.
Finally, and most ironically perhaps, Rolph has explained how he ‘dresses down’ when on location in Stevenage, trying to ‘blend in’ with his surroundings in an attempt to ward off unwanted attention, taking on an anonymous photographic persona which recalls the role play implicit in Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills.

These pictures have a greater breadth of emotional weight than words can convey, evoking Rolph’s confusion and ambivalence about the city of his birth. Ultimately perhaps Rolph seeks and finds beauty, and emotional peace, where we might least expect it - in the banality of non-descript spaces that 21st century living offers up.

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