Category Archives: Photobooks

Project Cleansweep

Having been brought up as a child in the 60’s and 70’s I was very aware of the Cold War – but only as an abstract issue. We saw the leaflets. While at university we campaigned for nuclear disarmament but, in spite of living in Scotland – the site of Gruinard Island and testing for anthrax, knew very little about chemical and biological warfare (NBC). That was of the past. It was related in my mind to the mustard gas in WWI, with no assumptions that is was still current. At school we read Dulce et decorum est by Wilfred Owen (Owen, 1920). We acted it out. But it seemed so horrific that it was obviously something that wouldn’t happen now. Yes, there were occasional news items about Saran attacks – but they were elsewhere, nothing to do with the British Isles, honesty, lack of corruption and ethical behaviour.  As I got older, I became less optimistic about the state of the world and more aware that there was still research into NBC, even in Britain. I became aware of Porton Down – which, according to the government website only researches NBC so that we can have counter measures, (see I became aware of beaches that were contaminated with radioactivity due to use of radium to give luminance to dials for aircraft. I heard rumors of pockets of increased cancers and disabilities near old military sites – but little was ever verified.

© Dara McGrath – Kimbolton, Cambridgeshire

Dara McGrath’s book Project Cleansweep (McGrath, 2020) tells the story of the, mainly unknown, sites where biological and chemical items were manufactured, stored, tested and dispersed. Starting from a report on Project Cleansweep (Edwards, 2011), which was a government investigation that was aimed at making sure that residual traces of chemical and biological manufacturing processes did not cause any ongoing risk to life, McGrath investigated further and ended up looking at 92 sites across the United Kingdom. The book shows a selection of the pictures he took, along with copies of newspaper reports and drawings. Many of the images are stark, the land and the buildings are destroyed but others are beautiful and belie the nature of the place they were taken in. Some of the images remind me of those of Edward Burtynsky, in that they show desolate and ruined places and other those of Fay Godwin, reminding me of her work in Our Forbidden Land (Godwin, 1990). The pictures are shown alongside a brief explanation of where they are and what went on, together with what the land is used for today. McGrath explores 4 sites in greater detail;  Rhydymwyn – where bulk chemical weapons were made and stored and where there is significant ongoing contamination, Harpur Hill – where captured enemy ordnance was destroyed, Gruinard Island where anthrax was tested in 1942  and which was eventually decontaminated and declared safe in 1990 and Lyme Bay where trials of spraying bacteria and zinc cadmium sulphate across the coast were carried out leading (possibly/probably) to the clusters of health problems found in the area.

© Dara McGrath – Harpur Hill, Darbyshire

The book is unforgiving, the story is horrifying but the images will stay with me.

To see more images see: Landscapes of chemical and biological warfare

See McGraths blog for links to videos that show more detail on some of the sites including Lyme Bay and Gruinard Island:

Dulce et decorum est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen


Edwards, R. (2011). MoD investigates former chemical weapons factories for contamination. The Guardian. [online] 24 Jul. Available at: [Accessed 3 Mar. 2020].

Godwin, F. (1990). Our Forbidden Land. London: J. Cape.

McGrath, D. (2017). daramcgrath. [online] daramcgrath. Available at: [Accessed 3 Mar. 2020].

Mcgrath, D. (2020). Dara McGrath Project Cleansweep. Beyond the Post Military Landscape of the United Kingdom. Heidelberg, Neckar Kehrer Heidelberg.

Philip J Brittan

© Philip J Brittan – From Ghosts Are Real

Philip J Brittan has used photography to help to manage very personal emotions and memories. His latest book Ghosts Are Real was made after a difficult time of his life, when his mother had died, and the family has ‘fractured’. He took long night walks as ‘a kind of haven’ and based the images on feelings and emotions that came from these walks. The images are varied, many are colourful, some show obvious images, a tree, a tower block – while others show sudden flashes of colour that when examined carefully turn into a scene of trees, or birds or possibly a person.  They are gloriously abstract. Brittan says, ‘Looking back, it seems clear to me that Ghosts Are Real is about the bruised relationship between the world and the self, with love providing my own protective shield, present everywhere, agile and invulnerable’ (Brittan, 2019).

© Philip J Brittan – From Ghosts Are Real

The phrase ‘the bruised relationship between the world and the self’ says all there is needed about autobiographical work. If you can use any form of media to show this, you have made a worthwhile piece. You may have used direct images like those some of those by Elina Brotherus, they may be more complicated, just alluding to your story like the work of Teichmann, or in Brittan’s case totally abstract – but if they can express your story the exact nature of the work is irrelevant.


Brittan, P.J. (2019). Ghosts Are Real. PJB Editions.

Louis Quail

Louis Quail is described as a documentary photographer, but that tends to imply a photographer who looks at something from the outside with an analytical voice. Some of his earlier projects such as Desk Job in which he explores office life across the continents, showing the similarities of how the workers in a large office exist and how there is a common culture of the office worker versus the big bosses can be described in this fashion.

However, his latest project Big Brother is deeply personal. It tells the story of his brother’s struggle with schizophrenia and the ongoing difficulties this causes. It shows the difficult side of having a severe mental illness, and how negotiating the pitfalls of state, welfare and hospital treatment is fraught with anxiety both for the person and his relatives – but it also tells an ongoing love story about Justin and his long time girlfriend Jackie. The book is both fascinating and terrifying. I was constantly torn between laughing and weeping while reading and seeing Justins story.  The book contains photographs taken over 7 years interspersed with text telling the story and drawings and pieces of writing by Justin. It includes a small booklet of paintings and poems by Justin which make it clear that however damaged Justin is by his schizophrenia he is also a very creative person. One of these poems begins:

Boxed in clever on a psychiatric ward

It’s no wonder I am bored.

The fatigue sets in

The eternal light won’t go off

Before its off.  (Quail and Quail, 2018).

© Justin Quail

Quail says on his website ‘This book did not set out to be a political polemic; rather, my intention was to fight stigma and share Justin’s story so we can understand, empathize and celebrate Justin’s individuality. However, inevitably by studying the problems affecting my brother, the work speaks of and draws attention to the crisis in mental health care, raising important questions about how we look after our most vulnerable citizens’ (Quail, 2019).

The book is worth a long look – for the story, the images and the increased understanding of a person’s difficult world. For this story the long-term engagement was essential to avoid a superficial glance and to give the meaning to the story. It would have been simple to just show the ‘bad bits’ but Quail succeeds in showing both these and the joy that even a difficult life can encompass.


Quail, L. (2019). Big Brother – Introduction – Louis Quail Photography. [online] Louis Quail Photography. Available at: [Accessed 17 Oct. 2019].

Quail, L. and Quail, J. (2018). Big brother. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing.

John Thomson – Street Life in London

Tickets - the Card Dealer
“Tickets” the Card Dealer John Thomson

John Thomson (1837 – 1921) was born in Edinburgh from a working-class family and ended up one of Queen Victoria’s photographers. During his remarkable life he worked as an optical glass technician ,  ran a photography shop in Singapore, travelled widely in the Far East, took pictures of both notable figures such as the King of Siam and Chinese mandarins and street workers, together with images of the scenery and buildings – all while carrying the cumbersome equipment need for the wet collodion process and both making and fixing the glass plates in temporary accommodation. On his return to Britain he resided in London, initially lecturing, writing articles and producing books about his travels then taking  images of the London street people which were published in a series of magazines accompanied by articles by Adolphe Smith, while at the same time taking formal portraits of the great and good of London, including Queen Victoria and her family.

Thomson’s street images are some of the earliest examples of social documentary photography. He was preceded in Scotland by Hill and Adamson with their images of Newhaven fisherfolk, these very picturesque images are limited to a very small subsection of the population and also by both Thomas Annan, with his pictures of Glasgow slums, and Archibald Burns’s images of the Edinburgh tenements. However, both Annan and Burns concentrated on the buildings and the people are only shown fleetingly, if at all. Thomson’s images, accompanied as they were by extensive essays by Smith, tell much more about the background and lives of the people he photographed. Richard Ovenden, in his extensive work on Thomson says ‘His photography on the streets of London (is) seeking to examine the self of the great city, the soul of the British empire. John Thomson’s journeys were dominated by the quest for light…….and he found light in both the outer reaches of Asia…… and the underbelly of Victorian London’ (Ovenden, Puttnam and Gray, 1997, p.xii).

In the book Street Life in London  Thomas and Smith say in the preface ‘We are aware we are not the first on the field…..we have sought to portray these harder phases of life, bringing to bear the precision of photography in illustration of our subject…….to enable us to present true types of London poor and shield us from the accusation of either underrating or exaggerating individual peculiarities of appearance’ (Thomson and Smith, 1877).  In an article by the Westminster review, quoted in Ovenden, the unknown  author says ‘ it is to be remarked as worthy of all praise that these pictures of London life are free from the patronising characteristic spirit so repulsively pervading even popular and useful writers’  (Ovenden, Puttnam and Gray, 1997, p88).  Leach says ‘All of the photographs in Street Life in London display John Thomson’s characteristic visual acuity. He was by this time highly versed in his craft, having for many years lived the life of the consummate photographer-explorer….This odyssey seems to have brought fresh insight into the perception and understanding of his homeland, motivating him to use his camera to show the viewing public not that which they could never see, but that which they chose not to see.’ (Leach, 2016).

The  most famous image from Street Life  is The Crawlers , a very striking image showing an apparently elderly and destitute female holding an infant in a classic Madonna and Child pose, although, in this case,  we learn from the accompanying essay that the two are not related, but that she is looking after the child for another previous denizen of the streets who has a managed to obtain some work.

However, there are several other fascinating images. One of those images, and the one that holds my attention, is that of “Tickets” the Card -Dealer. It shows an middle aged and somewhat scruffy gentleman, holding a paintbrush and working on painting a sign for a fruit seller.  Tickets is not looking straight at you, as was the convention in much portraiture at that time, rather he is looking downwards at his work. His expression is melancholy, and he looks exhausted. His hair is untidy, and in spite of the image being taken indoors he is wearing a heavy coat. The only area of brightness and gaiety in the picture is a flowering plant in a bucket. Although this image was taken almost 150 years ago it could be a picture of any person down and depressed today. The gentle author in his Spitalfields Life series comments ‘When I look at these vital pictures, I am always startled by the power of the gaze of those who look straight at the lens and connect with us directly, while there is a plangent sadness to those with eyes cast down in subservience, holding an internal focus and lost in time’ (gentle author, 2011) – this perfectly describes the look on the face of Tickets. Tickets life, as discussed at length in the accompanying article, is not  one of a bad man, or a lazy one , simply one who has had recurring episodes of bad luck which has led him to travel around the world from his native Paris, via America and back to Britain, intending to travel on to France, but arriving here just in time to discover that the political climate in Frances made it unwise to return there. He is left in a life he does not want, in a place that is not his own, having to cope with the despair that causes. The photograph perfectly shows this while being gentle and understanding rather than patronising or sentimentalising the situation.

The images in Street Life were printed using the Woodburytype process. This photomechanical printing process was renowned for its lasting nature as well as the sharp, saturated images in a reddish-brown colour. The sharpness is enhanced by the slight relief between areas caused by the process.  For a detailed description of the process see:

This process, and the details it allows for , emphasise the skill of Thomson, taking pictures of people using a slow and heavy camera, while out in the street and needing to not only direct the people he was photographing, but also managing the inevitable crowd control caused by the curiosity produced by using a relatively new process in a poor area as at that time most photography was still either studio based or a hobby of the wealthy.


“Tickets” – the Card-Dealer is a beautiful image, taken by a remarkable and skilled photographer who, as well as taking images of landscapes, buildings and the rich and famous, used his skills to highlight areas of social injustice. He was one of the first to do so. In Overton’s words ‘The quality which strikes the viewer most is his ability to get under the skin, so to speak, of whoever, or whatever, he was photographing’ (Ovenden, Puttnam and Gray, 1997,  p.vii) and he used this to try to help people. We would do well to emulate both his skills and his ethos.


Anon (1877). Politics, Sociology, Voyages and Travels. The Westminster Review, 52.

gentle author (2011). John Thomson’s Street Life in London | Spitalfields Life. [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 Jul. 2019].

Leach, G. (2016). The Crawlers: The Genesis of Social Documentary Photography. [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 Jul. 2019].

Ovenden, R., Puttnam, D. and Gray, M. (1997). John Thomson (1837-1921) photographer. Edinburgh: National Library of Scotland, The Stationery Office.

Stulik, D. and Kaplan, A. (2013). WOODBURYTYPE. [online] Available at:

Thomson, J. and Smith, A. (1877). Street life in London. London: Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington.