Finding your way in London as a foreigner has never been easy. I think what impressed me most at the start, was the lack of references to find my bearings. Of course, there were some places where you could spot the city’s landmarks –tall buildings and church spires mainly- but I remember southeast London in the mid-nineties had none. Not one. And so I began to try and make sense of an area that at first seemed anonymous and nondescript. This first experience seems to be the rule rather than the exception in London, for all arrivals national or foreign. It is an initiation into the prowess that is life in this monster of a city.
Each of us might have a different method, a personal system to scout unfamiliar ground. Whatever it may be, it certainly sharpens our senses and activates our memory. Perhaps this is why this original estrangement is so important for some photographers; life suddenly becomes an adventure when you are trying to figure out where the hell you are. Neophyte Londoners know this feeling well, but also many travellers starting a life in any of the worlds’ metropolises.
Armed with a map drawn on a piece of paper by his welcoming landlady, Carlos Alba set to make sense of his immediate surroundings coming to London from his native Madrid. On it the usual highlights –the gym, the bank, bus and underground stations- but nothing that would give him any hint into the true essence of the place. So he started to go on walks, taking photographs and collecting objects, at first randomly then more methodically, to the point where it became a project, a motivation to leave the house, take to the streets and make contact with the locals.
I think this book could also very well be a mystery novel. Throughout the images and found objects in his collection I recurrently spotted Alba’s obsession with numbers, also with plans, charts and other instruments of mensuration and their cryptic relationships with people and places. It is here that his search for bearings becomes fantastic, an initial coincidence that triggers an unlikely series of events.
As a curator I’ve become much more interested in narratives than isolated images. This book is a miraculous confluence of both. Alba’s narrative is –in lack of a better adjective- London to the bone. It seems to capture –at least as an atmosphere- the elusive spirit of the east end, the south, and the overlooked peripheries of the city. His images, as his observation skills, are razor sharp. And then there is this indescribable presence summoned by the masterful associations and pairings in his book. The more I try and describe it, the less I’ll succeed.
‘The observation of trifles” –added Alba on our last conversation- is also a very important clue to the nature of this book. It comes from legendary detective Sherlock Holmes, in a conversation with his inseparable aide-de-camp Dr.Watson. At the end of The Boscombe Valley Mystery he says, “You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles.” It is clear that this is also Alba’s method, and because of this he is no less a detective than Holmes; an obsessive observer of the world and a ‘revealer’ of secrets. In the same novel, a few pages before the quote, I found another remark and couldn’t resist adding it to the conversation: “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact”. Here I think lays the core of his project. A few years into London life I think we have been deceived by the apparent obviousness of it all. In Alba’s book we see a collection of people and objects so obvious to us, that they had become invisible. It is only through avid observers like him that we realise they are there, part of a story that also escapes our eye but is by no means less real or important. It is life. We have become so used to it that we can hardly see it.
I have gone through ‘The observation of trifles’ over and over again with no loss of excitement. It makes me want to go out there and rediscover my surroundings, to try and observe rather than see. It makes me walk through London with renewed eyes and remember when it was all so new and exciting. I hope to get he same kind of thrill next time I find a discarded photograph, a crumpled paper or a broken ruler on the floor. I wonder what Holmes would think of Alba’s book, it seems clear to me he would be very proud. After all, they are kindred spirits.
The game is afoot.
The Observation of Trifles by Carlos Alba can be purchased here. Text is reproduced with kind permission of La Fabrica.
Rodrigo Orrantia is an art historian and photography curator based in London. He is interested in contemporary photographic practices that engage with history, especially through dialogues with photographic archives. He is currently working on a collection of photobooks on this subject working with artist photographers from around the world. The first book is due to be released during summer of 2016.