Still from Stonebridge Park, 1981 by Patrick Keiller
This year sees the 30th anniversary of Patrick Keiller’s first film, Stonebridge Park.
Photographed entirely in a north western suburb of London, it was the first of five playful narrative shorts that Keiller made in the 1980s, all of which are now available as part of a DVD boxed set, together with his later features London and Robinson in Space. The film makes great use of the footbridges (now sadly demolished) over a major road junction; if you visit you can still recognise many of the buildings, or, as an armchair flâneur, virtually recreate the narrator’s footsteps from the first half of the film via Google Street View. In the text below, adapted from his essay ‘Imaging’ from the book Restless Cities, a reader on reimagining cities in a state of flux edited by Matthew Beaumont, Keiller reflects on the making of the film.
On a Sunday afternoon in December 1980, I set out to cycle to a place I had seen from a passing train a few days earlier. It was a north-facing hillside of allotments behind the corner of two suburban streets, beside the main railway line from Euston to the north-west not far beyond its bridge across the North Circular Road. The view had seemed to me a curiously northern-looking landscape to find in outer London, and I had thought it might be a subject for a photograph. I’m not sure why I went to look for the place on a bicycle, as it was quite a long way. I think it was probably because the vehicle I then owned was out of action.
A few years before, I had begun a collection of colour slides documenting ‘found’ architecture, and discovered a precedent for this in the Surrealists’ adoption of particular locations and structures in Paris. The buildings I found were certainly interesting, but the pictures were not always very successful. I had embarked on the project with the intention of extending it with moving image media, but had been discouraged by their poor definition compared to that of 35mm transparencies, and by the limits of the camera’s frame. I spent several months trying to develop a technique of architectural photography and, eventually, on a trip to France during the summer of 1980, made a series of photographs which became the basis of an installation combining monochrome slides and spoken narration.
When I arrived at the place I had seen from the train, I found that it was overlooked by an extraordinary structure, a metal footbridge I had not noticed as the train passed beneath it. About 200 metres long, it carries pedestrians over both the main line and a branch that passes underneath it, at an angle, in a tunnel. The longer of the bridge’s two spans is oriented so that Wembley Stadium is framed between its parapets.
The bridge’s architecture suggested a renewed attempt at moving pictures: its long, narrow walkway resembled the linearity of a film; its parapets framed the view in a ratio similar to the 4×3 of the camera, and its elaborate articulation, with several flights of steps, half landings and changes of direction, offered a structure for a moving-camera choreography which might include occasional panoramas.
The resulting film had two parts, the second of which was photographed a few weeks after the initial visit to the bridge, by walking a hand-held camera across it during a continuous ten-minute take. By this time, I think I had already decided to write fictional narration to accompany the picture. I discovered another footbridge, a square of walkways above the nearby junction of Harrow Road and the North Circular, with a spiral ramp at each corner, and photographed another ten-minute moving-camera walk – in two parts, to avoid having to walk the camera across Harrow Road – and this became the first half of the film. This bridge was demolished in about 1992, when an underpass was built at the junction. The film was called Stonebridge Park. Its narrative, such as it is, recalls the context, in the first part, and the immediate aftermath, in the second, of a theft committed by the narrator.
Adapted from ‘Imaging’ in Restless Cities, edited by Matthew Beaumont and Gregory Dart (Verso, 2010), pp. 139-154, also included in The View From the Train: Cities and Other Landscapes (Verso 2013), pp. 173-187.