Researching Architectural Palimpsest


“A manuscript or piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing.” (1)

“Something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form.” (1)

“Architects imply palimpsest as a ghost – an image of what once was. In the built environment, this occurs more than we might think. Whenever spaces are shuffled, rebuilt, or remodeled, shadows remain. Tarred rooflines remain on the sides of a building long after the neighboring structure has been demolished; removed stairs leave a mark where the painted wall surface stopped. Dust lines remain from a relocated appliance. Ancient ruins speak volumes of their former wholeness. Palimpsests can inform us, archaeologically, of the realities of the built past.” (2)

Seeds of an Idea

Projects rarely develop from a single idea, they usually grow from many influences that happen to come together at a particular point in time and are formed into a project concept by some mysterious process of the mind.

A potential project on Archtectural Palimpsest had such beginnings. Russell Squires posted a short essay on Photographic Palimpsest on the OCA Blog which I found interesting if not immediately relevant to the work I was doing at the time. The essence of Russell’s thoughts were to refer back to a Brighton Photo Biennial exhibition Plane Materials (4) where Andrew Lacon in association with Cornfield and Cross had removed images from their original aluminium mounts to reveal the substrate leaving no trace of the original photographs. I will not pretend to be particularly interested in this project but the idea of what is under the current image was food for thought, especially considering this in the context of photography instead of, say, oil paintings.

Russell had used this idea as a springboard into thinking about electronic traces, the ghosts of images that might survive on old camera memory cards that he is purchasing on eBay. I can see that this could be an absorbing project and reminiscent of Nicky Bird’s Question for Seller project where she purchased old family photos on eBay to create an exhibition and a re-auctioning of the discovered images. I would like to find time to explore one or both of these ideas as there are some intriguing aspects of finding and re-cycling lost, discarded and forgotten images. It appeals to my interest in archeology; prints are recognisable archeological artefacts so it is self apparent that the electronic trace of images on digital storage devices should be seen in the same light.

The next stray idea resulted from my earliest thoughts for assignment 1. I wanted to photograph traces of something that was no longer there and briefly considered using the traces of lost structures that appear on old walls and buildings. I had always seen these as ghosts and shadows of structures that were metaphors for the lives of the generations of people that had made and unmade these structures.

Fig. 01 - Traces on Wall in Alton - 1/100 at f/10, ISO 1,250

Fig. 01 – Traces on Wall in Alton – 1/100 at f/10, ISO 1,250

Fig. 02 - Traces on Wall in Alton - 1/100 at f/10, ISO 1,000

Fig. 02 – Traces on Wall in Alton – 1/100 at f/10, ISO 1,000

I included one of the above photos in my notes on how assignment 1 – Invisible People had been developed. Russell Squires, who happens to be my tutor, saw this image and pointed out that it could be interpreted as another form of palimpsest – Architectural Palimpsest.

Architectural Photography

As I moved from closing down assignment 1 Invisible People, I began to think more about how to approach assignment 2 Photographing the Unseen. A number of my photographs for assignment 1 had been disappointing, both my tutor and I felt it was a strong subject and held together quite effectively as a series but I was unhappy with some of the submitted images and he was critical of the composition of some of the others. There probably weren’t too many that we both liked. Whilst Invisible People was a human story it was very reliant upon photographs of buildings and I realised even whilst taking the original photographs that this was not one of my strengths. I had also made it harder for myself by using an inappropriate camera.

I had also made some use of the Deadpan aesthetic (see my earlier essay) in assignment 1 and quite liked the results so I decided that I wanted to:

a) Explore architectural photography more deeply with the objective of honing my skills.

b) Take Deadpan to another level and use more of its attributes beyond just desaturating the images.

c) Address one of the disappointing aspects of TAoP which seemed to contain 5 disconnected assignments and so, in some way, develop assignment 2 out of assignment 1.

Architectural Palimpsest feels like it can meet those objectives.

To try and understand how better to approach architectural subjects I first turned to the bookshelf:

  • I acquired Shooting Space;
  • looked again at Josef Koudelka’s Wall;
  • reconsidered Joachim Brohm’s Typology 1979;
  • and returned to Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places and From Galilee to the Nagrev

I wanted to think in terms of how these photographers approached buildings, not as architectural studies, but within the landscape. This was partly motivated by my tutor’s comments on composition in assignment 1 so I also looked at some new work that he had suggested:

  • Mark Power’s 26 Different Endings
  • Taryn Simon’s An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar

I will post my thoughts on this research in separate essays.


It seems as if my project ideas often revolve around history and archeology, maybe that just reflects the obsessions of old men, but archeology has always been an important part of my life. My father was an amateur archeologist and some of my earliest memories are of visits to digs, iron age forts and bronze age settlements. I continue to find ancient sites compellingly romantic.

Photography has a close relationship with archeology both as a medium of record and as a investigative tool; a lot of my own photography over the years has been an exploration of the past as it manifests itself in the present.  In Europe in particular we live in a landscape that is nearly completely man-made, even many of our areas of wilderness are the result of agriculture or industry or, in the case of our remaining forests, preservation by circumstance rather than design. We are therefore surrounded by a  story of monumental acts of landscaping and, onto this landscape, for at least 4,000 years we have imposed an endless array of structures, homes, farms, factories, castles, walls and ditches, temples and churches, markets and shops.

At first only the great communal projects were built to last, great ditches, raised stones, burial mounds, but in time our ability to preserve wood, quarry stone or make synthetic materials became so refined that more humble buildings outlasted their architects and builders. As a natural result buildings began to outlive their original function but they remained valuable either as viable structures or as a source of materials for new builds. These processes have left their mark on both modern and ancient structures, medieval Castles converted into stately homes or chic wedding venues, Victorian factories becoming modern offices, workhouses to hospitals, power stations to art galleries, pubs to shops, petrol stations to roadside cafes. These are interesting subjects in their own right but I am more intrigued by the less obvious, the smaller traces on buildings that show some of the rolling historical record of their past, of parts removed, windows patched shut, doorways moved, extensions demolished, ancient materials incorporated into more modern structures.

These shadows of former functionality, of materials used for new purposes, of removed components and adjusted structures are a unique historical record of the absent and of the people who made, re-made and re-made again our towns and villages.


1/100 at f/14, ISO 1000

Fig. 03 – Barn in Farnham 1/100 at f/14, ISO 1000

Fig. 03 – Reductive processes – removing porches, attached outbuildings, semi detached becomes detached through demolition

1/100 at f/10, ISO 140

Fig. 04 – Odean Cinema Farnham 1/100 at f/10, ISO 140

Fig. 04 – Architectural footprints – marks on the ground where buildings once stood

1/125 at f/10, ISO 640

Fig. 05 – Mill at Winchester 1/125 at f/10, ISO 640

Fig. 05 – Transform – convert – adapt – adaptive reuse of buildings

1/125 at f/10, ISO 1,600

Fig. 06 – Winchester Cathedral 1/125 at f/10, ISO 1,600

Fig. 06 – Traces of previous structures, closed openings, previous uses

1/125 at f/10, ISO 3,600

Fig. 07 Building Materials From Many Ages, Winchester- 1/125 at f/10, ISO 3,600

Fig. 07 – Recycling of materials – worked stone or other materials that have been incorporated into newer buildings

1/125 at f/14, ISO 900

Fig. 08 – Medieval Fortifications Winchester 1/125 at f/14, ISO 900

Fig. 08 – Traces on the ground of other structures – ditches, ramparts

1/125 at f/14, ISO 360

Fig. 09 – Medieval Meets Tudor at St Cross Winchester 1/125 at f/14, ISO 360

Fig. 09 – Superimposed layers of development

1/125 at f/13, ISO 560

Fig. 10 – Butts ? or Remains of a Building, Aldershot 1/125 at f/13, ISO 560

Fig. 10 – Mysterious structures, whose purpose is now unclear

1/125 at f/13 +.67, ISO 250

Fig. 11 Neo Classical Facade on Georgian Mansion Alresford – 1/125 at f/13 +.67, ISO 250

Fig. 11 – Evidence of remodelling or conversion

Project Plan

As mentioned above my projects tend to evolve rather than follow a plan so once I have an idea it is mostly about electing shoot locations that might offer appropriate subjects. My current plan is to look at Farnham, Winchester, Aldershot, Salisbury, Portsmouth and Southsea.

Ideally the final project will be based on a single theme within the overall idea of Archtectural Palimpsest.

I am keen that the images are simple and subtle showing the architecture in its overall context.




(1) Oxford Dictionaries. (accessed 21.2.15) –

(2) Atelier Blog (2010) Architectural Palimpsest (accessed 21.2.15) –

(3) Squires, Russell (2015) Photographic Palimpsest (accessed at WeAreOCA 21.2.15) –

(4) Brighton Photo Biennial: Plane Materials (accessed at BPB 25.2.15) –

(5) Bird, Nicky (2004 – 2006) Question for Seller (accessed at Nicky Bird 25.2.15) –

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