“Polarity” is a current project of the Pixels and Grain Collective. Very simply, these are portraits of power and telecommunications poles in our local neighbourhoods, made by members of the collective in Sydney and Thailand during the 2021 coronavirus lockdowns.
2021 was optimistic in Sydney. We had more or less crushed the coronavirus numbers in the community and we in the Collective had big plans for the year. We had film stocks to use, places to go, and new cameras to test. And then the Delta strain hit us whilst we weren’t looking.
Why is the second punch always worse?
Making portraits of power and telecommunications poles started almost as a joke, and came predominantly as a response to a creative urge despite confinement to a 5km radius from home. What became a couple of whimsical pictures became small individual collections. And with Alan’s enthusiasm, this became almost an obsession for us.
We present to you here our accounts of what this project means to us.
Lockdown began just after I submitted my Ph.D. thesis. 8 years of work disappeared with the click of an upload button, and I was dying to get out and shoot and unleash my creativity on something other than science. Yet, the awful combination of Delta in Sydney — totally devastating our western suburbs and threatening the hospital where I work — turned an optimistic outlook into a nightmare. Work stress, research stress, lack of a well-needed holiday (now canceled till April 2022!) and 5km local limits on travel meant that my slowly growing piles of cameras, film, lenses, and fun would be gathering dust…
Desperate for a break from homeschool (arguably worse than having Covid — a daily grind that makes you want to scoop your eyeballs out!!) and work (increasingly stressful/busy/annoying and full of stupid zoom calls), I found myself roaming the streets of my local surroundings, masked with a camera. I had a newfound love of TLRs, and would take my Mamiya C220, Rollei, or Yashica 44 out to shoot………. nothing!!!!!! There is nothing to shoot in your local streets as you avoid people on the footpath and try to keep your kids from killing themselves on their scooters right!?
I’m not sure when my pole obsession began. I do remember first seeing Bill’s pole image and making some crass jokes about it… my 13-year-old inner child just couldn’t resist… But at some point I also started placing my TLR onto local telegraph poles, pointing it up, and clicking the shutter. The sprocket shots, in particular, were dreamy, and had a beautiful symmetry about them, such a simple subject that you would overlook 99.99% of the time, yet in lockdown with absolutely nothing of interest to shoot, they became a simple subject of choice.
Pretty soon I got deep into poles. Shooting them, printing in the darkroom, planning sunset walks around them, looking for new ones. Poles with signs, big buzzing transformers, in weird positions, symmetrical wires, and even the elusive ‘private pole’….. sunset poles, cloud poles, smoke haze poles, and even infrared and pinhole poles!!!! My favourite poles were infrared, and also a reflected pole in a puddle that looked like some kind of cosmic LSD trip pole.
Soon poles became my theme, and it started to influence others. Our Pixels and Grain crew were pole-hooked and demonstrating our latest pole adventures in film and digital. Bill’s big pole soon became our siren song — others joined the cause, and we grew a pole community – Polarity was born!!!
At the same time, Chris was evangelising us to the cause of NFTs (see our article) and they formed a perfect fit — a collectible set of similar images from around Sydney and the world that told a story about poles!!! POLARIIITTTYYYY!!!!!!!
Last week, I found myself particularly stressed out of my brain at home doing grant applications (soul-destroying work that sucks the life out of any shreds of humanity you might have) and had to walk out and shoot poles. I found an elusive ‘private pole’ hidden amongst some beautiful jacarandas and started shooting. Soon a man approached me — ‘Excuse me, can I help you, this is my house!’… oops… I explained how bored I was, and how lovely his pole was, and I was shooting poles in the neighbourhood including at sunset…. he soon backed off with a look of pity and disbelief….
We soon amassed over 100 images from 8 artists and growing, and have picked the best to become our path to crypto riches and glory!!!!
Eventually, we’ll probably have up to 200 images and publish a book. Join us!!!
So what is it about poles? I dunno. They bring us together despite lockdown, a contradiction in terms. Polar opposites take on new meaning; electrons and neutrons, black and white, vaxxed and unvaxxed, western and eastern, digital and analog. We have so many reasons to hate, hide, despise, become tribal, yet simple poles bring us together via electricity, the internet, community, shared experiences, and beauty in simple everyday things.
Thus, Polarity. In a world gone mad, we have found something more soothing than daily bad news and Covid numbers. At the end of the day, I think we all needed something to stay sane and poles were it!
So join this global movement unless you have actual underground electricity and no poles. In which case, sorry!
Amongst the stress, fear, and isolation of 2020/2021, the aspect of this pandemic that has most surprised me has been how boring it is. I am so tired of the cycle of work, homeschool, work, homeschool — all I want is something new.
In the absence of new sights, new tastes, and new adventures I have found new ideas to be my saviour. In the case of the poles project that has become Polarity, the idea was simple: a way to examine our digital lives, from the outside.
One of the lowest points in the pandemic was the week our router went down, turning off the Internet at home. Oh boy! It certainly revealed to me, yet again, how dependent my family is on wifi. We only had two smartphones connected to a cellular network. Catastrophe!
As someone old enough to have grown up without the Internet, and who vividly remembers the days before plug-and-play utility, I’ve always been interested in the technology that powers our online connectivity. The technology today is so good, and the metaphors we use are so strong, that it’s very easy to forget what is actually happening when we go online.
There is no “cloud”; you’re just borrowing someone else’s hard drive. There are no “websites”; they’re simply a bunch of text and images on a computer somewhere arranged in a common language so that your browser can read them. In fact, it’s easy to forget that even “wifi” and “4G” are mostly run on wires, and it’s just the last few metres of the connection that beams magically through the air to our devices.
When Alan started using his darkroom to print photos of poles, my first reaction was to deeply empathise with his desperation to do something — anything — and I was not terribly interested in the poles themselves. As he made more and more however, the fact that they were so different, so architectural and with such bold shapes, started to strike me. Somewhere in those poles and wires was some part of our digital lives; either the data that we send or the electricity we use to power our devices. On top of these (often) crumbling, wooden sticks in the ground was something important that connected us.
How bizarre and interesting.
Polarity became the metaphor that I needed to link together my interest in Web 1.0 technology (routers, browsers), Web 2,0 technology (websites, cloud computing, email) with Web 3.0 technology: blockchain, decentralised apps and NFTs. Here was old technology, literally wood and wires, photographed with even OLDER technology – sometimes pinholes and film – yet linking us to the future.
I hope that Polarity will become a book one day. The images are surprisingly complex and beautiful. I hope for more than that though. I hope Polarity will become a movement — perhaps a small one, maybe a large one — connecting people to the technology that connects us to each other online.
The act of photographing a telegraph pole is an act of engaging with the choices we make about our digital lives. What do we value? How are we building the future? What are the limits and opportunities we have, right now, that we will either change or pass on to our children?
We had avoided the worst of the pandemic here in Sydney. There were some unfortunate breakouts and lockdowns that followed, but in the context of what was happening in the rest of the word they were quite minor. Come June 2021 and I was happily planning my yearly central city shooting, when the winter sun has that special light and long shadows. Pockets of lights between buildings and graphical representation of our urban landscape, something I look forward to very much.
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Then Delta emerged and using a boxing analogy, it jabbed, it hit the solar plexus, wound up a big swing and connected with force. By the time we were in early July, there were severe lockdowns. Combined with an increased workload, spending my whole day in front of the video meetings, I did start to feel very punch drunk. During the next 3 months this has continued, motivation has dropped to the lowest level I can ever remember.
During this period, Alan started talking about poles. And then he mentioned them again, and again. Initially I wasn’t that interested, they were after all just poles. Like me, he was obviously looking for a creative outlet, but when you are limited to 5km from your home, and you are in a suburban area, there is not a hell of a lot to capture. He then started to show us some of his work and thoughts, and the idea grew. Suddenly a walk with the dog took on a new perspective. I started to look up.
Unlike others in Pixels and Grains, I don’t process my own film, and with everything shut down, for the first time in quite a while I switched to shooting primarily on digital. My camera of choice was a Panasonic GX7 with either the native 20mm f/1.7, the excellent Sigma 60mm f/2.8 and the iconic vintage Carl Zeiss Biotar (1940s M40 version with 17 blades) adapted to M4/3.
My perspective is that poles are part of the human landscape. They live between us, they quietly do their thing, silently, majestically and strong. We don’t really notice them, or care to notice them, but without them, we would have no power, no communications, nowhere for someone to throw their sneakers up to hang on the wires by the shoelaces.
I once had a bad experience with a pole, it involved my sports car, unexpected air time, a sudden stop and lots of damage. Maybe it is a way poles let us know they are still there and that we would be wise to take more notice of them. By not conceding and making us move around them they remind us we need them, and that we would be in darkness without them. In many areas we would still be using lamps both outside and in without the electricity the poles bring to us.
Poles are both wood and metal. One particular scene I came across in my neighbourhood was where an old tree had died out but was stable enough where they had left it in place. Next to it is a pole with the usual wires and a light. If trees had thoughts, would they have wanted to become a pole? Or does nature view this as a travesty and part of the scourge of human impact on the planet. We will never know this, but the impact they have on our view is permanent. They form part of our skyline and even more so, part of our view of the sky. Whether perfectly framed by a beautiful blue sky or blending in with dark and stormy clouds, they are a necessity and to be admired.
My initial impression of this project is that I simply don’t understand it. If I put it simply to you the concept of shooting electricity poles. What is your first impression? I mean why poles? Did we go from heights of awe-inspiring sunrise and have sunk to the depths of shooting plain old electricity poles?
Then as our Sydney lockdown draws on and we’re being punished by being restricted in our movement from 10km to 5km. I have lost access to beaches which loiter temptingly around the 9km mark from my home according to www.2kmfromhome.com.
That’s when I lost it as I’m being deprived of beautiful blue waters and lovely sunrise and sunset colours in my photography. I think that’s the straw which broke the camel’s back. I started to appreciate this Poles project more as I see the works from my fellow Pixels and Grain collective members. Bugger it! Let’s give this a good hot go!
I’m a bit behind compared to the journey taken by my friends who are knee deep in this sh…. I mean … in this Poles project. Ok they say that this Poles project is a metaphor for many things reflective of this current pandemic lockdown we’re experiencing. It can represent that connection we have lost due to lockdown but we still have that yearning in us for connection. Yeah I can vibe with that. So I look for poles which speak to my heart which is reaching out for connection.
Hello GL64453. You look like you don’t discriminate and are happy to reach out to your left and right. I appreciate that rigidity and respect your principles. Good talk.
Hello you two. You don’t like it too straight and prefer to be flexible with reaching out at all angles. I appreciate your need to be different. You cool.
Hey … but it’s also ok to be a loner like you. That’s ok. You do you. I’m like you too, so you’re ok in my books.
Whoa mama! You’re the mother of all poles! Dwarfing that lil light pole next to you. I think you’re impressive. Not discriminating because of your size. Big is beautiful right?
I think it’s time for my afternoon tea. See you guys tomorrow in my photowalk. Good chat.
Hang on a minute … have I gone mad? Am I treating them like people and talking to them? Oh well …. [shrugs] … [bites off TimTam on both ends and proceeds to dunk it in milk and suck it like a straw].
It’s perhaps not strange at all that this second prolonged lockdown in Sydney has taken the wind out of my sails, but having taken the lockdown in 2020 more or less in stride, I was a little surprised at how affected I was by it this time. Perhaps this time around I was used to the now more social nature of my photography, a transformation wrought during 2020 from previously being a more solitary image maker, and this is what I missed the most in my creative life. Perhaps it was just the fatigue of having thought we had passed the finish line only to see it stretch another year away ahead. Regardless, once again our worlds had shrunk to our neighbourhoods. What could I create in my world?
Running out of subject matter is an anxiety. It is probably why I photographed a pole in the first place. Yes, they are mundane, utilitarian, uncluttered by anything resembling an aesthetic. But they also have an abstract form that is both immediately recognisable, and when seen from a certain angle, also novel. We tend to see these objects in profile and the view from below has a certain odd charm.
I began joking about “collecting” the neighbourhood poles as a project. It was just making noises really, like whistling in a graveyard so you didn’t need to listen to the noise around you, in my case, of the constant news about lockdown. And then Alan started “collecting” poles, I think against his better judgement, and Christopher with his vision of what these collections of photographs could be, carried this project further, even all the way to Thailand.
So, in a very big way, this project connected us again even when separated by necessity. That’s what these power and telephone poles do, that’s their job, both literally and metaphorically. It seems all so appropriate.
My selection of pole photographs were taken in and around the village of Krasang, Isaan, Thailand which I now call home. A small rural community in Eastern Thailand, the only real covid restrictions we have faced in this area has been the closure of bars and compulsory mask wearing.
My normal photographing style here is to ride and walk across farmers lands capturing rural scenes. With the covid waves coming and going there have been times when it doesn’t feel as comfortable walking on other people’s property so taking a roadside shot of a power pole is a lot easier.
I am always trying to capture the yesteryear aspects of this region. Since coming here in 2007 I have seen some farming practises disappear and others which are slowly being replaced by modernity. Some of these power poles show the transition from the old poles which are just felled trees stuck back in the ground, to the new purpose built concrete wire holders. Mostly shot on Infrared film, and all lovingly hand processed in my village dark room.
This collection of images is a project, and will be a publication, and is planned as an NFT collection. It also represents our despair, our hope, our confinement, our release, our isolation and our connectedness. It is whimsical and serious. It is literal and conceptual. It will be coming soon in one form or another.
Contributions to the main project have been made by Alan Ma, Christopher James, Theo Panagopoulos, Adam Tuck, Bill Thoo, Josh Hurley, Matt Jones, Will Woon and Dan Lawless. There may be opportunities to contribute to a publication.
Special thanks to Matthew Joseph who has brought many of us together through virtual meetups and chats.
~ Pixels and Grain Collective
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