Subtopia by Adrian Saker: A Diagnostic of Birmingham’s Bizarre Mundanity

Adrian Saker considered himself a photographer for many years. After a time, his interest waned. Hoping to refocus his passion, Saker turned his lens on the neighbours and streets that populate his daily life. The clarity of the resulting vision is great enough to implicate itself as an expression of Saker’s fundamental creative impulses.


The artist grew up in Birmingham, and still calls England’s second-largest city his home. A manufacturing powerhouse around the time nameless suburbs spread across the whole of Great Britain, Birmingham now serves its existing populace. With the city as his muse, and he as its observer,  Saker and Birmingham seem bound to come together in Subtopia, a diagnostic of the city’s bizarre mundanity.


Saker’s subjects are not powerful, striking, beautiful, or moving. Mostly, they look like people. It is in his choice of whole images where Saker excels. Each photo captures a slice of the stranger-than-fiction interactions between an ordinary Brummie and his or her immediate surroundings. Greater than either a landscape shot and a portrait, Saker illuminates life.


In Subtopia, the subjects’ surroundings figure as prominently as they do. Birmingham is identifiable by cauterized architectural and environmental wounds. Abandoned factories and warehouses betray a former urban centre. Unlike a documentarian’s distant fascination, Saker effects palpable concern. His remonstrations are not so literal as urban archaeology; instead, his unease is atmospherically described, and personally relatable. In his wanderings, the artist “discovered a society lost, confused, and in search of an identity.”

Saker shares his dismal opinion of suburbia and its inhabitants’ fates with the creator of his series’ namesake. “Subtopia” does not come from a place of affection. In 1955, Ian Nairns made his reputation as a British architectural critic with a monologue in the Architecture Review, titled “Outrage: On the disfigurement of town and countryside.” Nairns refers to suburbs as, “the creeping mildew that already circumscribes all our towns.” Nairns refers to the death of vibrant urbanism as “Subtopia.” Similar sentiments can be felt in Saker’s empty parking lots, nondescript homes, and bleak tarmac.


However, the two men also share a fascination with regional distinctiveness. In Saker’s hands, Birmingham abounds. Perhaps not grand, the city is populated by captivating characters at the intersection of their lives and the artist’s. The effect is amplified by the photographer’s exceptional ability to capture his subjects in poses that could not possibly be more appropriate. It is an astounding achievement for each person to be positioned just so.


Saker’s manipulation colludes with his viewfinder to bring his scenes to life. The photographer makes heavy use of vignette to draw attention to his central subjects. By darkening the edges, the image is virtually broken into distinct layers that do not nestle within each other, but instead sit one upon the other. The above image of a woman in a park is a good example. She looks like she belongs in her environment, but non-directional lighting and obscured shadow also make her look pasted on.


The literal effect is just as the artist says: “Fiction and reality blend together through my subjective interpretation allowing all the complexities, ambiguities and contradictions apparent in the world to be foregrounded and thus providing the viewer with a fragmented narrative of the contemporary English suburbs.” Thankfully, Saker acknowledges his unreliable narration, so no one is compelled to make a point of it.

The vignette also creates a sort of tunnel vision which approximates obsession. The technique is reminiscent of Venetian expressionism, like Rembrandt’s self-portraits, which used dramatic lighting and rich colours to visually gesture at emotionally-charged messages. Saker’s interests are bizarro quotidian, and a little grotesquely funny, like a balloon-pig behind bars, a soldier in the suburbs, and a solitary figure affronting a barbershop.


Taken in concert with hue and saturation manipulation, Saker’s “foregrounding,” it follows, causes the background to be a distinct element of the photo, again emphasizing Birmingham itself.


Saker also makes good use of atmospheric quality to contribute a feeling of dullness to his photographs. As with Ian Nairns, Saker attaches another British public figure’s consternations to Subtopia. Quoting poet Philip Larkin from “Afternoons,” Saker attributes, “Something is pushing them / To the side of their own lives.” The poem is filled with imagery of parents’ livelihoods being unfortunately but inevitably devoted to their children, before themselves replacing their parents in biological and social obscurity. It is fitting for many of the photographer’s images to be overshadowed, and for it to be rare that a person’s shadow sharply distinguishes them from their surroundings.


Unlike other lamentations for suburbia past, there are no eidetic tendrils creeping out of Subtopia. Adrian Saker does not hearken to childhood suburban wars that once loomed so large in the lives of their soldiers. The Birmingham he connects us with is the here and now. Whether it is truly suffering from a crisis of confidence is difficult to say, considering the artist’s own closeness; he himself does not appear to know. All that can be said is the images are very real.

Interview (1)


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