Strategy to Defeat

British photographer Peter Spurgeon revisits historic site remains of a secret British Air Ministry project, which saved civilian and military targets in the UK during the Second World War. We find out more about the objective of the original structures, and gain an insight into the artist’s initiative and method of working.

Peter Spurgeon graduated with an MA in Documentary Photography, from the University of South Wales in 2016. He first became aware of photography through his Father’s photos, who as a Civil Engineer lived and worked abroad for many years; capturing family excursions in Pakistan, Iraq and Hong Kong.

Spurgeon explores themes of location and the past with a theatrical approach, by conveying the physical traces of historical human activity in the landscape. He says:

“a background in Geographical Information Systems means that location often features in my work. Some projects like ‘Lisbon Allotments’ involve walking in a chosen area and shooting instinctively. Others, like ‘Decoy’, are accomplished with a more structural approach of selecting locations based on research, the arrangement of lights, and creating a formal composition.”

Questioned on his choice of subject for his project ‘Decoy’, he explains:

“I was sitting on a plane to go on holiday and noticed the crude copy of a plane fuselage at the side of the airfield. These structures are used for training by fire crews, and I thought that they might make an interesting subject for a photographic project. An online search revealed that Richard Mosse had already documented them in his ‘Airside’ series. The search results also revealed fake planes that were constructed from wood and canvas, used on daytime decoy airfields. This is what led me to discover my project.”

Peter Spurgeon sums up his work as a hybrid of the preservationist and archaeological sensibilities described by Kitty Hauser in her book ‘Shadow Sites: Photography, Archaeology, and the British Landscape 1927-1955′. On one level, Spurgeon wishes to record decoy structures that have been abandoned and are slowly degrading. He uses what Hauser describes as an archaeological imagination in being driven by a fascination with what happened at the sites, but also with the ingenuity of the deception – “appearances are simply the end products of more-or-less hidden stories, an agglomeration of traces of past actions, processes, and occurrences.” (Hauser, 2007, p.2)

The introduction of artificial light to mimic wartime dummy lights and fires adds a second index to the photograph. The first index marks the instant (or more accurately the 20 or 30 seconds of the long exposure), when light falls on the camera’s sensor. The second index is the imagined moment 75 years previously, when a switch was thrown in the decoy control shelter and the fake lights burst into life. These indices give rise to a corresponding dual narrative: the surviving physical structures in their modern setting and the secret application of visual deception to defend civilian and military targets during the war.

Peter Spurgeon’s influence comes from seeing ‘Beijing, Theatre of the People’ at Les Rencontres d’Arles in 2007. Ambroise Tézenas recorded the traditional alleys and collective houses before they were demolished to make way for high-rise office blocks. The moonlit airports in the Arizones captured in Edgar Martins’ series ‘When Light Casts No Shadow’, with the aid of floodlights, demonstrate a meticulous visual approach and also influenced Spurgeon’s practice.

Naturally, his working method incorporates both planned and instinctual elements. Online heritage resources, visits to the National Archives in Kew, and the RAF Museum in Hendon aided Spurgeon in learning about the history and operation of the decoys and in choosing sites for his project. Spurgeon was resourceful in using Fields Of Deception by Colin Dobinson to help him locate the chosen sites. Travelling alone, he found some locations easier to find than others. He recalls:

“on one occasion I drove from Bristol to Hull to photograph decoy ponds on the Humber Estuary. The local farmer soon appeared at the site and said ‘You’ve got 5 minutes to leave or I’ll remove your car from my land.’”

In addition to 4 large prints, the installation also consists of 2 notice boards that suggest a map room aesthetic. They present a wartime map of decoy sites, a variety of archive plans, photographs and documents relating to decoys. The 1946 Air Ministry film Visual Deception is also shown on a screen. It describes in detail the various types of camouflage and decoys.

Having been selected for the Source Magazine Graduate Photography Online 2016 and being featured on The Print Space Trajectory, The Pupil Sphere, Landscape Stories, and phosmag, Spurgeon is currently looking at potential funding options to carry out a second phase of the ‘Decoy’ project.