Victor Sloan


It looks like we’re not quite through the winter. Long after trees have shed their leaves, three children sit atop a playground slide. At its foot, a friend waits, with her hands hitched to her waist, whilst another – at the edge of the drama – runs through the dappled shadow towards the fun. To the left of the picture, a younger child is cupped on an elder’s lap, intensely watching the joy she will grow into. A sharp patch of light nips the child’s young face, bringing it into bright and uncomplicated life. Children live in the moment, perhaps they don’t notice the cold, their world is a playground and home is a breath-heavy drama from one dash to the next. No matter where they land, they get to their feet. All is ideal, with everything to hope for. Prospects are good.

To those settling in Craigavon a decade or so after the original planning had begun in the mid- 1960s, the emphasis of play and recreation amongst the clean designs of connecting pathways and traffic-free routes might have seemed an ideal relocation. Conceived as a mix of homes and parkland – with countryside never too far from the doorstep – the distinctive design and the promise of a semirural ideal must have been a convincing prospect. Perhaps the area was understood as a new frontier – or as a self-contained island, pleasantly adrift from the urban tensions and territorial division that Belfast would continue to endure.

Those taking on this new start would be joined, in September 1979, by a group of Vietnamese families, who had themselves made their own life-changing slow journey from their home country and its austerity. They would travel by boat and eventually be picked up by larger ships before reaching the UK – where a welcome invitation to the newly established ideal of Craigavon was offered. As the families established themselves, Victor Sloan was on hand to photograph family groups at their homes and again at the local leisure centre. A forthright flashlight subdues the brown and yellowness of a dull interior, the civic colours of the late 1970s. They are new arrivals, standing isolated and different – but children all the same – and they seem happy enough to respond warmly to the photographer’s engagement and the possibilities of making a new world. The aspiration to start again must have felt a common one, shared by those many families who had decided to take part in this new and untested phase of Ulster’s development.

Victor Sloan’s earliest photographs of Craigavon tend to speak to the dominant photographic forms of the day. Often wide and inclusive, they are free of the layered, abrasive reworking of the print surface that he would later become more widely known for. Instead, they seem carefully populated and precisely seen black and white frames, made with a warmth and sensitivity that manifests itself as a gentle, respectful humanism. They are dexterous frames, pictures that place children – and the new population – against the structures and skies to which they have been prescribed.

As a photographer, it might have been novel to dwell on the confusing road systems, endless roundabouts and sterile planning ideals that proposed the car over anything that might encourage community interaction. Although the work Sloan made at that time moves beyond such understand- able preoccupations, the asphalt rings of new traffic systems would appear now and then, as circular grassed mounds flanked by newly planted saplings. Low-rise, uniform housing estates and quiet, rain-washed roads seem dormant – almost as if waiting for the car-less population to catch up. Elsewhere, there is a strong sense of how families engage with the new clean-lined pathways. Long before desire lines will be established (–those pressed down vernacular trails that wear away the grasslands in spite of planners wishes), locals would have to negotiate new and confusing link bridges and walkways. Victor Sloan articulates this: In a picture that shows a handful of young people whose paths may never cross, he frames shadow, bollards and litter – organizing the straight lines of roofing and flagstones into a picture that is nearly an architectural study, save for the un-tethered dog that goes one way and a child, lagging behind as it tries to keep close to the pack, which goes the other.

The early photographs relate the sense of coming to terms with a new terrain. Moving from one section to another with a young family in tow would always prove taxing to those learning to navigate by the north star of a shopping ‘super-mall’ – that dead centre that seems to mark the soulless heart around which new town models are most often constructed. There’s a sense of the wider farmland and space that marks the edges of the development, but also a suspicion that, whilst it’s there, whilst it’s almost close enough to touch, lived experience might mean that it is less easy to ever truly reach. Waiting at a bus stop in front of a low modern estate, low enough to be held by the weight of the sky, high enough to obscure the view of any wider nourishing landscape, a photograph of a group of residents – waiting to move on with their day – is a gentle picture. It seems about little more than a nod to a patient limbo. Yet beyond this, it remains a picture that perfectly acknowledges the quiet and dignified effort of modest travel through an obstructive landscape. Such brief moments of strangers passing give the ordered topography of a new land- scape its pulse. In light and dark, the photographs offer precise accounts of the structure of Craigavon, yet often with the trace of youthful inquisitiveness and, eventually, the more growing marks of anger that so often accompany troubled adolescence.

Outside of Craigavon throughout the 1980s, tensions were apparent across the UK and Ireland. Hunger strikes would see ten men die in protests a whole world – or just a few miles – away in Belfast. All lives have soundtracks and the second wave of punk, with its more politicized targeting of the Thatcher government – would become acutely focused around adjacent unrest, social opportunities and the declining models of youth training and employment. We might remember how some of the key industries had earlier relocated to serve as local and sustained employment initiatives for these remote new towns across the UK and Europe – and we may recall how many would become unviable and eventually pull out. Craigavon’s own example, Goodyear, would close in 1983. Coupled with the unsettling tinder of Ulster’s Troubles, as they permeated and influenced daily experiences, the ideal of a new and uncomplicated start – of a new life of nourishment and opportunity – would remain an ideal forged by planners and architects – rather than something experienced without complication. Against such an economic terrain, Sloan’s photograph of the young punk with the hand painted leather jacket perhaps really did believe he was living out the Partisans song ‘17 years of hell’ – whilst he stands facing a watchful policeman...each playing their part in the flash-lit carnival that would interrupt another Craigavon night.

Victor Sloan’s own children occasionally appear, as he follows the events that include trips to the shops or mark another Halloween. There is a sense of the seasons turning and rituals punctuating the darker nights. His flashlight reaches scrambling kids as they move through the unrefined grass banks at the edge of a newly established estate. Quite naturally, for a father whose path and time might be shaped by the demands of those he cares for, some pictures betray something of the mundane routines and sparks of exhilaration that parenthood presents to us – none more so, perhaps than in a photograph taken outside the large shopping centre, with its clean ceramic tiling and a welcoming logo – so familiar across so many new towns that it somehow means nothing. Ahead of passing shoppers and an entwined waiting couple, three acrobatic children spin head over heels on a tubular safety barrier, like hanging bats on a steel branch. They are protected by duffle coats and fearless, too slight to ever hit the ground. Somehow in this experimental landscape of Craigavon, with flat roofs that will eventually collect rain and need to be adapted and redesigned by resourceful inhabitants, Victor Sloan records the immersion of youth and the quiet integrity of those now navigating their new land.

As Sloan’s working process evolved, so did its form and, as with the territory he would draw source material from, complications arose. The structural pins of the council offices, once photographed from a discreet distance as a topographical study to mark the establishing of local authorities, would eventually return in the work, its Meccano-like frame now held in a tight cold-blue composition. As just one element in a compressed assemblage of caravans, passing traffic and foliage, it is part of a stifling, boxed-in geometry. Against the blue wash of the print, red pastel mark-making pronounces itself. Whether an echo of the notations of architects, or scrutineers – or whether a natural borrowing from the graffiti that increasingly marked the roadways and walls in this new land, the red markings seem troubling additions. Sloan also exploits photography’s privileged rendering of scale and perspective. In one of the most curious of these works a handful of people seem to huddle close together in some intimate parliament. They seem so closely engaged, yet so helplessly exposed by the rising slope that conspires to place them, doll-like, atop a paint-daubed wooden shed...weathered forms, ragged against the waning daylight.

Victor Sloan’s revisiting of the earlier material overwrites a less complicated time and Drift as an exhibition privileges us with this knowledge and context. In a photograph of a play area, now closely cropped and congested, a child is neck deep in the sandy soil of a play pit, head and limbs now ringed by the marks of some more knowing deliberation. Against a roadside junction box, hand-painted with the logos of paramilitary groups, small red circles seem to mark where something troubling may have come to rest. In another picture, the red line draws out an individual from a softly focused crowd at night, as they stand a few steps from what maybe a police jeep. Pastel marks alert us to the places where danger may lie, where evidence was found or innocence lost.

The Craigavon photographs mark a moment of departure on so many levels. To those seeking a new beginning, to those escaping a past...the work Sloan made over that time follows an era of optimism, through uncertainty and ultimately to the onset of tensions that would lap at the tarmac shores of this newly built island. Whether it would ultimately be understood as the Promised Land or as another jigsaw piece in a region that comprised the Murder Triangle, will be answered in time. New beginnings, it would seem, are not exempt from older reckonings...

In recent months, Victor Sloan has returned to photograph Craigavon. The brick and tile shopping centre and wider precincts seem to have weathered but are mostly intact. Commerce and livelihoods have survived the many storms that would blow across the decades. Yet now, the buildings seem subdued in these quiet, colour photographs–perhaps even looking somewhat smaller than we might have believed them to be in the wide-eyed early frames Sloan made nearly 40 years ago. After the first swells of a new tide have stilled, after the children had themselves moved further along on that universal journey from innocence to parenthood, Craigavon is no longer a new start but instead a complex and sprawling conurbation. Now it has its own history and deeper shadows. Victor Sloan seems conscious of this – why else might he take a photograph of an overgrown, abandoned playground, a picture that can only be a counterpoint for a much louder moment, one made early in his long engagement with Craigavon, when he saw children run joyful and free, on a more cared for open ground?

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