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Transformations: The Lea/Lee - City Hall

Preview by Lizzie Guilfoyle

AN EXHIBITION of photographs (15 to 20 large glossy Ilfochrome prints) by Canadian photographer Philip Jessup, entitled Transformations: The Lea/Lee, is on display at City Hall until June 12, 2008.

In a long-term visual survey, Jessup is documenting the remains of wilderness in the watersheds of several large cities, including Toronto and London.

Transformations: The Lea/Lee displays the London phase of that survey – the natural and engineered features of the Lea River and Lee Navigation Channel extending from the M25 to the Thames River.

The 2012 Olympics will usher in the next major transformation of the Lea/Lee. From Hackney Marsh to the Bow River, London’s plan for the Olympic site will restore derelict areas, create 40,000 new homes, improve walking/bicycling paths, and enhance green open space. As the landscape of the Lea/Lee continues to evolve, this exhibit documents the ever changing face of this important urban watershed.

The Lea/Lee watershed offered Jessup a rich visual palette stemming from multiple cycles of industrialization, decay, urbanization, and renewal. During 2005/6, he was able to spend considerable time hiking in and photographing the watershed.

London is a city of canals. However, unlike other canals in London, the Lee Navigation Channel is a canalised river, a natural watercourse that has been engineered since the River Lea Act of 1766 to accommodate boat traffic to and from industrial and manufacturing centres as London grew. In a few places south of the M25 places, the Lea River still flows free of the Lee Navigation Channel, for instance, around Hackney Marsh. But in most places, navigation trumped the natural features of the old river.

Today, the Lea/Lee encompasses a broad spectrum of uses – Thames Water’s London reservoir system; pumping stations; overhead power lines; motorways; grazing sheep; a wide range of industry, including remnants of ancient mills; new condominium and low-rise housing developments; film studios; and flood control infrastructure. And although commercial traffic ended in the 1980s, nowadays narrow boats carry tourists or residents rather than coal.

Toronto-based Jessup specializes in surveys that explore the dynamic interactions between human development and the natural environment. In 2007 and parallel to the urban watershed project, he began a survey of the impact of climate change on landscape, photographing early spring melting in an Inuit community in Canada’s far north, Pond Inlet. The urban landscape survey continues in 2008 with visits to New York (the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn) and Shanghai (the Suzou River and its tributaries).

The exhibition, sponsored by Thames Water, will be accompanied by screenings of filmmaker Paul Kelly’s homage to the Lea, What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day?