More than anything, what I really remember are the smells. Making this picture meant a lot of kneeling down on the pavement with my close-up lens, my nose rarely more than 6 inches from the ground. There’s the acid tang of a tomato ketchup sachet, the zest of a Satsuma peel, ripe esters from a dropped banana skin, burnt sugar sweetness in a crushed can of coke, the odour of Big Mac rising from greasy red wrappers, the stale heaviness of dried-up beer and the stench of old cigarette butts. And of course, the unmistakeable stink of piss and dog shit. But less often than you’d think. I’ve heard it said that the surface of the street is cleaner than the average carpet, where there’s no rain to wash away the dirt, and I’m inclined to believe it. However the sheltered corners where wind-blown rubbish finally comes to rest do often double as very public conveniences for the less than publicly minded.
Most of my rubbish comes from the streets of London, photographed where I find it. I scour the streets on foot in my lunch breaks, and on my cycle journey to work, I train my peripheral vision to pick out flashes of particular colours as I whizz down the canal towpath. Unfortunately for me, the streets of London are in fact surprisingly rubbish free. If I’d known how efficient the Westminster Clean Streets team were, I might have thought twice about embarking on this project. The pickers and sweepers make my task almost impossible. I see them taunting me, sometimes three or four in a row like fluorescent yellow buses. In time, however, I discover small islands of filth in the ocean of cleanliness. It seems rubbish attracts rubbish, someone dumps a bag with an empty juice carton in a corner and suddenly it becomes a municipal tip. Some streets always seem to offer something to photograph, particularly if they have a couple of restaurant back doors in them. West Street is one of my favourite haunts. This is also the home of the Ivy and has a permanent posse of paparazzi camped out watching the front door. I think it causes them some bemusement seeing me regularly passing by with my camera and long lens but with my eyes fixed on the gutter. The minor celebrities, feigning nonchalance as they emerge from the Ivy doors, seem slightly deflated that I am paying more attention to a discarded chocolate wrapper in a puddle than their famous faces.
I take brief respite from the brutal efficiency of Mayor Ken’s clean team when I visit my brothers in Exeter and Bath. Part of my orange section comes from my West country trip. Bath council conveniently uses orange rubbish bags in its parks! On a jaunt to the seaside I even do a spot of beach combing. One eye watches for waves as the other struggles to focus on a wind-blown crisp packet. I chase a tiny sweet wrapper as the brisk sea breeze sweeps it down the promenade. My wife and I have a debate about whether a wave-battered, sun-bleached orange buoy counts as rubbish, but conclude that its dilapidation is more a marker of current usage than abandonment.
It wouldn’t feel right if I wasn’t stopped by the police at some point in my project. Photographing ordinary, commonplace objects, as I do, always seems to arouse suspicion. In a side street in Exeter I am trying to get a good angle on a Happy Shopper bag caught in a bush, when the local constabulary pedals up on his bike. I explain a little about the project, modern art... rubbish... etc. His face lightens up, and it being Sunday afternoon, and there clearly being no real crime to speak of, he starts to catalogue the technical specifications of his latest digital camera. In quite some detail! It takes a real effort to end the conversation without appearing too rude, and it takes another half an hour before I finally catch up with the rest of my family who left me earlier to take “just a quick snap”.
So what do I find on the streets as I take a random sample of our society’s rubbish and then, in an obsessively male way, classify them all by colour? A broken purple umbrella lying on a wet pavement, presumably thrown aside in frustration by the owner, angry that they had been foolish enough to put their trust in a cheap promotional gift. A heap of red velvet chairs and curtains, perhaps the refuse from a restaurant refit. A blue plastic overshoe trodden into a puddle. I miss out photographing the soft lemon yellow haze of a frost-bitten morning in deference to yellow rubble sacks and wasp-striped hazard tape in a yellow skip. Plastic bags come in all colours. Cigarette packs are in all colours except orange and yellow.
But for the most part my finds are the empty wrappers and packets, bottles and boxes of food and drink. There is a huge volume household waste that I don’t see as I make my sweep of paths and pavements, so it’s mostly the gaudy remains of snacks that catch my eye. I have to put a self-imposed limit on the amount of Macdonald’s packaging I include or they would start to take up most of the red part of my rainbow. However, Kit-Kat makes a competitive bid for dominace here as well. A big thank you must be due to Cadbury’s copyrighted purple for filling out an otherwise unloved section of the spectrum. The rich and varied hues of crisp packets are a major source for me. Prawn cocktail and smoky bacon confusingly take the same shade of magenta, and mid blue could be cheese and onion or salt and vinegar. But there’s also subtlety. When I need a slightly yellow tint of green, it’s readily available in a grimy rain-splattered lime and chilli kettle chips bag.
Like everyone else, I like to eat. So I wonder, what would the calorific value of this art piece be if I had eaten the insides of everything I found? Of course I did expend a fair amount of energy actually completing the work. Sometimes I might walk around randomly or cycle for miles before I find the correct shade of purple.
If I subtract the calories I burned, could I promote this as a new fad diet; no snacks unless you find a matching piece of rubbish.
If I’d actually smoked all the cigarettes from the packets I found I would surely have shortened my life a bit, but how would I have fared if I’d drunk all the beer from the cans I photographed? It took about 4 months to photograph the entire picture and there are 8 cans of lager. This seems the very model of sobriety, well below government recommended levels. Of course there were a few real celebratory drinks when I finally completed the picture – let’s not count them, shall we?