Mind the Gap
Forward by Michael Palin
by Rhonda Wilson
Like the experience of riding on the London Underground, this book is a total journey in itself. It is a clever, fast and enjoyable ride. So much so that once it has ended, you are immediately wanting to do it again.
The creative combination of James himself, book designer Stuart Smith and the legendary Michael Palin, campaigner for better public transport and celebrated globetrotter, makes for something rather more than the coffee table book it could have been. Passionate at every turn of the page, readers become aware that they are being taken on a ride, conceptually, through the color coded pages of the different underground routes and on through the giddy life of a traveler to the end of the lines. It is like being in the tube map itself, with nothing but sheer faith for orientation, except these guides know everything about passenger management. Nothing has been spared — there is customer care here, something which London Underground may usefully note. And, of course, we can travel in isolation, rather than having our enjoyment of the experience interrupted by the reality of others attempting to read our book upside down from a standing position.
Many elements combine to make this publication: a magical picture book for the photographically minded; a guide to the underground for the dedicated anorak (English shorthand for anyone obsessed by anything but mainly derived from train spotters); an architectural time machine for those with an interest in the intricacies of a changing approach to big city public transport systems; or a brilliant example of how to put together a book for the contemporary consumer.
There is a trend in modern British photographic book design for blank pages leading into the first picture spread. This one does that rather well, with two plain red pages greeting us as we prepare to step aboard. Following a white page, the sky in the first picture adds in the blue, the third color in the London Underground sign itself. There is immediate impact. Then we are off, on the platform, in the control center, out onto the street and then into the insightful Michael Palin forward, which signals both his love for the transport system itself and his appreciation of James's vision.
Nothing escapes that oblique eye. James makes us feel we are in the hands of someone dedicated to photographing the familiar but always taking us somewhere new. There is beauty everywhere — in the quiet, uninhabited monstrosities of the underground stations themselves, the unused lift shutters on the closed Aldwych station, rails now overgrown at Verney Junction or the huge emptiness at the ends of the lines where we are carried into the possibilities of what lies beyond. Nothing is quite as it appears to be and every image offers us the sense of adventure that is the essence of this book.
Quality is stamped invisibly everywhere in this journey of the imagination: in the use of the Mamiya 7 camera, always on a tripod; the sharp and vivid reproduction of the images; thoughtful use of type, text color and how the words sit on the pages. And finally there is enjoyment — that sense of discovery shared by James in his journeying, his quirky humor in both images and travelogue copy. It is this enjoyment that carries this book further than the page to the enviable experience of James and his dedicated wanderings with the ancient and modern combination of tracks, trains and topography.
RHONDA WILSON IS THE DIRECTOR OF SEEING THE LIGHT IN BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND.