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Introduction by Vici MacDonald

Photographer Vici MacDonald on the development of her collaborative project with poet Tamar Yoseloff

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Vici MacDonald at Kettles Yard, Cambridge, during a poetry workshop by Tamar Yoseloff.

• I’ve always been transfixed by typography, and as soon as I got a camera in my hands – one of the many great revelations of art school – I started taking photos of lettering I liked, which tended to be on crappy old shop fronts. I still remember the reaction of a photography tutor when I put on a slide show consisting mainly of bits of text found on decaying signs. Although the other students seemed to appreciate it, and even found some of the images amusing, the tutor – a highly regarded nature photographer – was completely bewildered. He simply couldn’t understand why anyone would bother with such boring images, and suspected I was taking the mick. I, meanwhile, was genuinely surprised that he couldn’t see the beauty in these fragments of communication: formal compositions of shape and colour, constructed from words which lent them a narrative. To me, they were compelling urban tales which deserved noticing and recording, a view with which Tamar Yoseloff fortunately concurs.

In the late 1990s, I decided to concentrate on photographing commercial premises, with a possible book in mind. I’d make pilgrimages to places that looked interesting on the map – unfashionable suburbs, or expanses of white marked simply “works”. I’d also come up with themes, such as shops named after zodiac signs, and track them down via Yellow Pages (still a slab of paper); and often locations would choose me, as I passed through them. By the early noughties – when Formerly’s images date from – I had just, guiltily, abandoned a vintage Pentax Spotmatic for the convenience of a digital camera, though to this day I feel pixels lack some transformational power inherent in chemically-developed grain.

“To me, some of the photos Tamar picked looked most unpromising; but she riffed off each image at a totally unexpected pitch”

And just as digital increasingly made real books and shops and film irrelevant, so too it sidelined my commercial premises project. Thanks to Google Street View, camera-phones and social media, happy snaps of even the world’s obscurest corners, complete with faux-vintage “film” effects, soon piled up online, and faced with such repetition I lost heart. By 2010, although I had many thousands of photos, and continued to take them, I was letting them moulder, unsorted. Tamar Yoseloff’s request to look through them and respond to a few was flattering and intriguing, and revitalised my interest to the extent of re-photographing all her chosen locations, which has now become part of Formerly’s wider psychogeographical remit.

As an editor and art director, I usually marshal other people’s creative efforts into a tightly arranged whole, so it has been a real education to relinquish my images to another person’s imagination. To my eye, some of the photos Tamar picked looked most unpromising; but she riffed off each image at a totally unexpected pitch to create witty, staccato vignettes. It has also been enlightening to live with 14 powerful poems in such a concrete, concentrated way, as I corralled their formally informal (or vice versa) stories into the shape of a book that reflected their very particular feel.

The poems soon became pictures in my mind: I saw spiders struggling in the sink at Capacity, sooty ivy clinging to the Sacred wall. To express the sequence’s claustrophobic atmosphere, I felt compelled to crop every image until it looked entirely trapped – even the rare skies are barricaded in. The protagonists’ harsh, makeshift lives are printed on paper of pulped rubbish, with dot-screened repro redolent of the tabloid newspaper or the “lost” poster. The sonnets are vivacious yet haunted by death, so I tethered the final line of each to the base of an invisible typographic grid. Thus the picaresque, melancholy tales clamber up the paper, as if yearning to escape: while the reader’s eyes are drawn inexorably downwards, always towards the bottom of the page.