If you have seen John James Addison on his allotment lately, it’s more likely he has had a camera in his hand than a spade.
The reason becomes clear at Gateshead Library where his exhibition, Hidden Traces, opened yesterday.
It is described as “a photographic exploration of the allotment” but don’t imagine portraits of prize-winning vegetables or seedlings in neat ranks.
“Other photographers have done people on their allotments, your flat-capped fellows, but I wanted to find an alternative way into the subject,” says John, who lives in Sunderland where he has been an allotment holder for nine years.
The upshot is that his “photographic exploration of the allotment” is more an insight into human eccentricity than a guide to growing.
Given a plot of land, it seems, a lot of people are driven to personalise it with knick-knacks.
An allotment garlanded with Christmas lights and decorations proved fertile ground for John and his roving lens while one photo shows a plot seemingly dominated by a mildewed and rather sinister ragdoll on a fence. Union flags are popular, it seems.
John found one allotment that serves as the final resting place for a giant HMV sign while another was presided over by a group of One Direction scarecrows. “It’s strange how people decorate their allotments,” he muses. “I couldn’t put that one in the exhibition. My daughter wouldn’t come.”
John has been taking photographs for a long time, although he doesn’t make his living this way. “It’s a hobby,” he stresses. But it’s clear he approaches it seriously, using his camera for prolonged ‘photo-essays’ rather than family ‘happy snaps’.
The Hidden Traces project began in 2005, at about the time he took on his council-owned allotment.
Back then, he says, people were giving up their allotments, perhaps because the old guys with the caps were calling it a day or ascending to God’s well-tended plot in increasing numbers. But then something happened...
“Suddenly it started to go through the roof. I don’t know whether it was to do with all these chef programmes on the TV but different sorts of people were coming in, schoolteachers and professional people.”
John is clear about why he joined the allotment-keeping ranks. “I just wanted to grow my own food really. I wasn’t bothered about competitions; that didn’t interest me at all. It was healthy eating and the simple enjoyment of growing something yourself.”
But when he ventured onto his plot he became aware of the traces of his predecessors. One photo shows the St Christopher medallion he found prominently displayed.
“I’ve never tampered with it,” says John. “There was an old guy on the allotment before me and it was something he used to decorate it. His jeans are still hanging in the shed and there’s an old saw there too.
“I knew I wanted to capture these things, the human traces left behind. That’s how it started.”
John took photos on neighbouring allotments, delighting in his various finds. He shows me the photo of the drawer he found hanging out of a dresser on one allotment.
“If I was to give that a title, I’d call it The Literary Drawer,” he says. It is lined with pages from a literary magazine with articles about Shakespeare, Samuel Pepys and others.
There are photos of decaying tools and a rusting wheelbarrow. One shows a stern sign warning that anyone who causes damage – that’s DAMAGE in big red letters – to an allotment will be fined £5 under the Allotment Act, 1922. An old chap had it on his allotment, a reminder of much stricter times.
John’s exhibition is the result of much travelling around North East allotment sites. On the walls are photos taken in Sunderland, Durham, Hebburn and Silksworth. Here, as elsewhere, allotments have been a source of food and relaxation for decades. Here men dug for victory and found an outlet for their creativity.
Among the photos in the exhibition is something called a duratran, a back-lit transparency showing an old shed surrounded by weeds. It is fitted into a decaying door, a familiar allotment sight.
John says he has seen lots of huts made from old doors – junked, perhaps, when newfangled plastic came in.
Plants don’t feature a lot in John’s photos although he declares himself a fan of colour. This he finds not in buds or blossoms but in a rusting can or the flaking paint on an ancient gate. In an odd way it’s attractive, even reassuring.
Perhaps allotments will start to take on a very different appearance as the TV-inspired professionals take over from the flat-capped fellows. Always, though, there will be those hidden traces and John, since he has a book in mind and isn’t about to abandon his allotment project, will be there to find them.
* Hidden Traces runs at Gateshead Library, Prince Consort Road, until April 26.