A London tower block at night photographed by Rut Blees Luxemburg

A Modern Project by Rut Blees Luxemburg

Rut Blees Luxemburg


07 Feb 2020

Photographer Rut Blees Luxemburg tells us how she made High-Rise - A Modern Project, a photograph of a London tower block at night that took on another life as the cover of one of the most influential British albums of the 21st century.

High-Rise - A Modern Project focusses on an illuminated tower block, symbol of British post-war council housing and the ambition for affordable, modern living this architecture encapsulated. I made the series in the mid 1990s, when the urban change that has since engulfed East London was nascent. My art student friends ran a gallery in the opposite tower block on the 16th floor. We named the gallery Plummet and that is where the work was first shown in 1995 and bought by the local clergyman on the estate, Father Len.

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A London tower block at night photographed by Rut Blees Luxemburg
Rut Blees Luxemburg, A Modern Project, 1995

I work with a large-format camera and the photograph is the result of a long-time exposure, which allows for the duration of time to imprint itself on the analogue film. The long exposure charts the changing lights in the tower block, maybe people switching on their TV or opening their curtains. Most importantly though, the long nocturnal exposure records the surroundings of the high-rise - we can see the city beyond, glimpse the local pub, the beginning of the canal, and understand the ‘civic ground’ in which the building is situated.

This image has a special place in my work as it became the cover for The Streets' ‘Original Pirate Material’ and I think there is a strong synergy between the music, the lyrics and the image. The beehive of the tower as a creative, generative, buzzing entity. The image left the space of the gallery and became part of a much wider shared visual culture. On the cover of the album it entered the domestic space of people who connected with The Streets and as a fly-poster it covered the public spaces of British cities.

The Streets - Has It Come to This, from Original Pirate Material (2002)

I have asked myself why I was so drawn to the visible manifestations of British modernism, just like a decade before me the German photographer Axel Hütte, whose legendary black and white photographs of  estates are collected in his book London, or the current comprehensive visual archive of all of London’s post-war council estates by Slowenian journalist Thaddeus Zupančič @notreallyobsessive and maybe it is a form of Heimweh, a homesickness for a shared post-war utopia that was embedded in the modernist project.

Rut Blees Luxemburg, 2020

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The view looking down from the balcony of the 16th floor of a London tower block
Vertiginous Exhilaration, Rut Blees Luxemburg, taken from the balcony where she shot her famous High Rise image