John Davies biography

John Davies
before he stopped smoking in 2011

"John Davies is one of today's most outstanding British photographers, he became famous through his research on the English industrial landscape, observed in vast and detailed views...

John Davies's work belongs to the world of contemporary documentary photography. Faithful to a refined, pure black and white, taken on as the absolute rule of a subtle, analytic style. He chooses the vastness of space inhabited by the powerful elements of nature and the contradictory ones of culture to operate in two directions. On the one hand, the evocation of emotional states through the photographic rendering of a space-light that is alive, almost metaphysical, and recalls the symbolisation of the forces of nature in Turner. On the other, a crystal-clear gaze that sounds the material aspects of the contemporary landscape which is tied to the development of the productive activities and concrete structuring of the world through the molding power of economy and property".

Roberta Valtorta - 2000. Roberta Valtorta is photographic historian and professor at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Milan.

"In recent years I have drawn inspiration from issues relating to my surroundings and conditioning. Initially I develop an interest in documenting aspects of my immediate social political landscape. These concerns often reflect a national if not international significance. I am not so much interested in entertaining an audience or providing vehicles for escape but in delivering a highly crafted detailed image conveying a sense of reality. A reality that shares a recognition of aspects of urban living. But importantly, making images of a landscape that attempts to question our acceptance and perception of the inevitable consequences of living in a post imperialist society and within a post industrial landscape". John Davies - November 2011.

John Davies was born in County Durham, England, his formative years were spent living in both coal mining and farming communities. He studied photography in Nottingham and after graduating in 1974 he became fascinated by the rural landscape during his visits to the west coast of Ireland. This work focused on the forces of nature and the interaction between sky and land. His images of Ireland, Scotland and England, made between 1976-1981, were first published in the monograph Mist Mountain Water Wind 1985 and later reprinted in Skylines 1993.

In 1981 he won a one year Research Fellowship at Sheffield School of Art and it was during this year he started to document the urbanised landscape. He moved to Manchester in 1982 where he began to documented key industries and the social landscapes left over from the Industrial Revolution to reveal their impact in shaping an urban environment. In northern England and south Wales he documented the areas of coal mining, textiles, steel, quarrying, railways and shipping along with the town and cities associated with these industries. This work was published by Cornerhouse, Manchester, in the book A Green & Pleasant Land 1987. The accompanying exhibition was one of the Photographers’ Gallery’s (London) most popular touring shows. A selection of this work was also shown in a variety of international venues including the Museum of Modern Art New York and the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

In 1991 John Davies moved to Cardiff in Wales. Between 1995 to 1996 he was invited to become a Senior Research Fellow based in the Art School at the University of Wales Cardiff. During this time he produced a book on the River Taff with an exhibition of this work at the Museum of Wales.

Since the late 1980's and increasingly throughout the 1990's he was invited to work on numerous landscape and urbanisation commissions in France, Italy, Spain, Holland, Belgium, Portugal, Germany, Austria and Switzerland. His early European work was published by Ffotogallery, Cardiff, in Cross Currents 1992. Three further monographs were commissioned and published in France: Temps et Paysage 2000, Le retour de la nature 2001 and Seine Valley 2002.

The Metropoli project started in 2000 when he started to investigate and explore the way major British post-industrial cities had changed from industrial and distribution hubs to consumer and cultural centres. Between 2000-2003 he photographed Birmingham, Swansea, Belfast, Newcastle, Gateshead, Glasgow, London, Manchester and Liverpool. This work mainly concentrates on city centers and civic areas made from high vantage points.

Davies was the first photographer to be commissioned by the Museum of London in 2001 when he agreed to explore the major arterial road links which run through the capital. It was while he was working in London that he first started to make pigment colour prints. Ffotogallery Cardiff, Arts Council of Wales, Birmingham Central Library, Side Gallery, Newcastle & Gateshead City Councils, Museum of London and Manchester Art Gallery all supported the Metropoli project.

In 2001 Davies moved from Cardiff to Liverpool where he still lives.

In 2006 with the support of the Arts Council North West he began to work on the Our Ground project (web site moth-balled in 2016) which investigates the disposal and privatisation of public open space. This work mainly examines the public open green spaces and park land in Liverpool that has been 'sold off' for commercial building developments. This reflects a national phenomena: the wholesale disposal and privatisation of public open space in towns and cities throughout Britain. As part of the project in 2009 Davies also worked with the writer Anna Minton and provided pictures for her book Ground Control about regeneration, security and the privatisation of public space. A selection of 'before and after' images from Our Ground were first shown at The Bluecoat in 2011.

In 2006 a selection of his British work 1979 – 2006 was published by Chris Boot in the book The British Landscape. A major retrospective exhibition of these photographs launched PhotoEspaña in Madrid and then was shown at the National Media Museum in Bradford, Galerie Vu in Paris, Walsall Art Gallery and Cube in Manchester. Davies was short listed for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2008 for this work.

Also in 2008 John Davies was invited to organise and curate a European wide exhibition Cities on the Edge and edited the book of the same title for Liverpool European Capital of Culture 2008.

In 2009 he explored the impact and legacy of one of the first and most notorious examples of large-scale urban regeneration in the UK. In the 1960’s the British politician T Dan Smith’s radical vision was to transform Newcastle-Upon-Tyne into a ‘Brasilia of the North’. In the exhibition City State Davies’s large-scale photographs documented the distinctive modernist designs and the fractured marks left in the urban landscape when corruption charges destroyed the vision.

Artist's statement

The British Landscape project is typical of my working practice. It is a long-term ongoing project about the enormous changes that have taken place in the UK – the world’s first industrial society and the first to de-industrialise. This work is self-initiated and focuses on the industrial heartlands of Britain. I attempt to create a narrative by image sequences to tell visual stories about process, change and transformation.

Much of Britain’s infrastructure and the rapid expansion of industrial cities were created through the unprecedented growth of the Industrial Revolution. By the early 1980’s, when I started this project, many of these large-scale industries and industrial communities were in terminal decline.

The British Landscape is both a coherent body of work using image as metaphor and an historical topographic survey, viewed from an independent contemporary perspective, of the remains of massive industrial and population growth and the impact of subsequent de-industrialisation, shrinkage, regeneration and experiments in planning new communities.

I show urban development through a multi-layered perspective that captures moments in the stories of a continually changing and expanding urban structure. I do not attempt to simplify the complex evolution of a post-industrial and post-imperialist society but explore our relationship to the multi-faceted layers of our urbanised landscape. I document an economy that is now divorced from geography and the evident social consequences of this.

These photographs are made deliberately in an un-sensational and often understated way to allow the viewer to draw their own conclusions and to avoid imposing my own view of urban change. I do use text purposefully alongside my images to give political, social and historical context to specific structures and places. For example, I factually describe the changes in the use of old industrial buildings that have become transformed for a ‘new economy’ of financial services, administration, retail and leisure.

A fundamental aspect of my approach to landscape is the sense of power it can symbolise and evoke. Images of land, water and sky can become metaphors, which reflect our emotional and spiritual states. But the landscape can also represent power in terms of land ownership and material wealth. It is this dual and often ambiguous representation of the metaphysical and the material in the landscape that underlies my photographic work. I believe in the beauty of truth rather than the truth of beauty even though the meaning of visual truth can be challenging and often fluid. My work attempts to raise questions about our collective responsibility in shaping the environments in which we live.

John Davies
For further reading see:

Open Democracy - review of The British Landscape

Telegraph - review of John Davies from Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2008
Urban Landscapes

We English - John Davies and Easington Colliery

curriculum vitae


books & exhibition catalogues published between 1978 - 2010
main page
Photo and material Copyright © John Davies 1976-2019. All rights reserved