Gavin Wray

Micro-listening photo walk in Digbeth

Back in November last year, I went on a photo walk through Digbeth, Birmingham led by photographer Pete Ashton and sound artist Sam Underwood.

Listening to a metal fence with a stethoscope

By using my ears, a stethoscope, recorders, and contact, hydrophonic and omnidirectional microphones, Sam encouraged me to slow down and listen to the hidden sounds of the city.

When you think of the constant sounds of a metropolis, you might think of road traffic, trains, police sirens or the murky hubbub of conversation. Digbeth, an area south of Birmingham city centre and home to metal-bashing, hip media start-ups and bus depots, was surprisingly quiet. There was plenty of auditory inspiration though. I just had to concentrate and experiment to hear it.

Pete set the challenge of representing the sounds as photographs. This was the big idea of the walk and the creative challenge. It felt challenging to me as. While I’m inspired by music and love playing with audio, I don’t consider myself ‘visually’ artistic.

Taking part in the walk gave me a structure with enough scene-setting to understand what I should be doing. The structure was still loose enough to experiment, play and see what happened without pressure.

Macro-level photography (close-ups) shows you the tiny details, textures and blemishes in objects and materials. Yet close-ups can also fool your eye.

When you zoom in to a surface so far that the object’s boundaries are no longer visible, you can perceive an object as being something else. Polystyrene becomes snow. Rust becomes mud. As I found in the sinister dark beneath Curzon Street Tunnel, flash-lit bat shit and spider webs can form attractive patterns.

Here is a selection of my photos from the walk and an attempt at explaining my thought processes behind them. The full set is on flickr.

Gentle serration

The first sound I heard was the vibration in a viaduct brickwork caused by a train passing overhead. I was under the viaduct arch at the time listening with one ear through a stethoscope pressed to the brick.

Alongside the industrial bass thrum of the train’s weight, there was an abrasive sound of the metal wheels on metal track. There was also the twang of the barbed wire tapping against itself as it moved in the breeze. The River Rea ran by softly below.

I tried to capture a mood conveying the contrasting harsh and gentle sounds in these two photos:

Barbed wire joined-up handwriting

Barbed wire vibration over River Rea


Place a stethoscope on an upright metal strip in a gate, then tap the strip with your fingers, knuckles or palm. You can hear all kinds of different sounds. You can also cause unusual sounds by tapping an I-beam.

Getting close physically to a mundane object like this metal gate revealed increasing texture in the surface of the metal. Detail revealed itself where I assumed there was none.

I-beam macro

Rough trade

Digbeth is full of industry with gates and walls distressed by the weather and heavy use, then covered in street art. Run a contact mic over the metal surfaces, wooden grain and ironwork and you can hear loud, abrasive, punkish sounds.

Contact mic

Iron clasp on a distressed wooden door

Keep clear spray painted on iron gate

Percussive bass

A flat piece of wood, such as this one used to board a vacant pub window, can resonate like a deep percussive bass drum when you hit it with your gloved fist.

Listening to a wooden board with a stethoscope

This discarded hollow footstool sounded like a floor tom when I closed the lid and struck it:

Photographing discarded furniture

Discarded footstool with lid closed


This long metal handrail on a footbridge over the Fazeley Canal twanged and sustained for ages after I tapped it with a coin. I tried to represent this visually through perspective with the rectangular handrail almost vanishing to a point, like the attack and decay of a guitar or piano string.

Handrail over Fazeley Canal

Patterns in the dark

The last leg of the walk was under Curzon Street tunnel, which is dark and sinister. Birds or other animals unseen in the darkness reinforced the intimidating atmosphere.

Curzon Street tunnel

Lastly, here’s the flash-lit bat shit I mentioned earlier:

Pattern in Curzon Street tunnel

Content © 2021 Gavin Wray
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