· 4 minute read
Listening to a metal fence with a stethoscope

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

By using my ears, a stethoscope, various 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. Taking Digbeth in particular, an area south of Birmingham city centre – home to metal-bashing industry, hip media startups, car repair shops and bus depots –– it was surprising to find it so quiet. However, there was plenty of auditory inspiration; 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 real creative challenge. It was particularly challenging to me as, much as I’m musically inspired and love discovering detail in audio, I don’t consider myself ‘visually’ artistic. I love the simplicity and peace of Things Organized Neatly, van Der Rohe’s Barcelona pavilion or a red/amber/green conditionally-formatted spreadsheet. Imagineering in this free style doesn’t come naturally.

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

Macro-level photography (an unintuitive name for extreme closeups, I’ve always thought) shows you the tiny details, textures and blemishes in objects and materials. Closeups can also fool your eye. Zooming in close to an object’s surface, to the point where the object’s boundaries are no longer visible, can cause you to perceive an object as something else entirely. 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 taken on 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 (hehe – I still chuckle at the memory of actually doing this). 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 gently tapping against itself as it moved in the breeze, and the River Rea was winding 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

H beam

Place a stethoscope on an upright metal strip in a gate and then tap the strip with your finger tips, knuckles or palm. You can hear all kinds of different sounds. You can also cause very distinct sounds by tapping an H beam.

Physically getting very close 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.

H beam macro

Rough trade

Digbeth is full of industry with gates and walls distressed by the weather and heavy use, which are then painted over with street art. Run a contact mic over the metal surfaces, wooden grain and ironmongery and you can hear loud, abrasive, punkish sounds. (I’ve also just finished reading Johnny Rogan’s biography of The Smiths and their record label’s name popped into my head as a good sub-heading.)

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 and sound like a deep percussive bass drum when you hit it with a gloved fist.

Listening to wood board with a stethoscope

This discarded hollow footstool sounded like a floor tom when struck with the lid closed.

Photographing discarded furniture
Discarded footstool with lid closed


This long metal handrail on a footbridge over the Fazeley Canal positively twanged and sustained sound for a long period after being struck with the edge of the 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 struck wire on a guitar or piano.

Handrail over Fazeley Canal

Patterns in the dark

The last leg of the walk was under Curzon Street tunnel, which has a dark and sinister atmosphere. The intimidating air was reinforced by sounds of birds or other animals unseen in the darkness.

Curzon Street tunnel

Last of all, here is the aforementioned flash-lit bat shit:

Pattern in Curzon Street tunnel
comments powered by Disqus