As I sift through the hundreds of photos from our most recent trip, I can’t help but remember how often I mentally constructed a shot only to realize a white van sat inside the frame. Occasionally it’s grey, or less often, black, but a van is a van when it’s taking up space in front of the perfect architectural contrast of old and new that I find so striking. It’s what disrupts the vanishing point of a village lane, or an interesting streetscape. It’s the marshmallow like box of a vehicle often emblazoned with neon logos, dot coms, and slogans–all necessary, of course, if one is in need of the services provided. Who am I to suggest they shouldn’t be where they’re supposed to be, attending to clients’ needs or headed from one job to the next?

I’m no one, really. I’m someone who carries a camera over one shoulder and an intrusive phone in a pocket at my hip below the other. Someone who is lucky enough to have a husband who willingly carries the backpack full of camera paraphernalia that has accompanied us on our travels, but often, is not used. Why? Because I’ve realized the phone is an easier tool to communicate with friends and family while we’re away. I suppose it’s a sort of digital postcard I send, complete with too many photos of where we’ve been and what we’ve seen, or what we’ve eaten. There’s an immediacy to it, I tell myself. I stay up late, process the day, jot down a few memories, edit the photos, and hit share.

Back at home, often weeks later, I sift through the photos uploaded from the Canon. Once more, I recall the experiences behind the photos, each place savored for one reason or another. Some have stories much more profound than others, but one aspect seems constant: there are vans in many of the photos.

I’m not surprised. I expect this. I expect it much as I expect men in fluorescent yellow vests, or orange traffic cones and cautionary construction barriers. I snap and snap, conscious of what makes a photo typically unattractive: “To Let” signs protruding from buildings, telephone poles, garbage bags lining the street on collection day, or lorries of all colors and shapes. I aim my lens and say, “I’ll edit it out, or maybe crop the photo,” knowing I most likely won’t. My husband listens, understanding I’m only thinking audibly. But often, I’m simply absorbed in the scene and take the shot.

I take the photos because there are stories to be told quite different from those I can tell about our trip in a general kind of postcard way. A glance down a particular street in passing often reveals something beyond contrasting visual details–something I don’t realize is there until I begin to process the photo. The history of a place unfolds in a very different way than what a museum may reveal. I prefer to be out in a place, enjoying whatever it has to offer, taking photos, then searching for answers later.

Kalliopi Lemos’ “Wooden Boat With Seven People” installed at Spital Square in Spitalfields, London, just around the corner from the hotel where we stayed is a good example. It’s a powerful sculpture sitting in that environment between the very old and very new that surrounds it. “Lemos’ sculpture symbolizes the universal struggle and suffering of millions of uprooted migrants around the world,” states Gazelli Art House regarding the work. I wanted the feeling it gave me to be carried through to my photo, and not leave it as just another shot of public art buried in the hundreds taken before and after. Technically, I should have chosen a wider aperture. Emotionally, my eye is drawn to the figures in the boat, my mind to the immigrants who have lived in and around Spitalfields for hundreds of years. Not the van in the background. It’s there, but my understanding of the significance of this sculpture and its relationship to the area far outweighs the nuisance. Am I still tempted to erase it? Of course.

“Wooden Boat With Seven People”

More contrasts, more learning in spite of another van. I removed several things from this image, but the van remains. Do you see it more than the row of small, brick buildings at the end of the street on the right? The juxtaposition of those 17th century buildings against the enormous modern building directly behind are the reason for the shot. The small street they are situated on is called Tenter Ground E1. It’s named for what used to be an open area where weavers, Flemish refugees, secured the fabric they had woven to tenter frames to help retain shape during drying. That the row of buildings which once housed the weavers is still standing is due to community involvement focused on preserving architecture with unique historical characteristics. I don’t remember seeing the van when I took the photo. I’m glad I took it. Still, I wish the van wasn’t there.

Brune Street, Spitalfields

The next van is just off The Coombe in the oldest neighborhood of Dublin, Ireland, The Liberties. I was struck by the sight of the church through the space between the old wall with the mural and the brick apartment building. This area, like Spittalfields, became the home for weavers emigrating from Europe in the late 17th century. Now, among other things, it’s the home of the Guinness brewery. I actually like the van in this photo. It belongs there.

White Van in The Liberties, Dublin

Clink Street is known for the prison that once occupied space there. To the left are the excavated remnants of Winchester Palace which is only a footprint with a ghost of a wall that once held a large rose window. We enjoy wandering the tight, ancient passageways of London because there is always something new to see. I was attracted by the blue building nestled among its honey colored neighbors–complete with white van.

White Van on Clink Street

I was struck by this Monday morning scene on Tooley Street after we’d visited Borough Market in Southwark, London. The raised footbridge caught my eye and I clicked, stopping only long enough to do so. I’m not sure I ever saw the van. If I’d ventured ten yards further, I would have had a wonderful shot of the Shard on the right, and the white van would have been long gone. Alas, we were headed in the opposite direction.

White Van on Tooley Street, South Bank

The distinctive Ibex House on the right is what caught my attention. It stands out because I haven’t seen many buildings from the 1930s in London and its style and color are unusual. It presents a beautiful contrast to the buildings across the street and harmony with the remnants of golden leaves still clinging to the tree. Three vans and a yellow jacket are present for the win!

The Ibex House, London
Highrises from Crutched Friars

The photo above represents the incredible amount of construction going on in London currently. It’s dubiously graced by a green truck with a crane attached, and several vans parked behind it. To be fair, the street sign and bollard in the foreground are more distracting than the truck, and even then, my eye is drawn to where it’s intended to be–aimed at the tall buildings. This image led me down a rabbit’s warren of information regarding the buildings that have been constructed in the last decade, as well as those which are still in the planning phase.

The Leadenhall Building, referred to as the “Cheesegrater” is in the center, identified by the ladder detail that extends up its right side. To its left is the angular “Scalpel” which is nearing the end of construction. The building under construction on the right began as The Pinnacle, but has ended up at 22 Bishopsgate. It has a massive footprint and is receiving much criticism for obliterating the distinctive shape of the other buildings in the area. Another even taller building has been approved for construction just behind it. If I’ve learned anything here, it would be that I enjoy the tone of the architecture articles published by The Guardian.

As an aside, I’ve also read about Crutched Friars, the street that runs across the lower portion of this photo. Although it’s difficult to read, you can see the white rectangular sign on the building to the left. If you’re interested in what the unusual name is all about, you can read about it here.

10 Trinity Square

This is the Port of London Authority building constructed between 1912 and 1922. Now, it’s the Four Seasons Hotel. It’s a huge building that sits very near the Tower of London and the River Thames. I took several photos on all sides as we walked around it, but this photo was inspired by the light to the left and the man rounding the corner. Notice the white van just beyond.

Tree in Holland Park

I couldn’t resist this majestic tree, sandwiched between a white van and construction barrier in Holland Park. I’m tempted to say they balance one another, but had there been a couple of grey cars parked instead, the lemonade made from lemons would have been sweeter. We rented an apartment on this street the year before last when I had that mishap running for a train. I needed to revisit the area for a bit of completion. All is well.

White Van on High Street, Oxford

As part of my revisiting, we returned to Oxford where I spent a week at John Radcliffe Hospital. We took a tour of the Bodlean, had lunch, and enjoyed a walk around the town. We remembered what had happened a year earlier, understanding that our lives could have been permanently altered. The reflected light on the buildings of High Street cast by the late afternoon sun caught my eye. I don’t remember ever seeing the van. Will I crop it? Probably not. It’s just one photo among many.

White Van in Burford, Cotswolds

We stopped in Burford to purchase a few things for our stay in a village nearby. This was fairly early in our three week trip, so I was just getting warmed up on the subject of white vans. I couldn’t resist this shot, and it must have set the pace for the rest of the trip. I was able to capture Burford on a later visit one evening and am happy to say that nary a van was in a frame.

White Van Rounding the Bend

On a day trip to Batsford Arboretum, we passed through Bourton-on-the-Hill. I was struck by the converging lines of the stone buildings as we drove along and just as I snapped, the van appeared. I did take the time to edit it out, along with the for sale sign and the orange pylon.

Reflection of a White Van

We planned to visit Hay-on-Wye, Wales, on our way from Gloucestershire to Shropshire because how could I resist a town filled with bookshops? We visited many, purchased several books, enjoyed a pleasant lunch, and then continued on our way. Can you find the white van in the photo? It’s not quite like Where’s Waldo, but close.

On Denham Bridge, Ludlow

During the second phase of our recent trip we stayed near Ludlow in Shropshire. One day we took a long walk along the River Teme. The Dinham Bridge is quite beautiful and I took far too many shots of it from both sides.. That would explain why I haven’t bothered to remove the white flatbed lorrie on the right. Still, I’m tempted if anything, for practice. Of course, I had to read about the bridge.

Ironbridge Cooling Towers

The Ironbridge Cooling Towers were a complete surprise when I finally noticed them. Fog aside, they’re extremely well hidden from view and were built into the hillside to blend into the surroundings. From this angle, they present a stark contrast to the quaint town. They stopped generating electricity in November of 2015 and are now decommissioned and slated to be demolished in Spring of this year. The van is almost unnoticeable in this photo, but I see it along with it’s orange traffic cone. This one deserves more work if anything because the towers will no longer define the view.

Of the nearly 3,000 photos I took in three weeks, I suppose this handful of photos sporting vans illustrates my restraint more than anything. Yet I’ll hang onto the idea that in spite of the undesirable things I find in the photos that make it home, they’re worth hanging onto because of the stories they tell. In an age of excessively edited, perfect photos, so much of reality is lost. I wonder it it’s worth it in the long run?

Perhaps the best idea is to take more time, and wait for the shot.

2 Replies

  1. This is hilarious. So, so often during our time in the UK we had pictures interspersed with the Ubiquitous White Van and Gent In Reflective Yellow Vest. There is always so much construction and such going on that the lorries and vans and construction peeps are unavoidable… though now I want to go back through all of our years of pictures and see how many I can find!!

    1. I remember your posts from your time there. Maybe somewhere in my brain, this is why it comes up all the time when we’re over there. It’s comical! As for sifting back through your photos, it’s addictive. I can’t believe how much time I spent on this. At least it’s out of my system now… until the next time!

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