MINNIE WEISZ – KING'S CROSS STORIES
WORDS – DOMINIC BRADBURY
A talent for opening doors comes in very useful to Minnie Weisz. As a photographer and artist with a passion for documenting empty buildings on the cusp of change, she has used her powers of persuasion to find her way into extraordinary spaces. Like a detective, she has hunted down the keys to the doors that she wants to open, and captured the quiet, often melancholy flavours within.
At the Great Northern Hotel, in King's Cross, which is awaiting redevelopment, Weisz tracked down the keys to every room, pacing the corridors of the vacant building with a growing set of ironmongery. The caretaker had taken to propping open the bedroom doors with wedges of paper as it seemed the keys were lost, but Weisz managed to locate every one. She feels, as she puts it, like the lady of the manor, only all her buildings are deserted.
For the last three years Weisz – the sister of film actress Rachel Weisz – has concentrated her attention and her work upon King's Cross and the massive upheavals that the area is undergoing as 67 acres of redevelopment pushes ahead, asking developers to let her into buildings that most of us will never see until safely redeveloped. Her modest studio is a short journey from her home in Chalk Farm and tucked under a railway arch, standing opposite the epic new St Pancras platforms for the Eurostar, with the constant rhythm of pneumatic drills outside.
The sense of upheaval and reinvention – with the new Eurostar International terminal at the heart of everything – is extraordinary. It is, as Weisz suggests, history repeating itself. What's happening to King's Cross now forms an echo of the vast building programme of the mid 19th century, which created King's Cross Station and the Great Northern Hotel – London's first purpose built railway hotel – followed by Sir George Gilbert Scott's St Pancras Station.
"King's Cross has such a rich history," says Weisz, "and now that history is being rewritten. The streets are all changing, buildings appear and disappear. I want to be able to go into old buildings like the Great Northern Hotel as they exist now, to be able to go in before redevelopment, and photograph them. It's creating an ode to the building before it changes. They become like characters to me – they are the subject. I see what they can bring me and what I can bring them."
Weisz's photographs treat her buildings not just as characters, but also witnesses. Working alone and discreetly in these vacant buildings, she takes shots of empty rooms, with perhaps a single dying potted tree yellowing in the corner or a rickety chair, but also shoots scenes from the windows. The subject dictates the kinds of cameras she uses, which tend to be old fashioned film cameras with plenty of time working on her images in the dark room.
She also uses the empty rooms as giant cameras in themselves by creating camera obscura panoramas. The windows get sealed up and Weisz uses pinhole techniques to project inverted images from King's Cross outside onto the walls of the these tenantless rooms, which are then captured with a conventional camera using very long exposure times.
"It began at The Coal and Fish Building in King's Cross," she says. "It was boarded up, so pitch black inside. I was there with generators and lights and then one day they turned them all off. There were these chinks of light coming through the boards and I held my hand up and saw an edge of the steel frame of one of the gas holders outside shining on my hand. I realised I was standing in this giant camera and decided to start making pinhole images. Camera obscura just means a darkened room and some use lenses to help clarify an image but I don't use lenses. You just paint the walls with light and project an image. I have no generators, no lights, just black out paper and Sellotape and a camera to catch the upside down image I've made on the walls. It's quite Blue Peter."
Weisz's camera obscura images are among her most vivid and haunting, with the circular steel frames of the King's Cross gas holders or the Gothic tower of the Midland Grand Hotel – for instance – appearing as a ghostly apparitions within an abandoned bedroom full of magic and loss.
"I am embracing the future of these buildings," says the 32 year-old Weisz. "I'm happy for them to develop and change so it's about trying to give these buildings a sense of identity while they are in limbo. These empty buildings are recording the development going on all around them, hence the interest in camera obscura. These buildings have eyes and are watching what's going on around them and if you turn them into darkened rooms – as you do with camera obscura – they capture the imagery of the area."
The Great Northern is the focus of Weisz's new exhibition, King's Cross Stories, which forms part of the Arrivals series of events marking the opening of St Pancras as the new Eurostar Terminal. Unusually for Weisz, King's Cross developers Argent – who are among Weisz's patrons and collectors of her work – have not only allowed her access to photograph the Great Northern Hotel, but also allowed access for the show itself, just before the listed building is reborn as a new hotel more suited to the 21st century. These are, after all, sites where the public are usually not allowed for safety reasons.
For Weisz, the King's Cross Stories show marks something of a transition. Having documented the Great Northern, The Stanley Buildings and The Coal and Fish Offices, she has formed a triptych of projects which she is now looking at collecting up into a book. But she is now also looking at new subjects in Paris and beyond and at the same time working as a freelance editor for the American publisher Rizzoli, with regular trips to New York, including a book project with fashion designer Narciso Rodriguez, recording not just his outlook on fashion but his philosophy on design and art. There are also commercial commissions for the New Yorker and others as well as the important patronage of collectors such as Roger Madelin – joint chief executive of Argent – and architect Jack Pringle (the former RIBA president), as well as her sister Rachel.
Growing up in North London with Rachel, Minnie Weisz had little idea that she wanted to be a photographer or an artist. Her mother and father were both refugees who arrived in Britain just before the Second World War. Edith, her mother, is Viennese and worked as a psychotherapist, and now lives in Cambridge. George Weisz is Hungarian and an inventor – principally of medical resuscitation equipment – still living and working in North London. The sisters shared a common backdrop and the pain of their parent's separation, but while Rachel stepped onto the stage to express herself Minnie found herself looking for a different creative outlet.
"My Dad was always taking pictures and is an amazing man, very artistic but also an inventor, so very technically minded as well," says Weisz. "In the first photograph I took of Rachel when we were children I chopped her head off – you could see her mouth but she wasn't all there. But – unlike Rachel – I wasn't really that interested in theatre or drama as a child, although I did some cabaret at one point a few years ago. I can perform, but only every now and then, and afterwards I want to retreat back behind the camera.
"Rachel chose to be in front of the camera and I chose to be behind and that's a nice marriage. We're good friends and we speak often and I see her and my nephew when I'm in New York, where Rachel lives, while I'm travelling there for Rizzoli."
Studying for a degree in German, Weisz spent two years living in Berlin as a student in the mid 1990s, where her imagination was spurred by avant garde theatre, happenings and art shows housed in abandoned buildings, just as Berlin was being rebuilt after the fall of the Wall.
"That's where it all began, in a way," says Weisz. "There were these site specific shows within this great building site. It was all quite raw and there was this theatrical element to it. The theatrical element interested me, but that was more about the theatre sets and design. I had always been interested in houses, interiors and architecture but it was really Berlin that opened my eyes."
She went on to study at the London College of Printing and then the Royal College of Art, as well as working on her first photographic projects on the theme of urban fairy tales. Working with trapeze artists and stilt walkers, she placed them in mundane tower blocks and apartments, while also developing the site specific shows and exhibitions – often with contributions from other artists or writers – which she continues with today, including shows in recent years at The Coal and Fish Office and a show at St Pancras Chambers in the old Midland Grand Hotel, also now being redeveloped as a hotel and apartments.
Two years ago, rare book dealer Simon Finch staged a show of her work from The Fish and Coal Offices at his London gallery in Portobello Road. "I met her through Rachel who showed me some of Minnie's work and I loved what I saw," says Finch. "I was looking at starting up the gallery, which really only staged the one event in the end, and wanted to do a show with Minnie. I was interested by her treatment of buildings and the exploration of the emotional charges a building holds and how it absorbs time and events. I found her work brave and touching."
Finch also supported Weisz's first limited edition book – Eye Dream – which included some of her early King's Cross work. The book brought her to the attention of Roger Madelin at King's Cross developers, Argent, who became one of her greatest champions.
"She manages to extract so much more from a building than a two dimensional photograph," says Madelin. "There's something very soulful about them. What's always struck us about King's Cross is that it is about the future but we also have a million square feet of space within 20 historic buildings, which is wonderful. If you just had 67 acres of nothing you would scratch your head. So it is a unique place and we would be mad to lose that character. Minnie's images are of the old and of decay but they do capture that character and they do reach out to you. They have that siren call to me and we are very fond of them and of the buildings themselves."
Woven into shows like King's Cross Stories there are also elements of social history, with Weisz looking into the background and residents of the buildings that fascinate her. Her work on The Stanley Buildings, which housed a constantly changing bohemian community, involved portraits of former residents taken at the one surviving Stanley block. At the Great Northern, Weisz has assembled fragments of magazines, pictures, identity badges and other flotsam which will be fed into the exhibition.
If there is a over-riding theme to Weisz's work, it could be that of transience, tying into the refugee status of her parents and her own European travels – a suggestion Weisz embraces. The buildings that fascinate her most tend to be places of transience, like hotels or short stay apartments, where people passed in and out. The rooms she captures hold fragments of furniture and mementoes left behind by those who moved out long ago, or old suitcases lined up on the floor. A new project with poet Aidan Dun, celebrating the house on Royal College Street on the borders of King's Cross and Camden where French writers and lovers Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine spent a tempestuous year in the 1870s, also picks up on the theme.
"It's really about seeing these empty rooms as dream spaces in this interim moment of limbo before they change," says Weisz. "This is a place of transit and of people, too, who were often in limbo. My interest is in the history, the memories of a building and its residents. But it's also where history stops and imagination takes over."