manhole covers of mortehoe - photographic image transfer & pencil on painted MDF board 1520x520mm

All of the manhole covers (MHCs) from the village of Mortehoe, North Devon are collected together on the panel.  They are presented as found objects, with details of exact location as an OSGB grid reference written below.  The sequence is left to right, top to bottom, in order of discovery & although no attempt at taxonomy has been made, the urge to undertake such classification is implicit in the format.

The photographic survey was carried out on 9th March 2007 and includes every manhole cover (water meter size or larger) visible on the public roads within the village.

The panel has been created using an image transfer process which combines the ability of photography to capture the world in its raw state with the tactile sense of actual objects being pinned to a board, in much the same way that Victorian collectors displayed their finds.  Each MHC is shown "as found", with any additional blemishes inflicted during transfer simply reinforcing the sense of their being objects hewn from the earth.

It is now over 4 years since the MHCs were first gathered.   Their presence is ambiguous.  They are at once: ciphers of an arcane code; talismans empowered with secret properties; iconic symbols of the dying age of industrialization; visual representations of the entry points to a labyrinthine underworld (as described in Kircher's mundus subterraneus); sonograms trapped in ambergris & awaiting "re-auralization"; and more...

I present the MHCs in their raw state and would invite the viewer to make their own connections(*).

[From the exhibition information sheet, October 2011.]

detail of single MHC transfer & pencil annotation

(*) Though the MHCs originate from and are highly specific to a certain place, taken out of context our human nature constantly attempts to connect with the known.  One of the many children who came along to the exhibition immediately pointed up and shouted "biscuits!" Another response came from a classic car enthusiast who saw them as "brake & clutch pedals from vintage cars".


While walking through the North Devon village of Mortehoe one sweltering day in June 2005, with my head bowed low & a heavy rucksack on my back, I became unusually aware of the number of manhole covers - access points to services - in the roadway beneath my feet.  That walk back through the village was indeed defined by these covered voids in the earth, each with its own specific design in the cast, grey metal.

Perhaps it was the effects of the heat which brought to mind the hollow-earth theories of 17th century alchemist & scholar Athanasius Kircher.  Kircher's text mundus subterraneus, based in part on his investigations of Mt Vesuvius, described an underground world mirroring our own and complete with fire (for which volcanos were supposedly the vent points), air, rock & rivers (channeled underground through ocean whirlpools). With such extravagant imagery in my mind, no wonder I was imagining the MHCs to be coded entry points to this mysterious underworld...

Right: diagram from mundus subterraneus, A. Kircher, 1682


Having made a few reference photographs, I needed to find a way to retain the essential form of the MHCs while removing them from their immediate context.  The most important task was to devise a means by which I could "collect" every single MHC in Mortehoe.  My initial colour photographs were far too literal and representative, in that they appeared simply as images of iron covers set into the tarmac road surface.  To objectify the MHCs I needed to remove context, colour, reference & scale - the latter precluding the use of any of a number of direct casting processes which I'd considered.

I eventually decided to develop further a photo-transfer process with which I'd been experimenting.  The image to the right (painted MDF panel 300x300mm) shows some early tests using various print technologies and media.  Having placed the test images in a grid it became immediately obvious that they would be read left to right, top to bottom in accordance with western convention, so resolving another potentially problematic issue.  Although the test images are placed randomly, those for the final panel are sequential in order of "discovery".

Right: This test panel remains to this day hanging by my office door.  With the passage of time I concluded that, since I'd looked at it repeatedly over a period of several years there must be something right about the basic layout!

the survey

On 9th March 2007, I returned to Mortehoe with camera, black & white film & tripod to compile a complete photographic record of the manhole covers wihin the village boundary.  I limited the survey to those which were located on the public roads or pavements and which were conceivably large enough to allow human entry - about 300mm wide & upwards.  The location of each MHC was plotted by hand on a map and the OSGB grid reference later determined by means of an overlaid grid.  Because the grid references were determined by eye, the accuracy is inherently limited.  Also, the collected images form an archaeological snapshot at specific point in time & it is probable that some of the MHCs are now no longer in place.

Any kind of geographical survey attempts to define place by means of a specific set of data.  When viewed out of context, this data, though retaining its original integrity, may be recontextualized at will, though a narrative of sorts remains.  It is these thoughts which remained with me over the next 4 years, living with the test panel as other projects came & went.  Periodic notions of embellishment fell aside and I was left with the simple grid structure of "found" objects.

Ultimately, I wasn't entirely satisfied with the repeatability of the transfer process using inkjet transparencies and, after more experiments, eventually settled on one which involved direct transfer of a laser printed image using acrylic medium.  It is this technique which was used for the final panel shown at the top of the page.

all images © martin winfield 2013