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“Elephant”, Telephone Booths (2020-ongoing), Samuel Ryde
Telephone Booths (2020-ongoing), Samuel RydePhotography Samuel Ryde

These photographs reveal the intrigue and allure of telephone boxes

Photographer Samuel Ryde’s latest project, ‘Telephone Booths’, invites us to reconsider this vanishing feature of the modern landscape

We pass phone booths almost every day of our lives without properly seeing them. When we do acknowledge them, it’s probably the much-admired red variety that catches our eye. The common BT phone boxes (I’m thinking particularly of the one by the bus stop down the road from me that radiates a powerfully unpleasant odour – but I’m sure everyone has an example of a local horror that springs to mind) are usually more notable for their deeply unsanitary conditions, and how little you’d like to actually step inside such an interior.

But there used to be a certain romance about phone boxes. From the quaintly iconic red telephone kiosk to the ubiquitous British Telecom standard-issue 90s phone booth, photographer Samuel Ryde wants us to reassess these vanishing features of our everyday landscape. Once, they were inviting, private, confessional spaces; intimate enclosures for conducting confidential conversations amid the busy street. Nowadays, apart from becoming repurposed as public toilets and unofficial drug-administering cubicles, phone booths are fast becoming even more redundant than the physical currency that would allow you to step inside one and actually make a call. Ryde gives us an intriguing new perspective on what could be repellant or banal.

Following on from his project, Hand Dryers (2020), Ryde has a flair taking beautiful photographs of the ordinary artefacts of everyday life. His new series, Telephone Booths, invites us to reconsider the commonplace phone box, not only as a vanishing feature of the landscape of modern life, but as a site of memory, history, and intrigue. 

Below, we talk to Samuel Ryde about his fascination with seemingly mundane objects, the allure of the telephone booth, and why we should take a second look at the world around us.

Can you tell us more about how this idea developed?

Samuel Ryde: If I'm honest, I think this project has been at the back of mind most of my life. Communication is a primal need and phone boxes are an icon of this. I've been taking photos of them for years. In fact, my first-ever Instagram post was seven phone boxes in Golder's Green. It wasn't until recently I felt like I was ready to explore the idea further.

What was it about the phone box that struck you as an interesting subject? 

Samuel Ryde: They are little confessionals – ever-present, life-saving, and, more often than not, especially when I was a kid, getting smashed to pieces. Every human on earth has a relationship with these, even if you haven't used one. They look so forlorn in recent years. Nobody wants to maintain them, nobody seems bothered to remove them. They have started to signify more than just communication, they reflect the human psyche. Our ability to forget what we once loved but not remove, just ignore. We simply block them out.

They were once so iconic and now they’re redundant. How do you think the telephone box as a signifier has changed over the years?

Samuel Ryde: One of the most striking things I've noticed is how much people love red phone boxes. It makes them giddy. There's real joy in them when they see it, especially children, to whom the notion of a box that you make calls from must seem as alien to them as bathing in the front room does to us. When you reflect on red phone boxes – how iconic they are, how their design encapsulates Britain or Britishness to people that aren't from here – it’s a very unique thing. Then counter that with how modern phone boxes look, its a completely different story. They symbolise decay, working-class, urban-ness, drug abuse. Most people wouldn't even touch one let alone use one. Then, in comparison, you have red phone boxes being sold for £15,000 each.

In what ways have you observed these spaces being used by people now that they’re rarely used for the purpose they were originally intended?

Samuel Ryde: There is a phone box in Brixton that could not signify more concisely the contemporary life of a payphone if it tried. I've taken the image on different visits. People use it for drug-taking, which they don't want people to see, so they paint the glass. The shop keepers don't want drug-taking near their shops, so they smash the glass. Then BT visit to replace the glass and the whole thing starts again. I felt wet behind the years when I found this out. Personally, though, it’s the way they are being used artistically that I find really interesting. They have become a tiny blank canvas that in some places I've found secret messages between lovers, in a few I've found poems.

Taking beautiful pictures of commonplace objects is a major part of your practice as a photographer. Your study of hand-dryers makes unexpectedly compelling viewing. What do you think is the pleasure and value in inviting people to reconsider everyday items?

Samuel Ryde: I really like the way you've asked this question... bringing life or character to a usually unremarkable object. I'd be lying if I said I've had 100 per cent support, you have to win people over. I suppose the value is that moment they see it the way I do. Every concept will have negative reactions, the Hand Dryer project was a long slog, at the beginning people honestly thought I was nuts. But if you're passionate about something, it's infectious. If it was just about the dryer, it's a hard sell. But its the scene, the location, the story – it can be captivating when you bring people's attention to it. Some bathrooms and phone booths I've seen honestly belong in galleries. 

“I don't think I've seen something so sincere and so exposing in a public place. This delicate message left for a lover, in a phone box” – Samuel Ryde

Do you have any favourite images among this series? And could you share with us why you have chosen them?

Samuel Ryde: I was in Preston to visit my spiritual home, Preston Bus Station. It was early Sunday morning, I was the only person about and there was one phone box on the street. I thought I'd take a closer look, and inside was a note someone had left for their lover. It was at once heartbreaking and heartwarming. A million questions enter your mind. I don't think I've seen something so sincere and so exposing in a public place. This delicate message left for a lover, in a phone box.

Is this an ongoing project? And is it limited to the UK or do you intend to expand the study into different countries in the future?

Samuel Ryde: Part of the reason I decided to act now is the rapid demise of payphones. New York is in the process or removing them. Paris has decided they are no longer worth the investment and the UK are no different. Red phone boxes are safe, but the 90s ones are very at risk. The 90s ones are, for me, the more evocative and I want to capture them before it’s too late. My dad is really into the project, he's already made himself a little book with the images I've taken. New Mexico is top of my phone booth list. Also, there are four phone booths in Chernobyl that I really want to capture. One is in the first Soviet supermarket.

What’s next? Are there any other objects, ephemera, or street furniture you’d like to document? 

Samuel Ryde: The next thing for me, as soon as I can travel again, are ATMs. I've played with the idea on my personal Instagram and I really like it. 

Finally, are there any particular lasting impressions you’d like the viewer to take away with them after looking at the images?

Samuel Ryde: I would like us to be slightly more aware of our environments. We are surrounded by things we never see; things we ignore or are happy to let other people deal with. There are stories around us at all times, we just need to find them.

Visit Samuel Ryde's website or follow his Instagram to keep updated on this ongoing project