Topography of the Titanic

Documenting the history of Titanic and Queen's Island

The Titanic was originally launched on May 31, 1911 and on May 31 of this year, Belfast Exposed launched a new photography book, Topography of the Titanic, at the Dockers' Club on Pilot Street, which combines archive photographs of the Titanic as she sailed from her birthplace in Belfast docks alongside new, highly symbolic pictures of the run-down docks area by German photographer Kai-Olaf Hesse.

Four years ago Belfast Exposed commissioned Hesse to photograph Belfast's shipyard Harland & Wolff on Queen's Island, and various sites related to the building of HMS Titanic.

Karen Downing, Exhibition Director at Belfast Exposed, remembers Hesse's enthusiasm for Titanic and the docks area.

'Kai was in Belfast for the opening of an exhibition of his and while he was here he went for a wander around and discovered that Titanic had been built in Belfast by Harland and Wolff. He was really amazed by this because he felt that Belfast’s association with Titanic as a global brand was very minimal.

'So Kai wanted to come back and make a piece of work about it. We organised for him to come back in 2003 and make a photographic survey of Queen’s Island and all of the Titanic related buildings and sites. At that time the site was being rapidly demolished to make way for new developments, and he felt it was very important to make a photographic record of the site as it was at that time.'

Through the legacy of Titanic, Hesse attempts to create a continuous visual line between the past and the present. He has photographed key historic buildings and sites, many from the same viewpoints from which they were photographed at the turn of the century. 

The resulting book pairs off historic images of places with their modern day equivalents, such as the busy drawing office, once littered with people and paper, now a ghost-like remnant of its former self. Seemingly contrived, like a scene from James Cameron's epic Titanic, the drawing room in 2007 retains its Victorian character but now stands empty, like a Gothic chapel of arches and columns abandoned by history and left to rot.

Hesse studied photography and communication design at the University of Essen and Leipzig, Germany. Previous projects include Landing Zones: Social Landscapes of D­-Day and Industrial Garden Realm, published by the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation. He has also exhibited and is represented in museum collections internationally.

Hesse is interested in historical resonances and how they might find a place in the new tourist orientated function of the Belfast's docks area. Plans for the Titanic Quarter in Belfast are already underway and it is believed that these developments will create a tourism destination of world stature based on the legacy of the Titanic and Belfast's industrial heritage.

Hesse explores the legacy of Titanic and how the confidence and optimism that it once represented can be made visible through both the historic topographies and the built environment of the island, and through less tangible emblematic suggestions and anecdotal accounts. Seemingly mundane images of crumbled walls and wire fences contain hidden symbolism pertaining to the area's rich maritime heritage, where once 35,000 skilled ship builders made their livings.

'The Ulster Folk & Transport Museum have an archive of pictures of the Titanic and the ship yards when she was being made,' adds Downing. 'Kai-Olaf used these old photos as a starting point and did a lot research into the Titanic. He then visited the sites where early photographs had been taken and was also interested in seascapes and empty spaces where people remember the Titanic leaving the lough, the idea being that these images stand as a visual memorial to the Titanic and the people who worked on her.' 

Hesse's work in Topography of the Titanic is accompanied by historic photographs from the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum's collection of work by RJ Welch, WA Green and Alexander Hogg, documenting the modern shipbuilders project during the city's industrial height in the early part of the 20th century.

The book also features essays by David Bate, John Stathatos and Ian Walker and quotes from interviews conducted by Ruth Graham with former shipyard workers and members of the Ulster Titanic Society. These interviews have been logged in an online audio archive on the Belfast Exposed website.

Topography of the Titanic is published by Belfast Exposed Photography.