Before setting out one this project, it makes sense to have an initial look at what already exists similar to what I am doing and some background into the ideas and aesthetics I hope to develop.
Although I was unable to attend the exhibition The Great British Seaside at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, the accompanying book is a great source of information and inspiration, both photographic and textual. In the foreword, Kevin Frewster refers to the seaside as “A place of ill-advised consumerism, faded glory and acute deprivation” (Hurn et al 2018: 2) – something to look out for and perhaps three separate themes that might be used in the work.
Anna Ray-Jones says one of the things that her husband Tony liked about photographing the seaside was that “away from work, people at the seaside drop their facade” (Hurn et al 2018: 6). Although I am primarily hoping to look at the physical environment as much as the people, the idea of behaviour at the seaside is essential I think to understanding the overall phenomenon.
Martin Parr (one of the reasons for my choice of this subject) states that “the British beach experience is unique” (Hurn et al 2018: 52) – this is definitely worth pursuing. What makes it unique? Perhaps look at what non-Brits make of it.
In terms of approach, Simon Roberts states that he “would move away from the photographing the individual and engage instead with the idea of the collective, of groups of people populating the landscape” (Hurn et al 2018: 101). I wonder then if it is possible to meaningfully take this one step further and just look at the landscape itself.
The photographs themselves that constitute the majority of the book are, as would be expected, primarily of people. As I have specifically chosen to focus on the seaside in the winter, one aspect I will hope to highlight is its emptiness. Thus the photographs herein that seemed most interesting with regard to my own approach were:
In Hurn’s case, the people serve to highlight the emptiness of the rest of the beach and with Roberts they highlight the size of the beach.
In terms of non-photographic sources, Phillipe Daudy (approaching from a French, sociological viewpoint) states that British seaside resorts “are factory towns, just like Liverpool, Sheffield or Birmingham, but what they mass produce is leisure” (Daudy 1992: 119) which could suggest perhaps a Becher-like approach, perhaps of piers (though Simon Williams has already approached the British pier) or winter gardens/concert halls.
Also from the annals of travel literature, after traveling the entire coast, the American Paul Theroux comes to the conclusion that “the endless mutation of the British coast wonderfully symbolised the state of the nation” (Theroux 1984: 360). Again, perhaps this could be one approach – how much has the coast changed and how much does it (nostalgically) reference its own past? What is there in British seaside resorts (particularly in Winter) that might mirror the current state of the nation. Theroux was writing at the time of the Falklands crisis – what similarities might there be with the current jingoism surrounding Brexit?
Prior to visiting New Brighton, I revisited The Last Resort so see what I might be looking for. The thing that struck me most when looking at Parr’s images from the perspective of my own, un-peopled project, was that the infrastructure, the municipal architecture and street furniture of the British seaside is particularly telling – an integral part of the seaside experience but one that rarely stays in the mind beyond its function: we all think of beach shelters when we think of the seaside, but the specific form – the heavliy overpainted cast iron and the multi-paned panels – may not immediately spring to mind. Yet looking at a photograph, they are instantly recognisable.
In terms of what I am trying to achieve overall, I think that Daniel Meadows’ book Nattering in Paradise is closest – a combination of documentary photography and character studies based on interviews and conversations, only swapping suburbia for the winter seaside. As Meadows states in the foreword “although this book is documentary in nature it is not an objective account…I do not believe it is possible to be objective and, if it were, I think it would make for very boring reading.” (Meadows 1988: 11)
Looking into combining text and images, the opening lines of Berger and Mohr’s A Fortunate Man seem extremely apposite: “sometimes a landscape seems to be less a setting for the life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles, achievements and accidents take place” (Berger and Mohr 1997: 13). Can the setting of the seaside visually show (or suggest) the struggles of the people that visit and the people that live there? If these struggles are shown primarily in the texts, then how might the photographs relate? What might these struggles be? Is there anyway to categorise such a thing, making the individual universal?
In the 2010 introduction to A Seventh Man, Berger lays out his and Mohr’s thinking behind the genre they chose: “we had thought of shooting a film but (perhaps fortunately) we couldn’t raise the necessary money. So, instead we set out to make a book of moments (recorded in either images or words), and we arranged those moments in chapters which resembled film sequences” (Berger and Mohr 2010: 9). This seems like the perfect place for me to start thinking about what I am trying to achieve.
In terms of the dominant aesthetic, I have chosen to go with faded, low contrast colour in keeping with the faded nature of the subject matter, the idea of colour snapshots as intrinsic to the seaside holiday and, more specifically, in keeping with the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi, described as “a sadness tinged with an intangible longing” (Juniper, 2003) which I feel is very much in keeping with the nostalgic, ephemeral view that the British seaside seems to promote. It is worth looking for the specifically ephemeral – shadows, decay, weathering. Particularly that which metaphorically might suggest passing time (late afternoon long shadows?)
I found an interesting treatment of the idea of Wabi Sabi in the the book Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein and Ed Young, which fuses image (mostly collage but with some photography) and text to (I think) great effect.
Much reading about Blackpool this week prior to a trip there in order to clarify what I might be looking for.
Blackpool’s image has changed wildly over the years. According to Sarah Freeman, “there was a…realisation that Blackpool, once always ahead of the game, had become stuck in the past” (Freeman 2015: 20)
However, according to Kathryn Ferry, the British seaside in general is enjoying something of a renaissance. She speaks of “Today’s nostalgic vision of the traditional bucket and spade holiday” and states that after falling deeply out of fashion, “there are real signs of a renewed interest in the seaside as a holiday destination” (Ferry 2009: 124). So it would be an idea to look out for anything and everything nostalgic.
Equally, according to English Heritage, Blackpool has faced a period of enormous decline, but still has 25,000 jobs relying on tourism. The battle is “to improve what it already offers without alienating its traditional market” (Brodie and Whitfield: 136). So again – tradition, but ideally juxtaposed with more up to date attractions or ongoing improvements (I believe there are a few of these at the moment).
Looking further into photographers of the British seaside, The collection of John Hinde photographs Our True Intent is All For Your Delight has proven particularly interesting (especially given my own familial links to Butlin’s). Though by force of necessity his photographs contain a great many people, the architecture and setting specific to post-war holiday camps is very much in evidence.
The saturated colours lend themselves well to the subject (and, indeed, are a large part of the reason that we associate such aesthetics with the seaside), so I will try (not sure if this is possible!) for a faded version of this (is that just less saturated? I don’t know!)
As an aside, I was delighted, having long loved tony Ray-Jones’ photograph of Blackpool(?) as found in The Great British Seaside:
to find the sign, or similar, on Blackpool seafront:
Further ideas on the theoretical approach to take from Fred Ritchin’s book Bending the Frame: “the photographer does not need to explain clearly but can share his or her impressions with other viewers who might be able to help to figure it out” (Ritchin 2013: 50). Though the text will also help. Perhaps it might be an idea to treat the images as poetry – suggestive metaphors that underly the themes of the fiction. Thus: long shadows for ageing; empty fairgrounds for boredom. Could be a little too on the nose though.
Underlined by several ideas raised in The Photography Reader. Szarkowski speaks of “pictures that give the sense of the scene, while withholding its narrative meaning” (Szarkowski 2019: 116) so the images could be scene-setting with the text providing the narrative voice.
The idea of using the images as visually metaphorical adjuncts of the textual narrative is still appealing, though being careful of what Barthes calls “the terror of uncertain signs” (Barthes 2019: 131).
This all leads to the decision as to whether the text or the images should lead. At the moment, I have not travelled enough for any kind of coherent narrative to develop. I was hoping that narrative ideas specific to the individual resorts would arise quickly and clearly, but thus far it seems I am on a preliminary pass to see which resorts are most promising, and then to return to spend more time in those.
Other ideas from this book that were useful in terms of how to approach the texts Peter Wollen’s criticism of Barthes that he was prejudiced “against linear time and especially against narrative” (Wollen 2019: 195) seeing film as a collection of stills. There is an idea that narrative can be suggested by still images of course, an idea used highly effectively by Heinrich Boll in his collection of short fiction The Casualty (Boll: 1986) where many pieces are descriptions of static scenes and the inference is left to the reader. Again, this could be a valuable approach, linking Cartier-Bresson’s photographic idea of the decisive moment to James Joyce’s literary idea of the epiphany. That is, make the stories short descriptions of a decisive moment/epiphany where a character or event represent one particular facet of the specific resort and the general idea of the British seaside in the winter. Almost an anti-Cindy Sherman, where the photographs are natural but the narrative staged.
Looking for how other photographers have used a similar aesthetic, I am still very much enamoured of the work of Stephen Shore.
In each case, as with most of his other work, the image seems to form a compact with the viewer to jointly supply the narrative. This, for me at least, is further enhanced by the lack of people in Shore’s images, and is what I was trying to do in both New Brighton and Minehead:
Having said that, Blackpool was somewhat more peopled and the images I took were consequently less empty. I still prefer the idea of images with no people in them, but this begs the question as to whether I am then imposing my own view of how the off-season seaside should be rather than reporting what is actually there. This is something to think about as I travel more – a lot will depend on further trips and the images they produce.
Weeks Five and Six
Big jump forward in terms of the overarching structure from John K. Walton’s excellent book The British Seaside: Holidays and Resorts in the Twentieth Century. Walton speaks of “the consensually liminal nature of the seaside as a ‘place in the margin’ where land and sea meet, the pleasure principle is given freer rein, the certainties of authority are diluted and the usual constraints on behaviour are suspended” (Walton 2000: 3). He also refers to the seaside as “liminal and carnivalesque, but not unbounded and consequence free” (Walton 2000: 6). The idea of carnival is an interesting one – sociologically speaking it is a post-modern form of control, albeit one that goes back centuries, whereby if the masses are allowed a time where normal social rules are relaxed, they are more likely to be obedient for the rest of the year. This would fit well with the rise of the British seaside as an adjunct to the expansion of British cities during the industrial revolution.
Walton notes that such behavioural liminality has long been a feature of the seaside, with notable examples being the saucy seaside postcard and kiss-me-quick hat. Furthermore, such a relaxed attitude has long been mirrored in the idea of cross-dressing and relaxed approaches to sexuality which go back to the 1930s and further and have seen both Blackpool and Brighton become hubs of gay culture to extents far outstripping their actual size.
This is a definite area on which to focus, given that it fits closely with the overall idea of liminality that I have followed over the last 2 years. One possibility might be to look at six different resorts each representing a different kind of liminality – Blackpool being liminality of behaviour, Brighton liminality of sexuality and so on.
The problem that has arisen having visited so many resorts over these last weeks is that many do not have an incredibly distinct personality as such. Walton says of Blackpool “its vulgar vigour and its combination of ‘traditional’ working class, exotic nightlife and ironic gay elements [combine] in a strong and distinctive identity” (Walton 2000: 11). Whilst there is little argument about this, neither Lowestoft nor Great Yarmouth (to give but two examples) had much to distinguish itself from any other similar sized resort. Had there been an inkling of something, then I could spend more time, but so far, only Blackpool really has a noticeably distinct personality. It may become clearer with more visits though – Brighton seems to be quite distinctive and, as far as I remember, Brixham is divided between trawlermen and tourism, and Exmouth between squaddies, students, townies and tourists. Again, thinking back a couple of decades, I recall that the nights that the trawlermen were in town were wild as they spent so much time at sea away from other people that they would drink and fight with abandon and with very little thought of the police or anyone else – definitely liminal behaviour. Having said that, there was little evidence of this in Lowestoft for example, with all the pubs round the harbour being somewhat gentrified – an idea that might reflect in the prominence of UKIP flyers (and indeed the UKIP office) in Yarmouth where fishing quotas are a far more urgent concern than any other.
Picked up copies of The Americans and How We Are on my travels. Again, so much to learn. I particularly love Frank’s images that one can create narratives around:
Chris Harrison’s image from How We Are seems to me an almost prefect example of provincial/seaside British juxtaposition, showing the pomp of its heyday alongside the prosaicness of its (then) current form.
Considering the form of my project this week, I got hold of a copy of Ponte City, which is so good I almost want to hang up my cameras. The subtlety of the separation of the zines is superb, and has cheered me somewhat in that at least I know how to separate out my own project. It did bring up the idea of including other texts in my project – it might be worth gathering flyers, adverts, postcards and seeing what similar materials are available to provide a historical counterpoint.
It also gives ideas for how I could expand this project beyond the bounds of the course, perhaps looking in depth at many more resorts over the course of several years.
I have also been looking further at the non-book based work of Daniel Meadows and this is very, very much the way I would like the non-print part of the project to progress. His picture story videos are inspirational. I decided to bring all the aspects together (so glad I decided to start field recordings of the ambient sounds of the different resorts – the final product would be the story read over the ambient sounds with the photographs displayed.
I also found an excellent article on the British Journal of Photography website from 2013 about how some photographers are combining documentary photography with fictional narratives. The Spanish photographer Cristina de Middel sums up her motivation for this approach thus: “My intention was not to do something fictionalised; instead, my intention was to do something that conveyed what I had experienced. For me, the language of reportage is not enough when compared with everything I had experienced” (British Journal of Photography, 2013). This is exactly in accord with what I have found – the interviews and conversations I have had with people are telling but there is not a single one that is sufficiently conclusive to convey the whole experience – instead I think it will be necessary to use them as a basis for something fictional (semi-fiction?) that is capable of drawing individual ideas from several different conversations into a more coherent whole.
This week I have been totally taken with Dana Lixenburg’s Imperial Courts project – both the book and the website. Another great example of how the multimedia aspect can enhance the message of the photography. Or rather, that the message overall is something to which the photography is a contributing factor. Like Daniel Meadows, this is documentary photography that really speaks to me. Though I need to consider whether or not my own project can be considered documentary if it is based on fiction. This is also making me wonder whether or not I should have been (and should henceforth be) recording the ‘interviews’ I have with people at the places I visit. The problem, and hence the initial decision not to do so, is that I rely on casual chats rather than formal interviews as I want to get unguarded thoughts and opinions more useful for characterisation than more formally thought out ideas. I am also wondering whether I should reconsider my decision not to use portraiture. But again, the idea throughout the whole course for me has been the psychogeographical one of how the landscape is shaped by the people.
Continuing to look at photographers whose work centres on the British seaside, I got hold of Anna Fox’s Resort 1. And, once again, I’m blown away. I love the bright, saturated aesthetic and the fact that she focuses on the place as well as the people.
Another book that has made a huge impact this week is Matt Henry’s Night of the Hunted, using as it does narrative and imagery fusing elements of literature (southern gothic) and cinema. His use of actors and carefully arranged settings tell a very clear story of a fictionalised Deep South in the late 60s. I also like the way he has incorporated three entirely separate stories brought together by a shared aesthetic and literary theme. Although my own work is to be less obviously fictionalised and the photography is not to be ‘staged’, there is a great deal for me to draw upon here.
More reading about the British seaside provides more evidence for the theoretic/sociological/historical underpinnings of the project. In The British Seaside: An Illustrated History, Stuart Hylton states: “the seaside holiday provides an opportunity for breaching social norms away from the close scrutiny of family and neighbours” (Hylton 2018: 47). I shall continue to look for examples where current social norms are visibly breached (e.g. breakfast alcoholic drinks offers?). Interestingly, Hylton then provides a great juxtaposition between the endlessly patronising beneficent-capitalist idea of providing holidays for the workers so they may improve themselves, and the actual nature of people on holiday with the idea of the What The Butler Saw machine, which was created with the idea of showing Shakespeare to the masses and almost immediately co-opted to show soft porn (again, interestingly given previous research about the sexually liminal nature of seaside resorts, often soft porn involving cross-dressing).
In terms of what I am aiming for regarding print output, I think Wright Morris is my ideal – the perfect blend of fiction and photography. Looking at God’s Country and My People, I noted particularly the matching of idea and image, and the use of a combination of external, architectural shots and interior detail; something which I will continue to try and emulate.
Also with further consideration of the individuality of specific resorts and the ideas of different liminalities, I have decided that the latter should be the guiding principal. Once I have visited enough places to identify six with distinct enough personalities, to have to return to all 6 for greater periods of time would be prohibitive time wise. Also, I fear that trying to match particular liminalities with resorts may result in a degree of ‘shoe-horning’. So my idea is that each zine/chapter should represent a different form of liminality specific to the seaside – with one character based on different ideas arising from conversations and interviews I’ve had/done – and the images should reflect the ideas raised, regardless of whether they all come from the same place or not. This is something of a compromise, but I have too many instances where images ideal for one particular liminality come from several places. Plus, with only weekends to spare, there is no other feasible approach.
Wright Morris is mentioned In Graham Clarke’s The Photograph: “He creates images of local artefacts which reflect intense but slowly measured lives” (Clarke 1997: 155). Also speaking of Walker Evans, Clarke says “The present is measured against an assumed past, an ideal cracker-barrel America” (Clarke 1997: 153) which applied very much to the British seaside and is a useful approach, in that the concept of ‘the good old days’ that fuels much seaside nostalgia seems to be definitely idealised, if not entirely invented. Again, I will continue to look out for visual juxtapositions that show this, and it might be possible to use it as a central idea in one of the chapters – liminality of era.
Elsewhere in the book, Clarke compares two images of similar subjects and states “Bourke-White constructs a reading for us and much of this is produced through the deliberate use of cod and symbols. Lee’s image has those elements but lacks a coherent syntax” (Clarke 1997: 150).
Though this is approaching the images from a strictly documentary point of view, it may be possible to create/reinforce a syntax of this kind not just through the text I write, but through the interplay between text and image. Particularly if the layout is similar to the one used by Wright Morris where the text is broken into chunks, each displayed with an image that supports and interacts with it, rather than directly illustrating it.
Further, Clarke speaks of images where “the subjects remain exhibits for the camera” (Clarke 1997: 165). This is very much want I want to avoid – and why I am happy with my decision to try and use images where the place takes precedence over the people.
Looking further into the photographers who have covered the British seaside, I love the images Alfred Gregory made of Blackpool in the 1960s. As well as the shots of the insanely crowded beach, I particularly liked his image of Blackpool at night:
This provided a new viewpoint for me, in that it is a shot that would look almost the same if taken today, thus providing a sense of continuity.
Another of Gregory’s shots gave further pause:
The somewhat unwieldily title aside, this image could easily have been made in Blackpool itself, and of course Blackpool is a Lancashire town. Raising the question, where to people from Blackpool go on holiday? And further, do they thus see themselves as apart from the rest of Lancashire? What is their attitude towards holiday makers who come from the same county? Does it matter? Something to ask people should (when) I visit again.
Another part of Graham Clarke’s The Photograph seemed relevant this week – when talking about Berenice Abbott’s photograph of Columbus Circle, he says “whatever suggests history has been subsumed into an iconography of advertising which not only dominates…but determines the way we view the city” (Clarke 1997: 89)
The ideas that the concepts of ‘Mayflower’ and ‘Columbus’ now refer to little more than a hotel and a street name came to mind when visiting Benidorm:
Here, the idea of the Red Lion is twice removed from its origin as the heraldic sign of James I of England/VI of Scotland who insisted his sign be everywhere including pubs, to an icon of Britishness as a pub sign to its location here on the east coast of Spain. Furthermore, there is an Italian shoe shop, a Middle-Eastern kebab shop, a Spanish bull, bunting of all colours and this is all on the Avenue of the Philippines.
Similarly, the image of the quintessentially (working class) British bingo hall below was taken on the Plaza de la Hispanidad – the Place of Spanishness.
I have little idea how, or even if, this contributes to the project – perhaps the British character in Benidorm (liminality of nationality?) knows the signs without understanding anything more than their basic connotations. Or what the Spanish translates to.
When looking into text and image, I came across the work of Jason Evans. There is some cross over of text and image in his incredible double exposures, which raised the idea of juxtaposition of images to create further meaning. Although I do not plan to use double exposures in this project, it is worth considering pairing images to create further meaning.
More ideas about juxtaposition from the layout used in Chris Steele-Perkins’ England, My England which makes frequent use of thematic opposites. I also absolutely love the often humorous approach that he takes.
I have decided to definitely change the guiding principle of each zine being based in/on a specific resort and run with the thematic liminalities idea. So the 6 zines will be something along the lines of:
- Liminality of behaviour (sexuality and drinking, stag/hen parties)
- Liminality of age (teenagers growing up in seaside resorts – everything there is aimed at children or adults with little for those in between)
- Liminality of experience (the seaside as a bubble into which real life is not allowed to intrude)
- Liminality of age/era (the idea that seaside resorts are tied to the past, both in terms of nostalgia and of retirees choosing to move there)
- Liminality of purpose (people and place designed for busy times with nothing to do in the winter)
- Liminality of nationality (Brits in Benidorm)
This will involve a shift in perspective in terms of my usual practice. Generally, I have followed the idea of the flaneur, central to psychogeography, somewhat like Daidō Moriyama who “wanders streets with no fixed destination…guided by smells and sounds as well as by his eyes” (Carroll 2018: 20).
As Alec Soth says, in the same book, “I fell in love with photography because it was an excuse to wander around alone” (Carroll 2018: 72). Like Soth (whose work made me want to start taking photography seriously) this is very much my MO.
Carroll’s book raised quite a few ideas. The work of Amalia Ulman (Carroll 2018: 42) appeals to me – I am (on a much smaller scale) also creating fictional autobiographies (though unlike some authors I will be upfront about the fictionality from the start). Additionally, the image in the book from Harley Weir shows a way of getting a character into the image – through the use of the photographer’s shadow. This could be very useful if I run with the idea of the outsider watching (though I’m not sure how this would fit into the above liminalities).
One final idea from the book (and one I am taking as a great big flashing red light submarine klaxon warning) comes from Ron Jude: “metaphor is something that can flirt dangerously close to cliché. The problem with photographers…is that the line between originality and obviousness is extremely fine. What might seem like a clever and insightful visual association when shooting can feel a touch trite in the flow of a final edit” (Carroll 2018: 91). If I had a desk, I would print this out and stick it over it.
More ideas about the role of photographer, this time from Rut Blees Luxemberg, who considers herself a poet rather than a flaneur: “The flāneur’s relation to the city is very much about a pleasure or diversion. The poet’s wandering is more about encounter” (Higgins 2016: 67).
This links closely to Alec Soth’s view: “I see poetry as the medium most similar to photography…like poetry, photography is rarely successful with narrative. What is essential is the ‘voice’ (or ‘eye’) and the way this voice pieces together fragments to make something tenuously whole and beautiful” (Franklin 2016: 167).
This does make me wonder if perhaps poetry might be a better match to image for this project. Having said that, the prose fiction I have in mind, is more poetic in its outlook, being character studies and/or single epiphanic moments (decisive moments?) rather than actual narratives as such.
Another image for the photographer as observer/outsider idea this week, this time from Morgan Ashcom’s superlative What The Living Carry (which also gave me some interesting ideas about combining text and image – see Project Development and Reflection section for week 22 onwards):
Weeks Fifteen and Sixteen
Still not sure if what I am pursuing is documentary photography here (or, indeed, if such definitions are terribly important). David Bate, in his book Photography, talks of documentary photography “trying to fuse ‘creative treatment’ with the idea of ‘actuality'” and mentions John Grierson’s definition of social documentary as the “creative treatment of actuality” (Bate 2016: 67) which I suppose is what I am aiming at here. Or is it the other way around?
Bate goes on to link Gotthold Lessing’s concept of the ‘pregnant moment’ of a narrative: “where the past, present and future of a story can be read, summed up ‘at a glance'” (Bate 2016: 67) and to link this with Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment as peripeteia, an idea which also links closely to James Joyce’s idea of epiphany in the short story. These sum up perfectly what I am attempting with my own narratives (and, as mentioned before found clearly in the work of Heinrich Böll) – short/flash fiction that describes a particular idea/moment/character dramatically, with images that also suggest a similar (rather than directly illustrative) dramatic/decisive/pregnant moment.
Bate speaks of the photography pioneered by Cartier-Bresson and developed by Robert Frank in terms of a new kind of storytelling, where “each photograph reads like . apart fragment of a larger picture, adding up to a coherent yet still fragmented picture of modern life” (Bate 2016: 73). And, for me tellingly, speaks of the photographer as a “free-roaming individual…separated from the masses, yet living among them, anonymous like a modern flãneur” (Bate 2016: 73) which is so startling close to what has been in my head since I started this project that I almost dropped the book. I like this definition so much that I hope to develop it (not sure how just yet) and incorporate it into one of the narratives in the project.
In terms of images over the last two weeks, I have only come into possession (not sure why I can’t just write ‘bought’) one book – Wim Wenders Written in the West Revisited which is glorious (given that I love his and Robbie Müller’s cinematic vision of the American west) and very much in keeping with the deadpan Americana of Stephen Shore et al. There is much to learn in terms of carefully observed suggestive detail
and was very much in my mind when shooting in Blackpool this week.
As my project is an attempt to fuse image and text, Clive Scott’s The Spoken Image has proven invaluable this week. Writing about Berger and Mohr’s A Fortunate Man, he talks about an alienation borne of the “inability to inhabit a third-person or a first-person narrative position with any consistency. A third-person perspective would allow the documentarist to say ‘this is how it is’ , to be the spokesman of ‘truth’…a first-person perspective would allow the documentarist to be an autobiographer” (Scott 1999: 255). This is the balancing act that I am facing with this project. Having decided to mix first and third person narrative, I need to think carefully whilst writing the texts whether they are to be sociological (thus denying the individuality of the characters and risking reducing them to archetypes symbolising the idea I wish to convey – handy for didacticism (and I am a teacher!) but making for poor fiction) or to be biographical/autobiographical in scope (making for better fiction but risking the reader/listener dismissing them as one-off ‘weirdos’ rather than an integral part and indeed product of the environment in which they exist). From a literary point of view, I think Scott is grossly over-simplifying the intricacies of viewpoint, and a third-person narrative can easily fall into the traps of the biographical and vice versa, but the dichotomy between the two concepts is nevertheless a valuable one and one of which I must be keenly aware when writing the final texts.
Similarly there is a question of tense. Peter Wollen, in discussing verb-forms, states “news photographs tend to be captioned with the non-progressive present…since the reference is to past time. Art photographs are usually captioned with noun-phrases lacking verb forms. So are documentary photographs, though here we do find some use of the progressive present”. because “these choices of verb-forms correspond to different intuitions about the subjects, or signifieds of the various types of photograph. News photographs…signifying events. Art [and] documentary photographs signify states” (Wollen 2019: 196). When you take into account that short stories are traditionally written in forms of the past tense, this raises a practical question for my writing and needs to be considered again when approaching the preparation of the final texts. I suspect that some of the narratives will be past tense and others non-progressive present.
In addressing Berger’s idea of the photo-narrative (the closest I have come to describing what I am attempting myself), Scott introduces an idea that I find very useful: “it quotes from reality: its quotations are allusions to what reality makes possible” (Scott 1999: 288). Again, this is the direction in which I wish to be heading – the idea that fiction can tell the truth.
Whilst trying to define different approaches I take to creating visual meaning, I was looking into the use of irony (irony/juxtaposition being the one that I tend to possibly overuse) and came across Simon Norfolk’s wonderful picture of the former teahouse in Kabul
I have been trying to use this technique throughout the project, particularly in terms of the disparity between the idea of fun and the run down surroundings. Two much less successful examples from the last two weeks:
Weeks Nineteen and Twenty
With there being a road-trip element to the last few weeks, I decided to look at David Campany’s The Open Road. Whilst most of it was more directly relevant to a possible next project documenting what I found traveling the entire coast of Great Britain, I love the Joel Meyerowitz image below, especially when considering the idea of narrative and epiphany/the decisive moment.
More reading about the seaside this week, and Modernism on Sea, which looks at art and culture at the British seaside, particularly, as the title suggests, between the wars. There was a great deal there about specific links between resorts and, for example Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen and Sylvia Plath. Fascinating overall, but germane to this project particularly in summarising the allure that I felt when and the consequent reasons for setting out on this project. As is pointed out, the sea itself is almost secondary “in the 1930s, the seaside was defined as much by the ‘side’ as by the sea itself” (Feigel and Harris 2011: 7) and in summarising the peculiarly melancholy allure: “the contemporary seaside visitor goes to the coast partly in search of ghosts. In faded seaside resorts, the cultural tourist encounters a spectral pageant of 1930s sun-worshippers and of 1960s pop icons parading past the steamy cafes and the overgrown rides” (Feigel and Harris 2011: 11), though as I can attest, the cultural tourist would be hard pressed to remember this on a Friday night in December in Rhyl.
In the same book, Michael Bracewell concludes that “these seaside towns have come to represent an intense, endlessly renewing contract with nostalgia. It is rather as though their original purpose – for holidays, retirement and convalescence – has been subsumed by the heady way in which they seem to describe their past within their present” (Bracewell 2011: 43). Whilst I would have wholeheartedly agreed with this before setting out on this project, the reality that I have found is a great deal more complex that this. Though the nostalgia of which he speaks is indubitably a key part of the contemporary British seaside experience (hence the story I am writing that deals with that), it is far from the only reason, or even the main reason that most people visit the seaside. I find it particularly surprising that Bracewell’s essay deals particularly with Morecambe as I found this to be one of the least nostalgic of the many resorts I visited, given that the infrastructure of the tradidiotnal seaside resort (Winter Gardens – currently closed – aside) such as the pier(s) and the fairground have long since disappeared.
Week Twenty Two
With the time upon me to actually start writing, I returned to a book I had (inexplicably?) enjoyed as a teenager: The Outsider by Colin Wilson, which, somewhat haphazardly explores the recurrent figure of the outsider in all his (and it is always a he, it seems) forms. As I envision the characters to be liminal rather than outsiders per se, I wasn’t sure how useful this would be, and in terms of the project, it proved not to be enormously so. I did however find the following quotation, which is useful in terms of conceptualising the characters about whom I wish to write: the outside is not sure who he is. He has found an ‘I’ but it is not his true ‘I'” (Wilson 2001: 147). Not the most groundbreaking perhaps, but worth keeping in mind – each of my characters cannot find their ‘true I’ because their situation marginalises them – they are neither one thing nor the other: liminal.
Emmanuel Iduma’s book A Stranger’s Pose has proven very rewarding this week – although it is still a publication where the images feel subservient to the text, it is more balanced than many.
The other thing I found this week, sadly just too late to have any influence on my now complete photography, is the upcoming exhibition at the Turner Contemporary in Margate, Seaside Photographed, curated by Val Williamson and Karen Shepherdson, which introduced me to the work of Danielle Peck, Julia Horbaschk and Hannah Blackmore.
As Williams and Shepherdson state in the Financial Times, the allure of the seaside may be down to its being “a place where we undress and lie in the sun, celebrate rituals, feel that we are someone else, in some other reality” (Williams and Shepherdson, 2019). Although this exhibition is too late for the degree-specific part of this project (assuming I pass, of course) I will definitely be visiting when I am back in the summer (and ideally again when it visits Blackpool next year to see if there is any difference in feeling/reception) and see what I can learn for the ongoing future project.
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