I never set out to take photographs of beaches. I had just left my day job working in an office in London and set off for somewhere quiet where I could reflect and follow my life long passion for photography and art.
Although my early work, taken during vacations and at weekends, had been mainly documentary in nature, I was keen to work more formally and experiment with a newly acquired 10 x 8 film camera. The south coast around Birling Gap was the shortest distance from London and seemed like a good place to start. For me the sea simply provided a changing palette of light, colour and form. I wasn’t interested in place, hidden narratives, dramatic light or ideas associated with the horizon. Simply to explore the tonal and formal qualities of land and sea. And a mundane strip of coastline was all I needed.
I purposely excluded any cliffs or clues that might indicate a particular location. Instead, I followed a simple grid format. The only thing that changed was my position along the beach and the light and time of day. And sometimes I’d alter the focus point to change the balance between abstraction and context. I used slow portraiture negative film stock and a secondhand lens with very little coating left on the lens. I didn’t want the extra contrast of a new lens (and couldn’t afford one either). I shot in dull overcast neutral conditions, trying to avoid the ‘loaded emotions’ associated with dramatic coastal light. The soft lens, by accident, helped accentuate the subtle temperate light. I numbered each photograph to reflect the serial nature or the work and process and to avoid any associations with place.
My interest lay in the tonal qualities and possibilities of a changing surface and the abstractions made possible by the ever changing light and movement of the water. After several tests (that were never intended to be ‘works’) I felt that maybe there was something of significance. The serial nature of the work was creating a narrative in itself. An artist friend said that the pictures had captured an ‘Englishness’, an English light perhaps. This was never the intention, but on reflection maybe it’s a good example of how a body of work reveals itself to us later and that a process with no expectations can lead us somewhere unexpected.
I presented the Beach series both as individual images and in a grid format. The grid helped emphasise the infinite representational possibilities associated with place and the limitations and difficulties associated with the ‘perfect vista’ or location. And of course the grid keeps a modern and less romantic frame of reference to the project.
I think looking back at this first body of 10 x 8” work, it represented both a naive ‘desire’ to look objectively at the surface of nature and a need to clear my head of the fake world of brands and manufactured images that I had been immersed in. I was desperately in need of some therapy in nature and my new office on a strip of beach was in effect my studio for a year or two. I don’t think it was a romantic retreat into nature, more the start of a process whereby nature was at the heart of my work.