Beach, essay by Craig Burnett, London: NextLevel and Thames & Hudson
Essay by: Craig Burnett
Monograph, Thames & Hudson, 2003
In the opening photograph of Mike Perry’s Beach series, a few waves of no particular significance rise gently in the distance while another, at the end of its journey, limps up the beach. The clouds, soft and far away, create an unremarkable haze. The sea rolls in the light, punctuated by a couple of rocks, and stones stipple the foreground in harmonious tones of grey and ochre. At first glance, the image offers almost nothing. Could a seascape be duller, more featureless? The calm suggests something portentous. There must be a reason for this photograph: it must have a utilitarian function. It must have been taken to tell us something. But the view seems defined by the lack of drama and a blankness of function. The structure of the image, a tightly controlled grid of horizontal panels, eliminates the possibility that the purpose of the photograph is to show us, as if from an ideal viewpoint, an beautiful landscape. Lacking a human presence, it refuses to offer any social or spiritual meaning. The view verges on the dreary, the sea is calm, the sky reveals nothing, the stones sit stolidly, mute.
To take this photograph, and the others in the Beach series, Perry drove to a few different stretches of humdrum beach along the south coast of England, somewhere east of Brighton, where he set up his 10×8″ camera. Some pictures were taken just after dawn, others mid afternoon and in soft rain. None of the images depicts a privileged place or moment, but show us nature at its least expressive. We are looking over a busy shipping channel, a run-down highway of the sea. Nearby and all around, this sea and these beaches have hosted countless freighters, invasions, smugglers, dreamers and walkers. It happens to be among the most despoiled and worn-out seascapes on earth – neither sacred nor beautiful, it’s an unlikely subject for a series of sumptuous, large-scale photographs. Yet Perry found something worth looking at on these beaches.
Perry’s serial approach to taking photographs within an implied or explicit compositional structure based on a grid, introduced a scale of reference into a group of images that might otherwise suggest a pseudo-scientific study in the nature of marine conditions. The serial structure gives each photograph an equal value. and the grid compositions quote abstract painting, both the modernist grid and contemporary abstraction. By working in a series, he challenges the notion that there is a privileged or ideal version of the beach. Perry’s stalled moments need not be treasured singly, but repeated, and made profuse in repetition. The series is theoretically infinite.
Literature and the visual arts usually portray the seas a site of melodramatic beauty or terror. Whether calm or violent, mysterious or familiar, icy or lusciously warm, overflowing with food or harbouring hideous monsters, the sea possesses an enormous capacity to absorb and deflect meaning.
The paintings of Turner inevitably come to mind when we think of the English seaside. At his most Romantic, Turner tended to mythologise the sea as an engulfing vortex, an implacable force in a sensational battle with humanity’s puny will. But when Andreas Gursky photographed three Turner seascapes hanging in the Tate, he showed how alien – even quaint – some ideas about the sublime have become to contemporary eyes. In Gursky’s photograph, the Turner paintings look like portals to an ancient sea. Although Turner’s paintings retain their atmospheric power and we may gasp in awe at his breathtaking mastery of paint, we take their melodrama and their ideas with a grain of salt.
Perry, by contrast, is dedicated to depicting as objectively as his skill and technology permit, the surface detail of the seascape. To do so, he uses plain Kodak film stock that captures the subtleties of the neutral colour, and he doesn’t alter the contrast or hue by computer manipulation. He is interested in perception unencumbered by expectations of meaning or drama. The self- consciousness of the compositional structure reinforces this objective by frustrating our desire to apply sentimental or generic connotation to the seas. Alongside this impulse is an interest in the aesthetic potential of the overlooked detail, the pleasure of looking at forms and colours created by the delicate and evanescent plays of light on seascapes.
The two modes of the photographs, the perceptual and the meditative, work together to invite the viewer to appreciate a version of the external world that exists whether we look at it or not, free from a measure that transcends human perception.
This the Beach photographs offer a sustained meditation on the visual experience and a mental space for emotional and imaginative play. To be successful, they must embody a paradox by being austere yet vivid, a trace of the world with the capacity to project a life of their own. Even while the photographs draw upon the language of abstract painting to open up this space, they never become purely abstract.
We could look at Edward Weston’s studies of Los Lobos and Oceana for a similar project, but whereas Weston’s photographs celebrate the beauty and drama of natural forms in dramatic black and white, seeking, perhaps an essence of a place or living thing, Perry looks for the colourful dirt, the changing light of the everyday.
Stephen Shore has suggested that he would like to photograph landscapes the way Chinese poets looked at them; on their own terms, without reading for metaphoric language for description. To think of the photographer’s gaze in terms of clarity and passivity is one way to start looking at Mike Perry’s photographs. Equally, they develop a life of their own, an internal energy, and they face us like the stones kept by Chinese scholars: formal objects of contemplation in whose microcosmic forms we can roam for sheer pleasure of looking and imagining. The clarity of the photographs allow them to become aids to reflection.
Look at Beach 17. The sharply defined parallel bands of colour divert our apprehension from depiction to composition. Looking at the image from afar, visual pleasure arises from the sense of scale and the compositional harmony. From a closer position, however, the blurry foreground and scale of the image creates a vertiginous effect, plunging the viewer into the individual elements. On the left, a little wave lifts and stretches before its gentle crash. The essence is not an abstraction, but an accumulation of detail: the echo of the crashing wave in the cloud formations, the way the colour of the sea changes from a deep blue horizon in the distance to a greenish-ochre slab before if becomes a white strip of foam along the beach, echoing the colours of the sky. Moving back again, one can take in the deliberateness of the composition. Three almost perfect even bands of sky, sea and beach – free of melodrama, aggression or longing – convey a meditative and emotional calm.
Beach 11 offers another way to think about Perry’s pictures. The rigid composition that lends an implied grid to the whole series, giving equal value to the beach, sea and sky, has given way to a looser structure. The viewer’s eye might alight on the pale stone in sharp focus at the centre of the composition or wander to the frothy, beige waves rising and tumbling background. In the centre of the picture, the foam creates a silky texture streaked with inimitable crests and surges, little marks in time recorded by the camera. On one level Perry has recorded a never – returning moment, a play of foam and water. Once you get lost in the surface detail, the suggestive potential of the images grows. Indeed, the visual structure of the photograph, along with Beaches 21-23 resembles an Yves Tanguy painting such as The Ribbon of Extremes (1932), and may evoke a similar perceptual and meditative experience. Tanguy used naturalistic conventions to bestow a sense of space and light on his almost abstract images, making vividly palpable a molten interior of impulses and vague feelings. The stones in Perry’s photographs are not unlike Tanguy’s anthropomorphic forms that fill the foreground of his paintings, and the sea and sky form a series of layers that hint at infinite recesses of space as they do in Tanguy’s work. The vivid details draw us into the image and, once inside, they invite us to let the seascape evoke sensations, recall feelings and introduce metamorphic readings.
We could look at one of Perry’s images and imagine a slab of unknowing, crashing eternally on the conscious shoreline but remaining unfathomable. After all, we attribute moods to the sea, we project our emotions and symbolic value into its blankness and this seems fair enough. Playing with the haziness of the things we see and making things up is part of the pleasure of looking and a reasonable approach to Perry’s Beach images.
But let’s not get carried away. Although Perry may be exploring similar visual experiences as Tanguy, neither state of mind nor infinity resides over the horizon. France does.
In the history of photography, we could look at Sieglitz’s Equivalents, perhaps the first best-known series of photographs that converted nature’s forms into abstractions. By ‘equivalents’, Stieglitz meant that he wished to create an image equivalent to a spiritual state, as if it were a diagram comprehensible to anyone, an impulse that partook of the universalising drive of modernist abstraction since Kandinsky and Malevich.
Contemporary artists, however, tend to keep a skeptical eye fastened on specific things. Jeff Wall’s Diagonal Compositions are brilliant and affectionate parodies of early geometric abstraction. Wall replaces ostensibly universal forms with filthy, worn-out sinks, and demonstrates how photography both records a fragment of the real but also depends on formal harmonies – and illusions – for its success.
Hiroshi Sugimoto, probably the best-known contemporary photographer of seascapes, offers a superficially similar approach to Perry’s. But whereas Sugimoto seeks variations on a theme of universality, Perry finds detail and specificity at a nameless place. While Sugimoto quotes modernist abstraction, seeking something ideal at a precisely named location, Perry celebrates the complexity of a single anonymous perspective.
One of the strengths of Perry’s Beach photographs rests in how his determination to show us the details of an actual place combines with the serial structure to make the images resistant to abstractions and metaphysical interpretations.
Though waves threaten to engulf the composition and introduce a moment of narrative or drama, the sense of peril – of the sublime – does not eliminate the abundance of detail or the formal harmonies that allow for the contemplative mood of Beach 1.
When Perry permits a wave to wash away the implied grid structure. It is not to reveal the power or mystery of the sea. He plays with its forces and astonishing variety to tease it into revealing a new surface with every picture. The almost monochromatic pulses of whites, greys and greens is more likely to bring to mind a Robert Ryman painting than a Turner.
In Beach 7, the sky is an unarticulated sheet of blue-grey, the sea a greener and textured version of the same colour. Across the centre of the composition the shutter has caught a curtain of transparent water beneath a wave at its peak. The frozen waves reveals a seabed of muted gold. When Perry enlarged this photograph to its full dimensions of 5′ x 6′, he noticed lines streaking the print along the seabed. He thought they were scratches, a fault in the paper or printing process. In fact, the lines are stones being dragged into the sea by an ebbing wave, tracing both time and space across the film in the process. But the unexpected presence of sliding stones does not just illustrate a process or characteristic of the beach. It is a surface detail, a moment made visible by Perry’s serial approach.
In Beach 18, the beach appears drained of colour and drama, and the surface of subtle textures and gentle inflections of tone bathe the image in seductive melancholy. Look at the formal harmonies Perry has found on the flat, grey day. The wisps of pale sand echo the crests of the waves, the colour of the sky reflects in the surface of the sea, and in the shadows of the rising waves we see dark grey tones of the sand. The sky could be a block of granite or a sheet of delicate lace, the sea a cauldron of molten lead or a slab of tactile putty, the sand a velvety drape. But the gorgeous surface gives the photograph its power rather than any metamorphic potential. The images reference Gerhard Richter’s grey series of paintings and his more recent abstract work that is built upon horizontal (and vertical) smears and layers of colour. Richter’s paintings thwart metaphysical interpretations to bring the viewer back to the materiality of paint. Likewise, Perry finds on the beach what he admires in Richter abstracts: a density and clarity of sensation and pleasure in surface detail.
The Beach series invites the viewer to look closely at stones, water and light, all the details that help to recuperate the seascape as an object worthy of contemplation in itself, free of expectations of significance or revelation. By looking at something so familiar and featureless and by looking at it repeatedly and tenderly, Perry invites us to see, in the half-life of a worn out landscape, a hint of sufficiency.