I’ve been struggling with a photography project for a few years now. It’s personal and I’ve always known it would be a long-term one, but the specifics have always been loose and that annoys me. I know it has a general theme though.
Saltwater: obviously, I’ve spent most of my working life in it in some way, and spent my childhood no more than 10 miles away from it. So it’s important to me, it’s why I studied Marine Biology (although there was also a childhood memory of being scared stupid by Jaws, and then not walking on the cracks between paving stones for months afterwards), it’s why I ended up on the Isle of Man (although I also decided to study at Liverpool University, who had a marine station on the island, mainly on the quality and quantity of obscure US Hardcore vinyl that was available at the Planet X record shop; Newcastle’s offerings just weren’t that good) and it’s how I met my wife (another IOM Marine Biology graduate).
A few years ago I re- took up photography seriously and spent a bit of time travelling around the UK coast taking pictures and exploring large parts of it. Whilst we’ve both worked next to the coast for the past 20 odd years, we’ve never actually lived and worked together in England, so there’s vast areas that are new to us both. It was great; we did a massive road trip and took lots of photographs. Lots of them were about the sea and about the seaside and about how people interacted with the seaside (which I initially thought was a very British thing).
Fast forward a couple of years, and I’m still photographing the sea and the seaside, but not being able to complete this project, I felt like I’d lost whatever it was three years ago that set me off. I played around with a few alternative processes, increasingly more esoteric but ultimately less satisfying. I tried salt printing: one of the earliest photographic techniques where salt coated paper is brushed with silver nitrate and then exposed to UV light to make a picture. Think about it, you could take seawater from wherever you took the picture and then by coating it on the paper, it would physically become part of the picture when converted to a silver salt. Sounds good, can’t think of any other process that physically captures the scene in the print in quite such a profound way. The pictures were a depressing low contrast brown however, not what I was after. I tried cyanotypes: using iron salts and UV light to produce similarly hand-produced, individual blue toned prints. Blue prints, blue water, right? They were OK, but felt too manipulated.
We went away for a few days and then it came to me, suddenly and with a face-smacking jolt of comprehension. The project is a good one, but it’s too big, too easily diluted into a fug of self-doubt and procrastination about what it is and whether something fits or not. So just split it into three simple things; Looking out to sea, on the sea and looking back
It encompasses everything I’ve shot and wanted to shoot and all the other projects that I’ve thought “that would be a good idea”; the D-Day beaches, the exodus from seaside towns by young people, the sea, the beach, the boats the working men and women who risk their lives on it everyday, and that single common response to seeing the sea. To stand and stare and watch the horizon because it’s just there.
So there it is, a manifesto of sorts, but something that I finally feel comfortable and relaxed about. It doesn’t feel limiting.
(all photos taken with a Mamiya 7ii and Kodak Portra 400 film)