In the UK nobody lives more than 72 miles from the sea, and the seaside is entrenched in our culture because of it. “The coastline is significant to Brits whether we live there, or not,” says Simon Roberts, who lives in the seaside town of Brighton, and who has returned to the coast again and again in his work. Now his images are appearing in an exhibition called The Great British Seaside at the National Maritime Museum this spring, alongside work by David Hurn, Martin Parr and the late Tony Ray-Jones.
Roberts is showing 21 photographs, taken from his projects We English (2007–08), Pierdom (2010–13) and Merrie Albion (2007-2017), all of which consider the human relationship to the land. Visiting those liminal spaces where land meets sea, Roberts has picked out stories of change and development, and capturing the details in large format.
“The details are there to be read within the frame,” he says, pointing to a photograph he took in 2008 on Blackpool Promenade by way of an example. In it a British-Asian family crosses the tram tracks, “taking part in a traditionally white working class holiday”, their presence neatly illustrating the changes in the demographics of the British working class in the last 50 years. “It’s all in the snippets of information you can garner from the images,” Roberts observes.
Roberts shoots with a large-format camera and tripod planted on the sand, and says that, while his set up is not a common sight, he manages to become part of the landscape while working because he stays put for so long. “I might spend 30-40 minutes shooting a picture,” he explains. And he adds that, because he does not always have to look directly into the viewfinder during the capture, “people are not always aware I am taking a photo”.
It’s a very different approach to Martin Parr’s famous beach images, such as his classic series The Last Resort (first published in 1985). Parr comments that “In America they have their streets; here in the UK, we have our beaches”, and he shoots the beaches like a classic American street photographer too, with a similar closeness and engagement. It’s an aesthetic choice but, Roberts points out, one that’s also harder to do these days, as people are so much more suspicious of photography.
“I think if I was to wander along the beach asking to take pictures of people, they’d feel much more threatened because they understand where photos are going now,” says Roberts – and interestingly, Parr has also shifted his approach recently years, using a telephoto lens to shoot Beach Therapy, first shown in 2017.
Parr points out that part of the problem is children, because photographing on the beach involves photographing kids in their swim suits. “40 years ago it wasn’t a problem,” he observes – but now it definitely is. Even so, he still enjoys shooting the coast, and The Great British Seaside will include 20 brand-new images commissioned by the NMM alongside some of his classic earlier work. “This is just the latest chapter in an ongoing exploration,” he observes.
Fellow Magnum Photos member David Hurn shares his enthusiasm, but agrees that shooting at the seaside harder to do now. “I find children delightful to photograph and I am interested in photographing real situations,” he comments. “When it was seemingly acceptable, one photographed everything. Nowadays, I kind of tend not to photograph children. You just have to keep up with the cultural norm, which changes year by year.”
He describes beaches as “democratic” spaces, “full of laughter, and full of people acting in ridiculous ways”, and says he’s just as happy shooting them in bad weather as good. In fact he argues that rain can sometimes make beaches more interesting “perhaps even more so than when it’s sunny and bright”, and points to a shot he took on Barry Island, Wales by way of an example. It’s the antithesis of the sunny holiday snap, the people in the frame engulfed in a thick mist.
“Light doesn’t matter to me; the light is good at any time,” he says. “I’m a photographer who photographs what I see.”
The Great British Seaside is on show at the National Maritime Museum in London until 30 September, 2018 www.rmg.co.uk/see-do/great-british-seaside The exhibition is a Photo London satellite event https://photolondon.org/public-programme/satellite-events/