I point my camera at ever-fewer subjects these days. My photos are more often inspired by interesting scenes, rather than simply attractive views.
I started taking pictures years and years ago, pointing my camera at friends when I was at school and at boring landscapes when I wasn’t. I didn’t know then that they were boring, but I didn’t really have a creative eye for them when I was in my teenage years. That came much later, when I began visiting landscapes in the north of England with the intention of hunting out photographic views.
Oddly, it was my life in the more beautiful parts of Switzerland which drew my camera more towards less-salubrious scenes. Growing dissatisfied with the inherent interest of yet another chalet on yet another mountainside, I began seeing the point of capturing scenes with some specific point of interest. Scenes in which there was actually something more to look at than another generic view. I even started a Flickr group many years ago as a place to share “everyday” photos of Switzerland instead of just the pretty picture-postcard scenes. (The group hasn’t been moderated for many years now. I don’t know whether the spirit of the group remains.)
Many of the grotty scenes I photograph are grim and unpleasant, but that doesn’t stop me from capturing them if I find them interesting. It’s the interest which leads and the camera which follows. Take this early digital photo from London, which I took 20 years ago. It’s a grotty corner and no mistake, but I was interested why there would be so many bits of paper on the rarely-used road. Although that is the subject of my photographic focus, the scene is composed according to the rules—guidelines—which I learned when photographing much more beautiful landscapes.
A few years later, Jo and I visited a friend near Glasgow and I took my camera to Clydebank, much to the chagrin of the friend in question. Instead of wanting to head straight to the beautiful countryside we’d visit later that trip, I wanted to see the largely-abandoned industrial areas. I photographed the dramatic contrast between the squalor there and the landscape of Angus, in the east of Scotland, which many more people seem to find more beautiful.
When comparing these two wall images seventeen years later, the differences between them are fascinating, if only because the similarities are quite marked. Both walls are tatty, both are arbitrary delineations of areas which only mean something to man. The marked difference is that the people who visit the scene on the left don’t care at all about their surroundings, whereas the farmer who maintains the fields in the photo on the right wants to keep things tidy.
Where my aim isn’t to document people and life in a place or scene, one of my favourite places to visit and photograph is an out-of-season seaside town. In the summer, people who live and work in towns near the sea often want to flock to the seaside; in fact, the tradition of taking a break from work or a holiday from the grimy city has sent British people to the edges of their island for many years. Arriving there, the sandy (or even stony) beach provides a respite from the concrete and noise. There is the sea in which to paddle, an amusement arcade to keep the kids busy, and ice-cream or beef-burgers to be had.
The fascinating aspect of these destinations is that the people who visit from their towns and the people who greet them at the coast have collaborated. They turn the picturesque respite from the city grime into a grimy place in itself: the concrete buildings and car parks placed as close to the sea as possible, so that there’s as little need to walk as possible. Then they add sea defences to protect the buildings, car parks and streets, which become ever-larger. Fewer people visit the coast because of more sun elsewhere, the money starts to run out, and so the places to which people have flocked in the past become dishevelled. The coastal weather and naturally wet climate make the metal rust, and the buildings and attractions become shabby, drab and tired.
I love exploring and looking at these places when there’s no-one about. When the fun and sun of the seaside is absent and when the building blocks of an enjoyable day out are laid bare for what they are, with no rose-tinted spectacles on sale at the beachside hut.
My most recent visit to such a town was at Sheerness in Kent this week: a town on the Isle of Sheppey, which is reached by taking a main road from the heavily-concreted A2 corridor through the industrial estates and port areas along this part of coastline, where the river Thames reaches the North Sea. As always, it was fascinating to see a place which so many people enjoy visiting when the weather conditions are right: evidenced most directly by a few memorial benches along the concrete sea wall and promenade.
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