Between land and sea
I discovered that I prefer to explore around sunrise and in the evenings. Midday, I can take or leave.
My ‘Brighton & Hove AM/PM’ photography project began in late September 2019. With no real plan for the project’s direction it grew steadily into a series of images, documenting one season drifting into the next.
I have lived close to the beach in Hove for just over four years and share an equally divided passion for both the sea and for the mountains. The rolling South Downs act as my ‘mountain range’. The sea is in complete contrast to the city of Brighton & Hove. The land buzzes with its manufactured sounds, sights and smells and the sea laps against it as it has done for centuries. However, unlike many other UK cities, it is possible to quickly escape the sensory overload with just a few paddle strokes in a southerly direction in a kayak.
The exploration side of the project began with my interest in the west pier. Opened in 1866, it was the first pier to be Grade I listed in Britain and a concert hall was added in 1916, which was extremely popular. A relic of times gone by, the west pier was formally closed in 1975 due to upkeep costs and fell into disrepair. Fire finally removed any hope of restoration in 2003. It has been gradually collapsing into the sea ever since. It now continues to watch over my Brighton neighbours do on, in or beside the water. The coast itself is an ever-changing seascape and so too are its visitors. Autumnal surfers, kite surfers, paddle boarders and wild swimmers out in at times questionable conditions.
As a diver, I often descend on and explore shipwrecks. I believe that my fascination with the Brighton west pier somehow derives from this interest. The west pier for me is almost the opposite of a shipwreck – perhaps a land wreck? All that’s left of it are its rusting, spiked remains draped in commercial fishing net, rope and a rough skin of barnacles at the water line. Slipping into the sea from the kayak here is momentarily eerie, though the feeling is quickly replaced by curiosity once my face is in the water, visibility permitting.
It’s a hazardous place to be. Underwater, mangled fragments lunge toward the surface, only breaking the water at low tide. Above, the pier is collapsing, with one winter storm after another slowly swallowing it down. Sea birds nest here too. Paddling through the pier’s remains in the kayak, the spooked birds take off, as fish often do when startled by my regulator exhaust bubbles during an exploratory dive on a shipwreck. I approached the intimidating structure tentatively on my first visit and was surprised to find such silence there, even with the city still in quite close proximity to it. Shooting from the kayak, with just a light breeze blowing across the water makes photography a frustrating exercise. The wind turns the my bow away from the pier, shunting the stern into wind, meaning that my subject always ended up behind me. This challenge led to the acquisition of dive housing for my camera, so on my second visit, I could get into the water to take my shots while tying the kayak off. I then began to explore beneath the pier – the water clarity was often quite good, and a habitat for fish amid the wreckage was revealed just below the surface.
From time to time I come back with no photographs from the sea. A couple of hours spent in the kayak and I sometimes return with just a few mackerel caught by hand line. But, without exception, I will always come back with a collection of foreign items that I’ve pulled from the water. Plastic bottles, fast food containers, bags and commercial fishing jettison are regular kayaking companions for my return journey to the beach. Each item I find a sign of an insatiable appetite for convenient consumption, leaking from the land and into the sea.
I am drawn to the sea far more when the weather has something to say, rather than when the midday sun is high and casting an overexposed glare across a blank expanse. I check the forecast as soon as I wake up each morning, in anticipation of what sea conditions might offer me that day. Early morning coastal light appeals to me most. It brings with it a certain peace and draws out richness and depth in the colour of almost any object, especially water. If the wind is light or northerly then the sea will be flat and I gather up my kayak, wetsuit, fins, mask and snorkel. If the wind is doing something interesting from the south and the clouds are building, I will walk or run along Brighton beach with my camera. I’m never the first to arrive; the sea is a constant draw for the likeminded here.
Each visit confirms that it is possible to play with most states of the sea’s personality. Powerful wind over waves create a liquid park for kite surfers just off the beach. Flat, windless doldrums-esque days produce perfect pace for paddle boarders. When the tide is right, a reliable wave pushes shoreward for the winter pier surfer – great subjects for me to photograph from the beach. Swimmers wade with purpose straight into the waves with no bias – they’re there at 6am on balmy summer mornings and through broiling winter storms. The removal of the swim area buoys at the end of September announces that summer is officially over. Yet, the hardy continue to use the water with determination regardless, well into the winter. These are my local heroes and I feel quite overdressed heading into the same sea wearing a wetsuit.
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