And furthermore ...

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Friday, 21 February 2014


Photos from the seaside
 “The sea, the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea.” 
James Joyce; Ulysses

The snow is a metre deep and such a drag to walk through that little things like a litre of milk from the shop 50 metres away need decisions and planning. It has been cold for so long that when the temperature rises to minus 5 we believe that things are looking up. After all, a month ago it was reported that the Prairies were colder than Mars. Down in North Carolina a state of emergency has been called because an inch of snow has fallen, which might suggest that they aren’t that educated down there. Even in Istanbul, world capital of traffic accidents, (or maybe that’s Mumbai) they still know how to drive through a couple of inches of snow without wiping out every nearby vehicle. Then again, snow falls so seldom in North Carolina that we can forgive them what looks like unnecessary anxiety. 

Inevitably thoughts turn to the beach, that stretch of long white sand that people in Western Australia take for granted, or did until their government told them there were schools of man-eating sharks waiting off shore for the first fool to dip his toe in the water. Thousands don’t believe the Government but it isn’t entirely making things up. Marine biologists agree that sharks are more of a problem than they used to be, though the Government conveniently dodges the issue that its own bad management of the environment has led to conditions where sharks’ natural diets are disappearing. It’s not that sharks dislike us; they have nowhere else to go for food but the shoreline. But not to worry: if anything will keep those predators at bay it will be the toxic sludge leached into the water.
The beach: it used to be the place to go to rid oneself of worries. 

There are plenty of photographic books about the beach, from historical accounts of seaside resorts full of postcard reproductions made to look as dull as their subject is interesting, to others that are basically porn spelled A R T. Yes, to some of us the beach means Edwardian ladies walking along the promenade in enough clothing to repel a tank; to others their descendants wearing nothing but a few grains of sand. What seems to be missing from all this is a book about “The Beach”, or as the English prefer to call it, “the Seaside”: a place but also an idea. 

For some reason the history of the seaside begins with the English. To be absolutely historically accurate, it should start with the French and the Riviera, the Cote d’Azur, since they were the first to turn the seaside into a tourist venue, yet that detail usually gets lost. Possibly because the French resorts were for the upper classes whereas in England they started out for everyone. Responsible factory owners might pay for the workers to have a bank holiday by the sea, once they realized that one day’s largesse could buy them a few months of respect. Also, if you were living in places like Leeds and Nottingham, where the air alone was toxic enough to raise infant mortality rates to one in four, the seaside with its fresh breezes became a kind of mythical sanctuary.

Is it the same idea of sanctuary that also leads the broken hearted and the generally troubled to the beach? Some people instinctively head there the moment things turn wrong. Filmmakers have understood this for years. Want to show that the romance has ended? Put one of the characters on an empty beach and let them walk alone until they become a small speck on the screen. It’s a perversion of the idea of sanctuary, being out in the wide open and all alone, but we know that it is here that a person is safest with their thoughts. And it’s also a a perversion because the beach is a world where the sun shines, mostly, and the people who inhabit it have no body fat, arteriosclerosis or stiff joints. 

Of course, it would be silly to think of the beach as only a place where the broken hearted went to cure their inner heartaches. If that were the case our coastlines would be crowded with victims of existential misery. Who’d want to go near them then? Of course they are places for fun. No doubt those early pioneers who sat in a studio in their well constructed swimsuits thought they were having that, but as everyone knows, actual fun, the real stuff, begins when you strip down and charge into the water. The beach is a place where hang-ups aren’t left at the door, so to speak, but thrown on the ground This is a great photo: all about fun but strangely gloomy, and that construction in the background suggests they are somehow way out to sea, in the middle of nowhere.

My research, admittedly light, indicates that during the 19th century thousands, maybe even millions of Britishers flocked to the seaside, but taking the waters apparently meant getting close though not getting in them. There was a reason for that. Most people couldn’t actually swim. If they went in the water, they’d sink like a stone and that would be the last we’d hear from them, save a headstone in the local cemetery. ‘Taking the waters’ usually meant standing knee deep in the sea and breathing in the air, which would have helped if you had spent the rest of the year in a town like Leeds, sucking in the triumphs of the Industrial Revolution. 

His name is Bill and he is a G.I. Her name is Velma. It is 1944, and a story with a G.I named Bill and a girl called Velma has more or less written itself. It won’t end well. One of them will be holding the gun at the end. Let’s enjoy their happiness while we can.

Collect snapshots and before you know it you’ll have dozens like this one, of people with their head above water. It is one of those scenes we can’t resist buying partly because people couldn’t resist taken them. It is a self-created genre. The greatest gift George Eastman gave us wasn’t the camera but the means to photographs moments like this.

Any book devoted to the seaside has to include advertising and swimsuit models. These days thanks to colour, cheap printing processes and possibly a general decline in taste the images are mostly routine. In Turkey the 1940s you could buy a bar of Golden chocolate and get an actual photo of a Hollywood star, photographed by a leading studio photographer, a ridiculous notion today to most people in marketing, who’d reason it was too expensive and the public wouldn’t appreciate the gesture.

Finally we come to the seaside of the mind. While the Edwardian English stood on the promenade breathing in the sea air, convinced they were better off than their choleraic and typhoid riddled parents, a tribe of landlocked Paris and Berlin photographers were wondering why they had to travel so far when they could construct the seaside in their studios. In their imaginations, which they would say were also the public’s, whatever that meant, the seaside was the arena, what we might call the canvas, for an eroticism that was fey and artificial, and vivid because of that. 

The scope for such a project is vast, and we haven’t yet considered where Asia, Africa and South America belong in it. The feeling is that whoever took it on would soon find that one image on its own can’t account for the enormous variety of ways the seaside is represented. There are genres within genres and they themselves contain subtle distinctions. A thorough history of the beach must amount to thousands of images, showing us how people from Brooklyn thought of the seaside different to how people in Blackpool or Beijing did; what people who lived by the sea and those who never saw it thought of it; what the beach was like after hemlines went up, and before Jaws; why the English wore their clothes in the sand and why thousands of Australians are lining up to have growths removed. It’s something to leave to our descendants, so that they can look out across that putrid, acidic wasteland we'll leave to them and think that once we worshipped it.