Scorched Earth (2010-)
Wildfires are a common occurrence in California. A combination of extremely high temperatures, strong winds, a long drought, and population growth have produced lethal, fast-moving blazes. The late summer winds that blow into California from the Great Basin region, east of the state – the so-called “Diablo winds” – drop elevation as they move out towards sea level. That has a few knock-on effects. As the pressure increases at lower altitudes, the air gets warmer, the wind speed increases, and the humidity level drops. That produces ideal conditions for a fast-moving wildfire.
California has just experienced its hottest summer on record (2021), with less than 25% average rainfall. The heat dries out vegetation, making it all the more combustible if a spark ignites in the wrong place. The state is also still feeling the effects of a five-year drought that parched its forests, leaving tens of millions of dead trees in its wake – more fuel for the fire. California’s extremely wet 2016-2017 winter has also contributed to the spread of the blaze. The large amounts of vegetation that grew in the rain then dried out in the extremely hot summer that followed, providing even more fuel.
A presentation of my work from the past two decades. Hosted by APU California. (please click link above)
Fridays Rain Shadow (2020 -) by Marcus Doyle
My first impression of The Mojave was that it did not appear to be a desert at all. There were no sweeping sand dunes or large barrel cactus synonymous with the western deserts I had visited prior to this one. For the most part, the Mojave appeared almost ‘garden like,’ with an array of thorny plant life and Joshua Trees in a land otherwise known as a Rain Shadow.
On my first few trips the Mojave looked, and felt, uninhabitable. Everything was sharp, dry, and incredibly hot with temperatures often above 100 degrees. I knew early on that I wanted to get across the feeling of being in the desert and did not want to romanticize settings with beautiful soft light. The harsh midday sun and use of slow color film gave me the look and feel I wanted together with a 3-1 panoramic ratio, a format which is closest to what the human eye actually sees. This method of shooting enabled me to work quickly and instinctively.
I began looking for signs that people could exist in such an austere environment and began heading out to the desert every Friday. Driving mostly unpaved roads I was provided with an abundance of material from discarded old cars, to plane hangers and entire house contents littered through the Brittlebush.
Time moves slowly in the Rain Shadow, a place seemingly unaffected by pandemics and drought. Fires are consumed back to nature and decay of the man-made seems frozen in time.
This harsh arid environment brings with it a simple beauty like no other.
Night Vision (2004) by Matt Damsker
The photographs of Marcus Doyle transform the familiar spaces and landscapes of the modern world into twilight zones– nearly surreal, almost alien, yet always recognizable for what they are…Doyle’s large-format approach, with saturated colors that result from exposures as long as three hours, turns his unstaged tableaux into visions of exalted expectancy amidst man’s tendency to trivialize. Indeed, it is as if these easily overlooked spaces are awaiting the arrival of nothing less than an intergalactic mother ship. But Doyle doesn’t strive for any rhetorical or ironic effect, although his photographs are rich with aesthetic ironies. Photography, after all, is fundamentally about light, yet for the most part Doyle photographs darkness, painstakingly capturing the fugitive illumination that is always there yet often invisible to the naked eye. Just as ironic is the rigorous absence of human figuration, yet all of Doyle’s deserted landscapes have been impinged upon by human development, urban sprawl or feeble gestures that aim to reincorporate the natural world where man has more or less rolled over it.
Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, “Rock Voices”, was published in 1981 by St. Martin’s Press.
In Conversation: Michael Diemar (2008)
Night images, the urban sprawl, these are central to your work. Where do they stem from?
– Both go back to my childhood. I grew up in Carlisle in the north of England. My parents and I used to visit my grandparents in Scotland. On the way back home, it would always be dark and I remember vividly seeing the glow of the city as we were coming down the motorway. For years and years I remembered that view and the warm feeling the glow gave me. And in fact, The first picture I ever took, I was twelve I think, was an attempt to capture the city at night, from the motorway bridge. I still have that first photograph and it is apparent that my subject matter was there from the start. The artificial light falling on the fields and the outskirts of the city and I still look for the same glow when I drive back to Carlisle. And that was how I started taking pictures.
Taking night pictures?
– Yes, I only took pictures after dark, using my grandfather’s old camera and mainly on the stops on the motorway. Deserted streets lit by street lamps, petrol stations, power stations, subject matter that most people found sombre or simply nondescript and boring. But to me they had a particular magic. They seemed like bridges to something unknown, had a promise of exciting travel and adventure. And photographing them after dark gave the scenes a sense of deep mystery.
What about the urban sprawl?
– We lived on a housing development on the outskirts of Carlisle, with rows of identical houses. We moved in when everything was new, the grass was freshly grown, the trees were tiny saplings. As time passed, families began to add their own individual touches. Painting their front doors, putting garden gnomes and little statues in their gardens. I started photographing the individual houses at night using long exposures. The images I liked the most were those of the houses in the end of the streets, where you could see the fields and the hills that surrounded the estate, the intersection between nature and the man-made environment.
You lived right where Carlisle meets the countryside?
– Yes, five – ten minutes and you were in country side so the urban sprawl was definitely something I grew up in and was surrounded by. We never really went on holiday abroad much. It was always day trips to the country side or the seaside which is something else that has interested me. The Hinterland as I tend to call it now. We often went to the Solway Coast which was close to where my mum grew up. I have returned there with my camera over the last few years and those images are probably the most personal in the book. A lot of landscape photographers tend to go back to where they grew up, to try and capture something from their childhood. It wasn’t until I went to live in America for three years that I went back to photograph my home town. And then I did see it with fresh eyes
Were you doing straight landscapes as well?
– Yes, I was also doing landscapes but no portraits. It just didn’t appeal to me. I think more reflective as a person. And I was very much into the long exposures. I didn’t really know much about the theory so I went on instinct. But gradually I learnt more, enough to make some fairly decent prints.
So the subject matter was there from the start?
– Yes, exactly the same as it is now. That all changed when I went to college to study photography. If I had taken those kind of pictures and shown them to the tutors, they simply wouldn’t have been interested. It was all about nudes, portraits, images that supposedly said something about the person. So at college I concentrated on nudes.
Where did you study?
– At Lancaster University in Blackpool.
Blackpool is a famous seaside resort, “Fun City”, with bars, fun fairs, arcades, dance halls, brightly lit in neon. But I don’t recall having seen any images by you of Blackpool?
– No, it just didn’t tempt me photographically. Perhaps it was just too close at the time.
The decision to study photography, was it with view to making the images you are making now?
– No, it was in order to decide if I wanted to make my living as a photographer. I knew I wanted to take pictures. Being away from home, moving to a new city was a big change. I didn’t study that much. It was only in the final year that I had to knuckle down to get my degree but It was all nudes. It was the only thing there that I could think to photograph. There was a dance school at college and I used the dancers as models. But I also learnt that I could print black and white fairly well. So when I left college I needed to make a living so I got a job as black and white printer. After a year or so I started taking landscapes. I set up my own commercial darkroom, attracted big name clients which enabled me to make the trips abroad for my personal work.
Who were you printing for?
– David Bailey, John Swannell, Terry O’Neil amongst others. My very first big job, when I was fresh out of college and working for Robin Bell in Chelsea, was processing Richard Averdon’s 8 X 10 films. Averdon was doing a shoot in England and I had pretty much blagged my into this. To be given that opportunity was incredible and luckily I didn’t mess up. I learnt a lot from Robin. He couldn’t explain what he was doing technically but he could show you. He just had a feel for printing and I had it as well. So after three years I left to set up my own business. It was so successful that found it more and more difficult to get any personal work done. Eventually I closed it down when the landscape thing took hold.
Initially you were shooting landscapes in black and white?
– Yes, and I stuck to black and white until I went to Iceland, in July – August 1997. There was 24 hour light, incredible colours. I realised in an instant that that I simply couldn’t do justice to the landscape with the black and white film I had brought so I dashed off to buy colour film. It was a turning point and it opened up colour photography for me. I haven’t shot a black and white landscape since. There was so much more I could do with colour.
– With the night work, the colours became saturated. There’s no manipulation but it does become manipulated when you use long exposures. They saturate the colours. I use daylight film and it can’t really read the details in reds and blues so it blocks it and makes colour fields solid and more vibrant. If the sky is cloudy and full of mercury vapours from the street lamps you get these orangy-red glowings and it tends to go very, very red on the film, like fire.
So you opted to shoot at night to get those colours?
– It was because of the colours, the feel and it was also easier to make things look moody and atmospheric at night time and of course there was nobody around to bother me.
I remember your first major showing, at Paris Photo in 2005. Most reviews referred to the images as “hyper real”? Is that a term you feel comfortable with?
– It’s funny because to me the images couldn’t be more real. They show things and environments we see every day but simply don’t take notice of, especially not at night time. People don’t stop to look at a tree. Once you take a picture, you make people see things in a different way and the long exposures change the way things look. Clouds tend to become streaks, lights flare, the colours become saturated.
It strikes that many of the images look the way one would imagine a night scene, not the way one would see it?
– Yes, and I suppose I romantisise a fair bit and I have become better at gauging what the images will look like once the film is developed, within reason. “Hyper real” is an interesting term to describe the images but there is nothing added, nothing taken out. I do all my own colour printing and it’s very straight forward.
Some of the images are vaguely gothic, others vaguely surreal. Are these qualities you set out to achieve?
– It’s not intentional. Maybe it’s something I do create but subconsciously, as if I’m peeking in somewhere. But I have to admit, I do look for the unusual, things that are out context. There’s a picture in the Salton Sea series, with a plastic chick in the water, taken at dusk. It’s so out of context and yet not because it was a lake where children had once played. Had there been a clutter of stuff I probably wouldn’t have taken the picture but on its own the chick had a certain character. I also took pictures of cars. They looked like they had just been left there. I almost feel sorry for them. They take on their own personality. They looked surreal to me when I saw them. What is a car doing in the middle of a desert? But I can’t recall any images looking gothic.
I was thinking of the image of the boat ramp.
– Ah, yes. There was nothing gothic about the scene when I came across it. That was a ten minute exposure, late in the day, I think I used some neutral density filters to darken it. It was raining and miserable but I think it comes across that it was very sombre and dark. The waves were churning but the long exposure gave it a stillness . And the interesting thing is, the images that look really still are usually the ones where I was fighting against the elements, the wind and the rain. The one with the boat ramp gave me the idea for my next project, based around water and how you can manipulate it through long exposures.
Going through the images in the book, I realised that many of the compositions reminded me of images by a number of 19th century photographers, Captain Linnaeus Tripe, Robert Fenton and Gustave Le Gray. Has the 19th century aesthetic been important to you?
– I think so and it goes back to my student years. The library at the university was extremely limited and it consisted mainly of historical books, Fox Talbot, Gustave Le Gray etc. At that point I hadn’t even heard of Richard Misrach or Joel Meyerowitz. The books weren’t in the library. So the 19th century photographers were much more important at that stage. In fact, I did my dissertation on Julia Margaret Cameron.
One of the similarities is that you often place the subject in the middle?
– It’s interesting because I get a lot of criticism on the blogs these days, “why do you put everything in the middle of the pictures?”. That’s regarded as a big no-no, especially by William Eggleston who said, “Don’t put your image in the middle”. The reason I started doing it was, If there was a tree in the middle of a parking lot, I put it in the middle to make a point and I think that’s what a lot people didn’t realise at the time. I was doing it to show the patterns in the landscape, to show “this is how you are meant to look at it. There’s a post here and a post there and a tree in the middle”. That’s how people see it when they look past it. They don’t put it to the sides or use the rule of thirds so a lot things I do tend to be against the rules. But it’s also what is comfortable with my eye and going back to the 19th century, I think they must have had the same feeling for what was right.
And of course, like 19th century photography, the process is time consuming?
– Yes, working with the view camera really slows you down. It makes you look on the ground glass and it’s a lot easier to see the final image. I tend to put the camera down and I very rarely move it after that. I may move it up or down but very not to the side. The lenses I use are pretty much what what my eyes see.
Do you plan your images, that is scout for locations?.
– No, my work is about about reacting to something immediately and instinctively. I tend to stumble on scenes. I don’t scout for scenes or locations. I find them. I see something I want to photograph and if I don’t capture it there and then I abandon it. I never plan a photograph and I never go back. What I do though is to build up bodies up work, images of trees, parking lots, sport fields but I find them by chance. I do little a bit of research and I usually have feeling that I will find something good without having any real visual proof beforehand. But it doesn’t happen without that body of work behind you. Once you have that you start to see things. That was how the Urban Sprawl project came about. I had ten , twenty images and then realised it was a much bigger project. Even though I’m done with it for the moment I will probably go back to it and continue with it. There so much of it. The mixture of man made and nature and how they affect each other.
How come you never go back. Is it because you tried it and it didn’t work out?
– Yes, and even if it was just because the film was ruined I wouldn’t do it because you never get the same thing, not feeling you had at that moment. I’ve tried it and it just didn’t work. There’s always something different. The weather’s different. The light’s different or the exposure time. And I like the idea of having that one image and that’s it. It makes it, not quite a painting, but a kind of one-off. The only reason I would go back would be if the conditions had changed. I made images of Malibu just after the big fire and it would be interesting to see how nature has fared and healed itself since then.
As evident from the titles, you travelled and photographed urban sprawls around Europe, France, Spain, Italy, the United States?
– Yes, the titles are something of a compromise but it seems collectors always want to know where an image was made. To me that’s fairly unimportant. I’m not a documentary photographer. What is important is the rush and the emotions I have when I see something. I take the picture and move on.
But the Salton Sea project differs from that. You returned again and again over six months to photograph it?
– Salton City is located in the desert, roughly 100 miles from Los Angeles. It was a popular holiday resort during the 60’s and early 70’s but was abandoned in 1978 after the lake had been severely polluted. I had read about it and drove out to see it for myself in 1999. It’s absolutely horrid but incredibly beautiful as well. The light is stunning because of the high salt content. The water evaporates during the day do you get this shimmering haze. It’s a strange experience to see the abandoned buildings. There are still bedclothes and towels in the motels. As if people just upped and left one day. There’s a decay which is somehow very beautiful.
Is Salton City completely abandoned?
– There are still a few people left, mostly Vietnam veterans and hotel employees who didn’t have anywhere else to go. The lake is now being cleaned up, with view to re-establishing Salton City as a resort. So I suppose you could say I photographed a vanishing world, the decayed Salton City.
You worked on the Salton Sea during your three year stay in America. Did you go there specifically to take photographs?
– My wife had always wanted to live in America and and I thought I could go and produce some great work. There are so many great landscape photographers over and it’s because it’s so easy to make good images. You get in your car, stop, get the camera out and there is nobody to interfere. You have the combination of beautiful landscape and the quirky. I mean, I could have spent a lifetime just photographing California, which I discovered driving backwards and forwards across America eight times. The images were getting a bit thin. They got better as I concentrated on one area.
You keep returning to the point where nature meets civilisation. Are you interested in the environmental aspects as or is it purely to make strong images?
– It’s there but never at the forefront. As I said, I think I romanticise quite a bit. The images look a lot nicer than the reality. Especially with the Salton Sea images. It was the most horrid, putrid, unbearably hot place I’ve ever been to. But when the light reaches a certain point in the day, the place comes alive with colour. A kind beauty in decay. I suppose I’m almost glamourising it but it has never been my intention to make images that look real, to document environments. I’m looking for the beauty and create my own interpretation of it. As much as I think it is important to take in interest in green issues, I don’t want to be political or to be a propagandist. I don’t think you can change people’s minds through photography.
You said it was easier to photograph in America?
– Yes, my wife is a portrait photographer and therefore stayed in the metropolitan areas so she never saw the America I saw. I was shocked by the poverty, people living on the bridling, one step away from living on the street, living in trailer parks, no money, no aspirations but they’re so open to photography. They almost take a pride that you’re photographing their country. And if there’s a fence, there’s always somebody there to let you in. It’s different in the big cities of course and I have no interest in photographing them anyway.
Photographing in Europe, especially in the U.K, is much more difficult. Have you ever run into trouble?
– Yes, in France. I was suddenly surrounded by police. It was a stupid situation. I was photographing a wasteland with some houses just bordering it. What had happened was, there was an English couple who lived in one of the houses and had seen me with my camera. The police couldn’t see the problem. It was the English attitude to photography! People assume you’re up to no good. There are a lot of places in Britain I wouldn’t even think about photographing because of all the problems. There’s even an ad now, because of of the terror threat, “If you see somebody photographing security cameras, report it” And there are cameras everywhere now in Britain so it’s difficult to avoid. In Britain I concentrate on my home town, the seaside, places where you would expect cameras.
What about the general public?
– People are always so curious. I have had people coming when I was still exposing, having half hour conversations with them not realising I was taking a picture. I haven’t been in fights but I’ve had people kicking over the tripod, staring into the lens and I’ve been chased a few times. I wear a luminous vest and some people probably think I’m a surveyor.
Is it getting more difficult?
– I think it is. Post 9/11 there’s so much paranoia. I remember calling up Sellafield Nuclear power station , asking to take pictures and they were absolutely fine. It was long time ago. It would be impossible now. There’s a place called Chapel Cross near where my mum grew up and it was the oldest nuclear power station in the world, 60 years. I asked to photograph it when it was demolished and they collapsed the towers. I tried to get permission and I even knew people who had worked there but I was turned down.
But other places must be open surely?
– Yes, like Cuba where people practically invite you to come in and photograph their houses. The problem with the easy access places is that photographers come back with the same pictures. Greenland has opened up, it’s cheaper to go to Iceland, certain parts of Chernobyl are opened for guided visits. And the photographers look for the same things so it’s pointless. It stops people thinking about their own work.
After three years in America you moved back to England?
– Yes, to London. I soon headed down to Brighton with my camera. I was fascinated buy the old pier that burnt and then fell into the sea. I also went back to Carlisle and saw it with fresh eyes. It was then that I realised that I had everything that I needed on my doorstep.
You also made a series of remarkable images of fields. There’s one of a cauliflower field. They look as if they’re made of steel and then spray painted?
– Some of the images of fields remind me of model landscapes. Strange and slightly artificial. The field images are the ones that surprise me the most. It’s pitch dark when I head out. I must be a strange sight with my headlamp walking out into the fields. I set up just before dark so that I can focus the camera. The film picks up details I don’t see in the dark and I get these strange light effects because of light pollution, cars, aeroplanes, domestic light being turned on and off.
Your images of Northern England are unlike any others I have seen. They’re very different from Bill Brandt’s almost gothic black and white images and the “it’s grim up north” documentary images?
– Most colour photographers haven’t bothered with Northern England. Technically there’s no difference in photographing a field in Cumbria to the deserts in America. A lot of the time the images are on your door step. You just have to look for it.
In America you were a traveller, here, you’re photographing your own turf.
– I still discover things where I grew up but you’re right, there is a personal attachment the comes through in the images. And I think the Northern England pictures are a lot colder but then the climate is a lot colder. The american pictures are warmer. It shows in the light, the long exposures. There is one of a rock where we used to go every year and I suppose I wanted to make an image that was really striking of it.
You said that you saw your home environment with fresh eyes?
– Yes, and of course it seemed strange compared to America. But I also saw the similarities, especially with the housing estates, and as I carry on travelling I see more similarities. So the new work is about similarities all over the planet. tt’s interesting because when people adapt, they tend to do it in the same way, put borders around their houses, grow gardens. As a human race we function on a similar level when it comes to homes and boundaries.
You mentioned that you often head out in rough weather. Must be a problem when it’s windy?
– I have heard a lot of photographers say that they simply won’t go out with a 10 X 8 camera in bad weather. If the wind blows, the bellows blow. I developed my own technique to cope with bad weather by photographing at Dungeness, on a section of the coast that’s notoriously windy. I really wanted to photograph it and came up with the idea of using an umbrella. The problem with using an umbrella is, you have to point it into the wind to shield the camera from it. And when the wind changes direction you have to move the umbrella. It becomes a real battle. Almost man against nature. It must look ridiculous. I use different size umbrellas. In severe conditions I use a huge fishing umbrella and it has caught me off guard on a number of occasions and lifted me off the ground. And rather than let go I’ve been off down the seashore or whatever. I don’t know if anybody else uses that technique but it works for me.
And the actual process?
– It’s very instinctual. It’s taken a long time to perfect it and I couldn’t have made the images I make now say ten years ago. It’s the long exposure that is the key. There are so many things to remember. Keeping the film flat. The 10 X 8 is so big that it can move in the holder after a couple of minutes so I have to stick the film down. I have seen a lot people attempting to shoot night scenes with long exposures on a digital camera. They get noise on the image, a lot of flare, all these things that it’s taken me years to master. It’s the one thing digital cameras can’t replicate, night images with lots of details. The technology just isn’t there. The cameras get so hot. I use technology that’s been used for over 150 years, the same size as the pioneers.
Speaking of which, what set up do you use?
– Very simple, a couple of lenses, 10 x 8 camera, tripod. As I said, the process slows you down. The film is expensive so I think carefully about each shot. If there’s the slightest doubt, I don’t take the picture. So I guess I’m editing as I’m working. The last trip I made to the states I shot 30 sheets in a month. If I had taken a 35 mm camera I would probably have shot 30 rolls of film. The way I see it, every sheet is like a roll of film. Plus, with long exposures. By the time time I have exposed a sheet, the conditions have changed and it’s not the same shot anymore. The moment has gone.
Michael Diemar is a London-based collector and consultant. He is also editor-in-chief of The Classic, a new free magazine about classic photography. He is a long-time writer about the photography scene, writing extensively for several Scandinavian photography publications, as well as for the E-Photo Newsletter and I Photo Central.
Thursdays by the Sea (2008) by Kafka Lenton
Upon first reflection, it is the absence of life that is most apparent in Marcus Doyle’s work. Yet, closer inspection finds that life is indeed there, but it is hidden and far from view, subterranean, almost outlawed. And so it is at southern California’s Salton Sea; the largest lake in California, which was formed in 1905 after heavy rains and melting snow, caused the Colorado River to flood and breach at the Imperial Valley. For a time the Salton Sea was actually a bigger tourist attraction than Yosemite National Park, but now is little more than a sparsely inhabited ghost town, haunting visitors with lives once lived, others only half lived, and some never even begun.
To an outsider the Salton Sea probably represents an apocalyptic vision of the future, a man-made seaside town that has been ravaged by nature; chaotic, dirty, disorganized and left to rot like the dead fish that often gather up on its shores. But that is only the starting point for Marcus Doyle; it is the beauty amidst the tragedy that truly interests him. When viewing Doyle’s work you are reminded of the old adage, even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day. Viewed at the right hour and in just the right light, even the most dank, destroyed place may take on a beauty and truth that can change our perceptions of that which we call paradise. Without an artist like Doyle to stop time and capture the oft-unseen beauty, we may never behold its profound magnificence.
Doyle avoids the well-trodden path of previous explorers of the Salton Sea, choosing instead to focus on the splendor that once was. As in all his work, he is more interested in how life operates in spite of concrete intrusion or ruin through flood–there is never a sense of pity, more so a feeling of respect for the valiance and heroism that emerges from the swamp of hardship. But he also inadvertently finds a strange renewal, a kind of re-birth that the current residents form by their determined presence in the face of such slow decay.
From my own firsthand experience (I made three trips out to the Salton Sea), I have learned that beneath Doyle’s meticulous planning and carefully thought out composition lies what some might call the music of chance, in other words, openness to spontaneity, where rather than being constrained by the ever changing strands of light, he instead works with the moving picture, like a jazz musician takes a note and riffs on it during a jamming session. His process is slow. He is dedicated to capturing within the swiftly sinking magic hour and often only procures a couple of photographs per trip. His shots are always first seen and then noted down. He lives with them in his mind allowing time to pass (often weeks) and then sees them again with fresh eyes on the day of the trip. The resulting shots are then reinterpreted through his relationship to the light as it makes a willing supplication to the coming darkness.
Upon talking to Marcus (often on our long trips back and forth out to the desert) he expressed a strong advocacy for the process of film in all its various stages; the taking of the picture, the uncertainty of what is captured, the time that passes and finally the reveal in the developing. Interestingly, in his early years Doyle developed and printed pictures for many respected photographers who trusted his dedication to perfection in the final outcome. Now it is he who is able to put the finishing touch to the work as it eventually reaches completion. For him there are artistic decisions and choices made within each stage, even before the shot has been developed. What is clear is that he is more drawn to this storied way of taking pictures than the immediate gratification of digital photography.
For Doyle The Salton Sea quickly became more than just an interesting place to take photographs. As the project took shape it became as much about the journey there and back, morphing into what Doyle began to lovingly refer to as “the daytrip.” A word that for him harkens back to his childhood when like all traditional British families his parents would organize seasonal day trips to seaside towns such as Blackpool, Morcambe and Whitley Bay–all of which have featured prominently in his growth as an artist. In fact he studied photography in Blackpool. One of his most recognizable works (#8 Whitley Bay) highlights this stark, lonely coastal town, filled with the ghosts of people who have come and gone, a place that calls out to be populated again with the bustle, noise and charm of life. The Salton Sea certainly lends itself to Doyle’s aesthetic. Indeed, it is worth remembering that the incredible popularity of the town in the fifties had started to rapidly decline in the late sixties/early seventies and by the mid eighties the state was warning residents of the high toxicity levels in the lake. Along with the increased toxins came high levels of Saline, (the Sea actually has an even greater saline quality than ocean water) which in turn caused a sudden increase in Phytoplankton algae; an organism that has a rather foul smell not unlike rotten eggs. This decay saw to it that by the late eighties the people were all but gone and what remained was a feeling of what once was. That void and energy left behind when the people leave, is a mystery to which Marcus Doyle’s photography seems inextricably bound.
Much has been made of the dilapidation of this once thriving community, but Doyle’s lens often chooses instead to focus on the regenerative quality of man in the face of such despair. Many of the photographs in this series show signs of life that is not only still present, but also actually coming back to the area. This regeneration is mirrored in the sea, which is constantly re-circulating, due in large part to agricultural run-off from irrigation in the Imperial and Coachella Valleys.
The heart of Marcus Doyle’s work beats with disparity. The pictures are often of modern subjects, but the process of taking them is very old. Pictures such as #___ and #___ also show us that there is something otherworldly about the work, almost as if the people have been removed by someone or something. Perhaps the most astonishing truth is that he never removes anything from his pictures either manually or digitally. This is the world as we know it, albeit for brief glimpses. There has been no alien abduction. Instead we are left with an eerie, yet comfortable feeling that when faced with no people, it only makes us see the landscape with even more clarity and elucidation.
At first glance, the Salton Sea represents a world marginalized and separate to the world in which most of us live. However, look a little deeper, as in each time the water recedes, and what comes to the surface are the same lives, pastimes and habits you might find anywhere else in America. People watch television, make dinner, read a book–it is only the grandeur and serenity that is missing. Perhaps from the outside it looks very different but once inside it all, we see a familiar fumbling toward the same inevitable end; where the only thing that can be hoped for is a life lived
Kafka Lenton is a writer and artist based out of Austin, TX.
By Coastal. Interview with Laura Noble (2010)
LN This project began four years ago I understand, after discovering a journal that belonged to your grandfather, John McGregor?
Yes, my Grandmother had passed away at the age of 101 and we were clearing out her house. I was looking for paintings and sketches my Grandfather had made when I came across his journal relating to a trip he had made in the 1950’s around the coast of Scotland from East to West. LN So you embarked upon retracing his steps, how long did this take you ?
I purposely gave myself exactly one year from the date of finding the journal which was the November of 2008. I knew I had to give myself a deadline in order to commit to the project. LN The decision to expand upon this project has now resulted in a huge body of work, which you have expressed will never be complete?
It really wasn’t long after finishing the North Shore series that I realized the potential of expanding the project around the rest of the UK. I thought I could do the whole of the UK’s coastline in a couple of years if I made one trip per week. This in fact took four years. But as with the North Shores series I was not getting a sense of completion regarding the work. I think part of it was that even if you visited the same place ten times, it was never the same. The light, the level of the sea, the atmosphere. All things made a place feel different. The Coast is constantly changing, the sea is constantly moving, and it is difficult to sum up an area just in a photograph. It was this realization that a project like this would take a lifetime to complete, and even then you probably still wouldn’t get it.
LN You gave yourself clear boundaries on what constituted a ‘By Coastal’ location, how did you measure this?
Just because you can’t see the sea, it doesn’t mean you’re not near it.
I didn’t want the project to be just seascapes, it had to have more scope, and so with the help of a Sat Nav device I was able to pin point my location and worked within a ¼ mile of the sea which is actually only a few minutes on foot. This gave me very accurate distances and locations, which I thought was important in regards to the images and opened up all kinds of interesting subject matter which still held reference to the coastline.
LN There seems to be two stark contrasts in these ‘By Coastal’ areas; they are either populated or very baron? How did these places feel by comparison?
What I found most fascinating on my journey is how quickly the coastal landscape changed. One minute you would be in a populated area and the next minute you would be surrounded by strange rock formations or sand dunes without a single person in sight. There’s a strange quietness to be found when places are void of people, especially by the sea, yes there is the sound of waves and perhaps the wind, but you almost don’t hear it, they are peaceful sounds. Compare this to the noise of fairground rides and slot machines and you have quite a contrast. LN Having photographed the coastline over such a prolonged period, has your relationship or appreciation of the sea changed?
The fond childhood memories of sandy egg sandwiches on Blackpool Beach and runaway donkeys will always be present each time I visit the coast. I think appreciation comes from photographing any subject matter over a period of time. What has changed is my perception of the sea and its coastline. One of the problems I have always faced with my photography is when to stop shooting and leave the place alone. The coast on the other hand is very final and you can’t go any further without getting wet. It’s a line you cannot cross and this is what gives completion to the work as you just can’t do anymore. I had never really thought of the sea in this way until I started to shoot it. LN Some of your images are deceptively calm in their appearance, whereas in fact the long exposure can often disguise the less than hospitable conditions at the time?
One thing, which is apparent in this body of work, is the quality of light I try to shoot under. Landscape photographers often prefer to shoot in bad weather as apposed to a bright, cloudless sunny day. I would say 50% of this work is made under an umbrella with my camera wrapped in plastic bags. I love the idea that a photograph made in a storm can look so peaceful with the help of a long exposure and a large format camera. Shooting this way is a real challenge, but incredibly rewarding, even if it has cost me a couple of lenses. As deceptive as this may seem I wanted to give the impression of being at peace with the sea, not fighting against it. LN You have mentioned your avoidance of well known landmarks in this series. Did this decision make your scouting for locations more difficult or interesting?
I really wasn’t interested in doing what had gone before photographing places and landmarks everyone is familiar with. It was far more interesting looking for something different. It actually makes things a little easier as you don’t fall foul of the postcard syndrome. I would still head for well known places but usually walked under the pier rather than along it. LN There is a lot of humor in your work, places with glamorous names like California and Dreamland, do not quite live up to their billing.
A lot of my work is made with a tongue in cheek aesthetic. Take for instance California located on Norfolk coast. On a sunny day, in a certain spot it really does look like parts of California along the Pacific Coast Highway. But I was more interested in its row of three houses, a chip shop, a pub, and a run down amusement arcade behind me. It could be said I went there just for the name, but as luck would have it, it was one of the quirkiest places I have been to in the UK a wonderful part of the project. The UK is full of places like this and its not until you photograph them that you make people notice. LN The effect of human interaction with the natural environment has been a major theme throughout your photography for many years. This must be even more prominent in coastal areas as the sea itself, weather conditions and the like are all forces to contend with?
Every photograph I make contains some element of the man-made. It is indeed an approach I have used for as far back as I remember. I did think this approach would be quite difficult, especially where the sea was involved, but somehow I kept finding these extraordinary situations. A washed up tricycle or a half inflated toy Dolphin. These were one off moments never to return. I found the more I looked for these kind of things, the more I found them. But what I became really interested in was how man had adapted to the sea, defending himself against it as well as harnessing its power. There’s an area located along the John Muir Way in Berwickshire near Torness Power Station. Huge concrete wave breakers like giant Lego bricks defend its shores, while a Hydro Electric generator harnesses the waves power and turns it into electricity. Its really quite something and a fantastic place to make photographs.
LN The seaside has always been synonymous with entertainment as if the seaside alone was not enough. These added on entertainments often promise much but deliver little? Is this what attracts you to them?
I think this goes back to what I was saying about my ‘tongue in cheek aesthetic.’ Seaside resorts always model themselves on bigger attractions elsewhere like calling an amusement arcade Las Vegas or a thirty second rollercoaster The Big One or the Revolution, but in reality there are very poor substitutes. I am always looking for contradictions as subject matter and seaside entertainment is awash with them.
LN What are your own first memories of being by the coastline?
An orange Volvo Estate with no air conditioning on the hottest day ever with my Mum, Dad, Auntie and Uncle, Two cousins, Me and my Sister heading for BlackpooI.
I had one pounds worth of 10p’s and I have never been so excited as when I saw the glimmering Irish Sea for the first time.
LN The architecture of seaside towns seems to compete with the natural beauty in colorful weather-beaten hues of blues, greens and pinks. Coastal living seems to be a strange combination of highlights and lowlights. They must be a gift for you as a photographer?
So many photographers (myself included) spend their lives traveling abroad seeking out new places to photograph. A few people told me I was brave to tackle such a subject here in the UK. But I approached the By Coastal project as I would any other. In fact a lot of the time I did feel like I was in another country. The diversity of the coast makes it one of the most interesting subjects I have had the pleasure to photograph.
LN You manage through displaying the manmade environment to populate your photographs without including figures in your compositions. This could be deemed as a more anthropological approach to your subject?
I think a lot of the time you can tell more about mankind using photography without actually putting someone in a photograph. I am very interested in the evidence and monuments left behind and also the interaction with nature and the man-made. For example the Black Rocks, Eyemouth image looks at first glance to be a natural rock formation somewhere along the coast of Scotland. It is in fact a purpose built wave barrier made to look like a natural reef. You could say it’s a bit like Man playing God trying to create his own world, but in truth the area is protected and any form of wave breaker had to look natural. I am pretty sure images like this do define mankind, albeit in a very subtle way.
LN A photograph of your grandfathers paint box is a very poignant reminder of his journey and the pictures you never got to see yourself?
I put the photograph of my Grandfathers paint box at the back of the book in the acknowledgement section as it never really fit anywhere, although may be I should of made a bigger deal of it as its such a beautiful thing. My Grandfather did sell a lot of his paintings, but he also gave a lot as gifts and even some to pay off small debts. I found it very sad that people had thrown a lot of them away and for this reason the paint box itself is my most treasured possession. LN Your use of colour is akin to that of a painter through the lens rather than the brush. How important was it to render this project in a colorful way, as many turn away from colour to focus only on the bleak and banal?
A lot of the work in this series is very monochromatic, especially in reference to the sea scapes. But by adding colour you create a different mood to black and white. It was not my aim to create a stark contrast of the coast, which I feel, would of happened had I not shot in colour. Its also interesting to see the subtle changes in the light depending on the time of year and position of the sun. Again something you would not get shooting in black and white.
I have shot in colour for so long now that it’s the only way I see an image. Sometimes I am drawn to a scene just because of a certain colour. The Green Bus stop being an excellent example. LN Industry plays a large role in this project. Your photographs belie a sublime beauty even when capturing coal furnaces. However, the ‘interruption’ of the natural landscape is a stark reminder of the human encroachment upon the land?
It was important for me to include some Industry within the project and perhaps a little of what damage these industries create. I had intended to focus more on the nuclear industry with Selafield being the obvious choice, but I was more drawn to the blast furnaces of the North and its working class surroundings. Having said that there is an image in the book taken near Chapel Cross (Red Lights, Pow Foot) which was the oldest nuclear reactor in Britain until it was decommissioned about five years ago. LN You say that this is a lifetime project. As the inevitable erosion of the coastline over time, will you revisit any of the places you have already photographed in the future?
That is the ongoing question and possibly something I will return to. Its difficult knowing when to stop a project like this, but I think the real answer is that you cannot. Putting the images in book form is one way of making closure, but its definitely ongoing now and something I will return to again and again. I don’t think the work is accurate enough to be a documentation of Britain’s coastline; after all it is simply my interpretation and perhaps a little bias at that. LN Has this project altered any preconceptions you may have had about the UK before embarking upon it?
We are often led to believe that areas around Britain’s coast are bleak inhospitable places as some often are. People thought I was crazy to venture out in the middle of the winter months and head for the coast. I had visions of shipwrecks and fat old fishermen with big white beards mending nets. But it really wasn’t like that at all and a lot of the time I felt like I was on holiday and was about to be found out.
Britain has some of the most beautiful parts of coastline I have ever seen only to be ruined by tacky shops and over priced car parks. When my Grandfather set out on his trip in the 1950’s there was none of this and I feel that that’s how it should of remained. We build attractions on the site of the attractions. Tacky cafes and bars have replaced places where people used to have picnics. People walk along a sandy beach eating ice cream only to be sick later on a fairground ride. Car parks are built on land that people would walk through enjoying the scenery and all to make money. But I knew all this before knowing it would make good material for a photography project.
LN In the last chapter you open up the coast again with your visual language and also on a metaphoric level as roads lead us out towards the unknown.
I didn’t want the end of the book with a ‘final’ image simply because the work is nowhere near a completed project. The coastline will always be changing and for that very reason its outcome will always be unknown.
Laura Noble is a London based Gallerist. Author of ‘The Art of Collecting Photography’ and primary essays in the following monographs: ‘Crazy God’ by Yvonne De Rosa, ‘Chrysalis’ & ‘Circus’ by Anderson & Low, ‘London’ by Lluis Real. Contributor to magazines including: Eyemazing, Snoecks, LIP, Photoicon, Image, Next Level, Foam & Leisure Center. Editor at Large for Photoicon Magazine. Director of L A Noble Gallery