On Thresholds and Snapshots
The Lighthouses of Dovercourt Bay8 min read by
After the end of the first COVID lockdown in 2020, my first trip out of London in weeks was to Dovercourt Bay — a drive of about 100 km (or a little over 60 miles) Southeast of Central London.
At Dovercourt Bay, there are two disused lighthouses considered of historic significance. The pair was put in place in the 1860s to aid navigation into the ports of Felixtowe and Harwich, and decommissioned after the First World War. They were built with pre-fabricated materials and stand on iron legs, a method of construction that was revolutionary in Victorian times. Both lighthouses underwent restoration work in the 1980s in order to ensure their preservation.
Under the flat daylight of a cloudy September morning, the lighthouses looked to me like husks of their former self. The blue and grey tones of the environment gave me the feeling that there was nowhere to find any warmth. The weather was cold even though Winter was still weeks away.
I made the two lighthouses the focus of my unease. Many uncertainties were playing on my mind I was wondering about the long-term health and financial implications if the COVID virus was here to stay, what further changes would be necessary as regards work, and as an underlying low tone of sorts, what consequences to expect on everyday life now that the country was walking away from decades of European Union membership in the middle of a pandemic. I realised that I had projected my inner landscape onto the external world. I felt in tune with the bleak coastal area I was photographing.
There was almost nobody around. Just a lone fisherman.
The photography of landscape or architecture tends to be a more deliberate genre, and there are certain conventions surrounding it. One is the need to show the third dimension we see in real life but suggested onto the flat surface of a two-dimensional photograph.
The other convention is to aim to show the material of which depicted things are made of. The photographs I include here are not, however, pondered landscapes taken with a pictorial idea in mind. They are snapshots. Of the two lighthouses, I concentrated on the outer one. My goal was to photograph in relatively quick succession and to show depth via the use of different vantage points for different photographs as I walked with my camera along a short stretch of the coast. I also wanted to show the materiality of the metal pylons of the inner lighthouse, and the rust on them. Portions of the inner lighthouse were included in some of the photographs as a device to suggest depth in the images.
I used time to show space, by moving my position in a short period of time and therefore changing my vantage point. It is my hope that the viewer, by noticing the different points of view, can observe the effect of movement - as I moved through the landscape over a (short) period of time – and as the vantage points changed from image to image. Time is an additional clue as to the third dimension. The result of my day photographing at Dovercourt was a series of connected images.
Lighthouses are built in exile from the land. They stand on threshold areas as if they were claimed by both the land and the water, in spaces for passing traffic and where nobody seems willing to spend a moment more than it is absolutely necessary. When a lighthouse is no longer in use and thus, there is no light in it, it becomes the epitome of loneliness. After these photographs were taken, I sat for a while on the beach looking out, until my friend Frank returned from photographing on one of the long breakers — it was time to drive back to London.
Photographing at Dovercourt Bay.
I used a Fujifilm GA645zi camera. It is very “electronic” and offers “auto-everything” modes. It was originally released in 1998. It uses 120 (or 220) film in the 6 cm x 4.5 cm format. The camera is very user-friendly, and it makes the user forget that it is a medium format camera.
To some extent, it is a medium format camera disguised as a point-and-shoot. It has a very handy non-interchangeable step zoom. The lens is a 55-90mm f/4.5-6.9 which offers angles of view equivalent to 34-56mm on the 24mm x 36mm format on 35mm film. The zoom lens operates in four set positions, there are no in-between options, so in essence, it is like having a camera with four fixed focal length lenses. The use of a medium format lens means that, for example, at the long end it gives the rendering characteristics and the “compression” and feeling of “closeness” of a 90 mm lens but the angle of view is that of a normal lens. The medium format look is the result of being able to see more of the frame without the need to photograph with a shorter lens.
The camera has motorised film advance and an easy loading system that quickly gets to frame 1 when you put in a fresh roll. The camera is ready to operate in almost no time. The format used to be called “semi” and it is the most economical of all the different formats available in “medium format” cameras. It delivers 16 images on a 120 roll. The fact that the surface area of each frame is 6 cm x 4.5 cm, which is over 3 times the size of standard 24 mm x 36 mm on 35 mm film, means that film grain appears even finer as there is less magnification necessary for a given size of print.
The GA645zi has the layout of a rangefinder camera, with a zoom viewfinder. It is an autofocus camera. As regards exposure, it offers Program mode, Aperture priority and Manual mode. Very sensibly, the designers did not include a Shutter priority mode — probably because the lens would run out of usable apertures very quickly.
All the photographs were taken on Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film exposed at box speed. It was developed commercially. Provia delivered the muted colour palette I was after: the landscape was almost monochromatic. More generally, I find that with slide film it is easier to ensure that the scans deliver the particular look of a film, as it is simpler to judge the colour by eye, just by comparing the image on the transparency with that resulting from a scan.
At the end of 2012, I acquired my first pro-level data body, and for about five years, I only used digital equipment. I revisited film in 2017 — a project required that I source a film body. I re-acquired the same model of camera that was my favourite before I began my digital journey. I look for lenses and cameras in charity shops, second-hand sections in camera stores, flea markets and auction sites. When a new (or at least new to me) item comes in, I follow the rule that another one must go, as I am not a collector, and also, I live in London where space is limited. I am not a nostalgic person. I am very happy that digital equipment does, in fact, exist and that the old and the new can be used in many different and successful combinations. My goal is to embrace both analogue and digital photography, both for my personal projects and for client work when appropriate.
Historic England Website. (last consulted 6 Dec. 2021)
Michelle Foa, Georges Seurat: The Art of Vision, Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 2015. In chapter 1, “Seeing in Series” and in particular on page 17, there is an explanation concerning the effect of showing different vantage points in space. A series, therefore, offers different views, such as the ones resulting from moving from one vantage point to another. This was the method utilised by Seurat to show the third dimension in some of his series of paintings.