Prosaic Persistence: the enduring material potency in photographic seaside ephemera

      (An illustrated paper presented at Photomedia 2016, Helsinki, 30 March - 1 April 2016)

This illustrated paper drew from the UK’s South East Archive of Seaside Photography to (re)examine how commercial seaside photography has not only endured, but reveals an unexpected emotional potency.

Commercially taken seaside photography was established around the UK’s coastline by the middle of the 19th century and by the mid 20th century was being produced on an industrial scale. Yet despite mass production and the connotation of such photography as little more than disposable seaside ephemera, these images in the form of ambrotypes, ferrotypes and later postcards have endured.

We know that thousands of these photographs were taken and yet most of these images are now found only within the domestic family album. If photographs were not sold at the time of taking, they would routinely be discarded or pulped by the photographer, with no archive or record kept. This paper will reveal how to counter this lack of record and in an attempt to uncover and document these privately held pictures, the South East Archive of Seaside Photography organised numerous community collection days. Here members of the public brought to the Archive their own commercially taken seaside photographs. At these events high-res scans were taken, where possible names attributed and any additional narrative information also attached.

Three years ago and new to the role, as archive director I rapidly had to learn to accept each donation, each encounter with sensitivity, respect and time. To accept that community collection days would be slow-paced day and to understand that each image donor told the picture’s narrative not as history – but as memory. Maurice Halbwach’s persuasive thesis is salient here, drawing as it does a distinction between that of history and memory.  At the Archive we have become very aware that for image-donors their contributions are not considered by them as ‘history’ – they’re neither a formal nor a written account mediated through the academic or official lens. These modest material objects are potent visual connective tissue linking the donor to their (re)membered past. The connective tissue between their reality of now and their (re)membered experience of then. Using the medium of these commercially taken seaside photographs we at the Archive seek to capture that connective tissue between photo-donor and their knowledge, their understanding of this (re)membered past. It is inevitably a selective and reconstructive process where distortion does take place, whereby through (re)membering a past rather than The Past and a truth rather than The Truth is produced. A past and truth made all the more binding through the act of telling at the community collection event.

In undertaking this work, the Archive not only catalogues the donation, but also documents and notes how these images provoke memory and behaviours in the donors. This proposed paper will reveal how donors repeatedly hold the photograph with a pronounced tenderness and/or stroke the picture as if a relic. We witness how such prosaic photography has material potency – a material potency which arguably supersedes the photographer’s original intention.