Moya Stirrup: Conversations with Margate.

Conversation #9: Karen Shepherdson: Director of the South East Archive of Seaside Photography.

 

Peopled Margate

Peopled Margate

Margate, 1952: less than two years old, she stood with her hands spreading into the sand. A whole day’s worth of beach stuck itself indiscriminately to her legs and tiny bathing suit. And while her feet-on-the-ground-handstand and speckled sandy skin fixed on film, her fleeting view of the sea becoming sky is not for our sight. Thump, back to earth again. Another un-capture, explanation for that sand-everywhere feeling that could almost be experienced from just looking into one squared sepia moment. 

“You must have gone through millions?” I asked, naively optimistic about the infiniteness of collectable moments at her fingertips. “Not millions – but a lot – thousands” Karen answered, rationally. We were looking at one photo of thousands then, thousands of snapshots from the South East Coast being collected, and dutifully archived by Karen and her team.  Memories of family holidays, the coast across the decades; seaside dwellers scanned and saved from fraying, drowning and the other untoward disappearing acts that glossy peopled paper and negatives are so at risk of.

Now in its third year, the archive has received significant collections, parts of some of which Karen has brought with her in a box to show me. From Sunbeam Photo Ltd is a collection that came in without any prints whatsoever; “it’s just these amazing negatives – you could blow this up the size of the wall if you wanted to – or I could take that part and make an 8ft picture – you know it allows you to zoom in very closely and zoom out”, she said, each section coming alive by her understanding of the potential it had. The negative in her hands revealed an inverted black and white view of Margate in the 1950’s, populous with hundreds of holidaymakers whose threads became knitted together for this one moment, in a single scene. Beyond this, the negative itself stood back entirely, giving us the eyes that a seagull’s swoop across Margate sands might take.

Free ice creams, broken shoes

Free ice creams, broken shoes

Our discussion moved inwards to the subtle societal insights that some of the photographs afford: “there’s a lovely one – I think in the Wimpy, no the Morelli’s bar, by Dreamland, and the children were being given free ice creams, but when you look at one of the boys, his shoes are split and you can see his trousers are a bit too tight for him, and there’s a girl carrying a baby as if it’s a doll, and its actually probably her kid sister... they’re out playing on their own”, she recollected, fondly. Ice creams, split shoes and play: in her reflection on the still of 1950’s Margate and the free reigns of childhood, Karen’s interiorized archive came to life. We weren’t sitting in a café turning over photographs anymore; we were flicking through her memories of other people’s memories, some of which had serious staying power, rising to the surface quickly.

I had to ask her, with access to all of these, which ones moved her the most: “have there been any that you’ve paused for a long time and looked at?” As if rummaging through an internalized, stowed away tin of many, Karen flicked through the shockers that sat at the top: images of a Margate carnival in all its glory with elaborate costumes and clowns, alongside more shocking images of a boy scout group, covered in black paint – “it makes you shuffle in your seat – there’s every stereotype that you would imagine,” she said. Then there were the ones of children that forced her to read between the lines: men and women dressed up, holding children “but there’s something, when you really scrutinize it – sometimes the way they’re holding the children – the child can’t quite break free.” It was fleetingly uncomfortable; the image hadn’t quite left her mind as she passed it over the table in descriptive form with her captioned, consequential scrutiny to me. In amidst the jolly Sunbeam Photography snaps, shuffling through the stowed away tin didn’t always unearth quite what you expect.

Further on in our conversation was the photograph from the bottom of her tin, the one shielded by the others, because it needs to be preserved. It couldn’t have come any earlier out of our talk, it needed to be rummaged for. For Karen, it was still so clearly framed by the story behind the individuals that brought it to be archived. Adding to a call for photographs of the South East Coast, two people stood patiently in line: “they had to wait over an hour because we had this queue”. Behind others with carrier bags full, they had just one photo to share: “they gave us this image, and it was a little picture of a baby on a donkey […] it was their daughter and she’d died.”  Now, this, their only material image of her exists in the archive too. Around the image, as the couple talked, a series of fixed memories encircled. Weather: cold enough to wear layers. Clothing: she wore little layers. Karen noted the part of the snapshot that you don’t necessarily see on first glance, if at all: “you can’t see the mother, but she’s there – when you re-look you can see that she’s sort of crouched down behind this stuffed donkey holding the baby up.” Now in view, she stood, decades later, handing over the moment for it to be stored somewhere shared, somewhere safe.

the bottom of the tin

the bottom of the tin

“What I think is quite beautiful, are the quiet narratives that we’re able to tease out”, Karen said, her eyes smiling. It’s not just the photographs themselves, a menagerie of sights, sounds and faces, but where they’re coming from and whose stories they are recording. Before her internalized tin of sepias had distracted us, our conversation had started with a discussion of Karen’s work. Responsible for the archive, she’s also a photographer and so building her own quiet narratives too. With this, comes an adoption of her space that is as paused and as watchful as her categorizing and storing of the former photographers that occupied it. 

decades later

decades later

From all of her watching comes a project that I had found so appealing both for its symmetry and for the stories it tells. A catwalk of consensual couple shots, seaside snaps on the jetty: doing the cha-cha, side by side, lean in and grin, one man and his dog, arm round shoulders, the awkward hand flop, each photographed in the same frame. Year on year this is their ritual. The couples come, Karen photographs, lifting a large polaroid and pressing the button. A click and flash followed by the loud gargle of printing, every snap is a moment instantaneous.

“That project is now in it’s 5th year,” she said. “Each time, you feel like you are becoming increasingly connected with that couple. You meet them in exactly the same space, almost exactly a year since you last spoke to them […] they diminish every year, so this year I think I’ll only have around 30 couples.” Her project is a slow, and steady act of cultivation, a stillness that Karen sits, entirely comfortable with. You get the sense that she is capturing life in all its layers. Of course, we do not know what happens in the gaps between their meeting points. Or necessarily all that passed between the year that they were two, smiling on the jetty, to her as one; acuter somehow, occupying the same stance.  Over our cooling cups of tea, Karen talked on, navigating her work, reflecting before concluding, “I think it’s about saying that actually – in our contemporary culture, so much is about the extraordinary – celebrity… and actually, ordinary lives are worth documenting.” It is this documentation that she enacts so dutifully as archivist, and also as photographer. It is important.

Our discussion of people, and of memories had led us beyond our coordinates; until now place and setting had remained little more than background noise. I wanted to know, with all the perspective she had, what was unique about the individual spaces that she observed, Margate in particular. Margate, immediately she said “the town of the funfair”. She didn’t have to think twice: “it’s almost as if the photographer is saying “you know, Margate, the one with the funfair, and the one with the Lido and the one with the pier”, its key points of identification stood clear in the photographs. Beyond that was the shimmer of celebrity that far outdid other towns in the South East: “you see more of the pictures of the celebrities. People like Adam Faith for example, who was this rock singer of the 1960s, arriving and being greeted by the mayor […] you’d never see that in Broadstairs, unless it was the Prime Minister – Ted Heath – or something rather more staid.” So there it was, safely stored, a town of play, of promenading, of inherent cool where “you know – you walk along that prom for a reason… and even if you’re a mother with a pram – you put your best coat on.” In her pride, she glowed. Suddenly the archive became even more powerful, not just for the past it encased but for its capacity to inspire the present.

Adam Faith in Margate: You walk along the prom for a reason

Adam Faith in Margate: You walk along the prom for a reason

At some point in the hour of café talk, our conversation was interrupted. A lady who’d overheard us and spied our spread of ripening photographs on the table was intrigued. She spoke to Karen briefly about the enormous change that Margate had seen, and then, somewhat abstractedly, a little about her grandson who was applying for university before saying goodbye and leaving. There is something in old photographs that makes us pause to reflect, even if they do not bear our own reflections. With this comes a need for renewal that doesn’t let us stay lost within those previous moments. Karen’s work is reflective of that, “I think it feels very alive,” she said when I asked her why people had so willingly come together to build a picture of the town via the archive, as opposed to leaving their independent stories to be told elsewhere. She went on, “it doesn’t feel cut off at 1950 – some of the more recent work we’re doing – we’re talking to people from the 1980’s and 1990’s who have pictures of them playing in the arcades – we’re determined that it doesn’t feel completely nostalgic.”

It is not then, about yearning for the past but also about celebrating the new, the now and the future. Our conversation ticked back to the present, Margate now. “I’ve been doing some photography on the steps – it’s a small project, it’s a very democratic space.” A new chunk of architecture beyond the promenade so often photographed, Margate’s renewal is continuous. In Karen’s capturing of the space, she got chatting to some young guys, who often used the steps as their dining destination of choice, fish and chips made up the usual menu. “In fact, they were very sweetly waiting for their granny […] one of the things that came through the conversation was – they didn’t say it in this way – I’m paraphrasing – but if they said they came from Margate before, a couple of years ago – people just thought what a hole. And now people say, “ooh Margate” – I could see their chests blow up,” Karen laughed, inflating slightly. As her pictures layered up on top of one another, creating new textures, a symmetry emerged: the pride and puffing of chests echoing the promenading and the stills that show a mother, baby in pram, wearing her best coat.

Whilst Karen works to store the South East’s unalterable, stilled memories, she operates alongside a continuum of change. Change, which subsequently becomes stilled in her press-click-flash of the ungraspable now. For all the change and all the weathering, our conversation closed on the change that is now. Outside of the pictures, where movement exists in the flickering alterations of architecture over the past decade alone, Karen looked back to the people within the frame: “I think that Margate has really benefited from strong men and women who have done that marvelous thing and stayed – and thought – I’m going to make this work. You just have to hold on tight and stay.” With staying, comes more frames, seen, not necessarily captured. As the archive is building, it is renewing too. 

Margate 2016: She stood, observing, at once raised and leveled by the steps spanning out to sea. Some of what she saw became stored, snapped up, papered, glossed, placed in a tin or file or digitized somewhere. The rest of it was a frame in her mind for a moment only, before a clean slate of sky and swipe of the sea erased and replaced it for something… else.

All photographs selected by Karen and courtesy of SEAS Photography, you can explore the archive here.

feet on the ground handstand

feet on the ground handstand

 

 

 

Feet-on-the-ground-handstand

Moya's website: http://conversationswithmargate.blogspot.co.uk

 

 

 

 

Remembering, We Forget: Aftermath I & II

Curator Andrew Palmer from the exhibition catalogue: [Charlotte Mew’s ‘The Cenotaph] is able to represent some of the confusions and strains involved in being a mourner, and in attempting to imagine those who are mourned.  The images of the Broadstairs War Memorial created by K.J.Shepherdson achieves this same insightful ambivalence. For each image, Shepherdson begins by taking a Polaroid photograph and then, in a delicate process, she lifts the fragile surface away from its backing. In this state, the image is, in her words, ‘like a small piece of fine silk or layer of skin’. This she carefully transfers onto watercolour paper. The result is fragile, evanescent, translucent film through which the rough texture of the paper can be seen. The memorial’s frieze is made of bronze which like the stone to which it is fixed, speaks of permanence: ‘their names liveth for evermore’ is what this material says. Re-presented in Sheherdson’s work, that sense of permanence is not exactly undermined - the effect is not simply ironic - but is rather adjoined to, or simultaneous with, the fragility. The metal faces of striving soldiers come under our scrutiny and movingly regain their human fragility. We see the minute detail afresh and are reminded both of the physical reality of the men represented, of the sculptor’s skill. The moustaches, the beaky noses, the eyes hidden under tin hats, the veins on the backs of their hands - these become both more and less real, closer to the men represented, and further away. Where the original frieze has sharply-defines outlines, these images are ragged around the edges, like the photographs which soldiers carried with them, like something found in the mud. Our emotional response at this great distance of time, connects us not with Kipling or Sassoon, but with Charlotte Mew whose response to the Cenotaph is so heart-breakingly confused and therefore so true.

Further response to Aftermath I II can also be found at http://sardonicrat.wordpress.com/2014/11/17/k-j-shepherdsons-polaroid-lifts-of-the-broadstairs-war-memorial/

Remembering, We Forget: Aftermath I & II

Curator Sally Minogue from the exhibition catalogue: Photography was an art that found its moment in the First World War, the technology being sufficiently developed and inexpensive enough (given the circumstances) for even the most ordinary man to have his likeness taken before going to possible annihilation. [Douglas Dunn’s poem ‘Portrait Photograph’ (1915) has the soldier say] ‘I have lost my name / and my face’, so that the surviving image becomes especially potent. Such photographs have inspired current artists, as in K.J.Shepherdson’s work, re-figuring the frail flesh behind the fixed images of damaged faces of First World War soldiers, through her use of (already fragile) Polaroid lifts which she has then torn and frayed. The damaged face was one of the most difficult disfigurements for a surviving combatant to bear because of public responses of disgust and rejection, as well as the sufferer’s own deep loss of confidence and sense of identity. In facing Shepherdson’s photographs we take on a responsibility to face up to what modern warfare means.

Sally Minogue: Close to Home

Close to Home: the title announces a body of work that is local, personal – in one of Karen Shepherdson’s own words, ‘modest’. There’s a deliberate refusal here of the portentous, a backing off from claiming too much; this is not even Blake’s world in a grain of sand, or if it is, it is good old Broadstairs sand. But in that there is also a laying claim to something that is not modest at all, the belief that if we look closely at what is close to home we will see something that really matters. These works stand against the English tendency to deprecate the capacity of the artist to speak to and of the local, reminding us of the largeness of locus in the word, as well as the smallness of the parish. This requires a certain effort from the viewer: not to pass by quickly what might appear insignificant, rather to linger and appreciate small differences in couples photographed from year to year, or to re-consider the snap of a holiday long gone, of children no longer children, in the light of its being re-read through the instant camera and the lens of the present.

There is a constant dialogue in these photographs between past and present, articulated through the technology of the instant camera. For even when the image presented comes from the past – that other country where they do things differently – it has been re-seen, re-photographed, sometimes reconfigured in the present. Shepherdson’s full use of instant film throughout ensures the awareness of that present even in the images of children so clearly located by their clothing and demeanour (home-knitted jumpers, the open gaze to camera with its lack of the self-consciousness and image-awareness of the digital age) in the 50s and 60s. That she is sometimes reconsidering images of herself and her immediate family adds poignancy to the relationship between the eye of the photographer and the reflected self which also enters the viewer’s understanding and emotional response.

There is, of course, a real danger with these images from the past, especially those in seaside settings, with their associations of happy play and family ease beside a lapping sea, that a simply nostalgic response is not sufficiently challenged. The sea’s edge is indeed ever present in the Seaside series, in Jetty, and (implied) in the Returned series. But an edge it is, and not always a benign one; that horizon of water leaves nowhere to go. Thanet’s island origins mark it out as an unusual place, separated, other, and that sense lurks beneath the sometimes larky surface of these images.

Key to this is the insistent seriousness of composition which is marked in 100 Couples and in The Welcome Rest, where the subjects are initially random, determined only by their being in a particular place – couples who came along to The Old Lookout, people with dogs taking their ease on a particular bench on the Broadstairs jetty – but whom the photographer has marshalled and directed into a disciplined composition. The repetition of certain elements in each image reminds us of the certainty of place (the bench, the jetty where people have always walked their dogs, the sea beyond endlessly turning on each tide). The montage method of showing the prints draws attention to these constant elements but also then allows us to notice the differences between the human subjects, and the nuances of relationship in the different couples (and their changing relationship over time as some of them return to be re-photographed). The human subject is determinedly not ironised. Even the dogs – again, a subject which might invite sentimentality – are taken seriously, holding the camera in their own steadfast gaze.

In a world where everything and everyone is photographed, the instant print still maintains what Geoffrey Batchen calls ‘indexicality, this direct physical link between a photograph and the thing it represents’. The product of a low key technology and process, the instant print, unadulterated by the machinations of the digital, retains a democratic integrity. It underpins Shepherdson’s insistence on an equality and commonality across her subjects, and between herself as photographer and the photographed subject, an aesthetic which is given substance by her native knowledge of and familiarity with this place and the people who inhabit it.

The passage of time is inherent in the human subject placed before a camera, and a long term project such as 100 Couples will, in time, embody that through its very longevity. The Punctum section images reflect on it in a more complex way, reminding us forcibly, both in their title and in themselves, of Barthes’ aperçu that ‘by giving me the absolute past of the pose … the photograph tells me death in the future. … Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe’. Such thoughts might seem overblown as we look at 100 Couples, The Welcome Rest, Seaside and Returned, were it not for the complementary body of work which faces us much more directly with issues ofmortality. In the Palimpsest and Light series in the Jetty section, the comfort of home, recognisable horizon or landscape, the security of the body itself – these are abruptly removed, presenting the viewer with either apparent abstraction or a human image blotted out by light. Meaning, in the sense of a perceived reality captured on film, can be but dimly made out. The Palimpsest images are, with a couple of interesting exceptions, traces of nothing but the chemicals on the instant film, printed by the pressure of the roller in the instant camera. Yet when we know that this is old film, originally intended to take instant pictures of stillborn babies for their parents, that knowledge inevitably colours our response to images which are in themselves and nonetheless unconnected with those unformed lives.  Whether we think that such external knowledge should be imported to the photograph, or whether we think it should stand alone, the Palimpsest images placed alongside 100 Couples and The Welcome Rest disturb their surface sense of the constancy of place and people and remind us of the void just below human existence.

That void is most movingly represented in the Echoes of Epstein photographs. Here we are brought up short against what the earlier sunny images will come to. There is a hard-eyed but compassionate understanding of the human body in its frailty, open to its own finiteness and strong in being that. These images, lifted from the surface of the instant print in a difficult, tenuous and uncertain process, are by virtue of that almost see-through, the frailty of the technique echoing the frailty of the subject. Painful as they are to confront, they are also lyrical, calling to mind Mediaeval painted wooden sculptures, which celebrate the human body while reminding us of its end.

Thus we are brought full circle, from the earliest beginnings, the blank sheet on which sometimes only an image of nothingness itself is printed, through childhood and apparent seaside happiness, the lived life, coupledom, and the sheer, odd pleasure of dogs, to completion and the admission of mortality and the trace again of nothingness through the Polaroid lift, itself a final palimpsest.    

Close to Home Exhibition, 26th February-24th May 2013

Burton Gallery Director Rob Ball: “As Gallery Director, it is a delight to be able to show Karen Shepherdson’s Close to Home at the Burton Gallery. Close to Home presents a number of beautifully articulated themes including memory, place, materiality and home. The images on show at The Burton illustrate a number of unique responses offering an insight into the artist’s creative process, laying bare the artefact on paper.”

Rob Ball, Director, Burton Gallery

In Conversation with T.H.Gigg

With connotations of insularity, small-mindedness and concern for the fundamentally ordinary, to embrace a body of work as ‘parochial’ would, on my part, seem perverse. Yet the title ‘Close to Home’ apparently does just that: ‘home’ for me conjures images of an encircling comfort, safety and belonging. But for most of us this is precisely its power, both in terms of a significant aspect of our identity and the locus of our narrative history. ‘Close to Home’, though, isn’t to take up residence, but rather my attempt to adopt a perspective which is partly and subjectively ‘at home’ and partly and non-subjectively at an observational distance. Thus some photographs capture aspects of my own narrative space and identity, particularly for example in Punctum, while others show relations between couples, including their dogs, of ease and belonging – they are at home with one another.

The parochial also resides in the habitual location of many of my photographs: the generalised seaside of which we all have childhood memories and the specificity of Thanet, its apparent mundanity acting as a backdrop for many of my portraits. The ordinary, the parochial can achieve generalised significance in what they mean to us and how this becomes transformed in photographic images. But the ease of belonging confronts us with its converse; hence ‘that remark went close to home’ is redolent of an emotional fragility, whereby the camera picks up fracturing relations both between people and within places.

This fragility has its counterpart in the medium I have used for these works: instant film (Polaroid) and associated processes, including emulsion lifts and transfers. This selection of film distils each work into a unique artefact. No negative nor digital file exists. Thus I have given each picture, as with earlier processes such as the daguerreotype or other plastic arts such as painting, its own, singular identity, created in camera without the option of post-production manipulation. As a consequence, even when presented as substantial montage artefacts, they remain small and seemingly parochial works. Yet, while such familiarity can breed perceptual contempt, the layers of meaning in what is ‘close to home’ can be revealed, I hope, through a more considered and concentrated approach on the part of the viewer.

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