Conversation #9: Karen Shepherdson: Director of the South East Archive of Seaside Photography.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Moya's website: http://conversationswithmargate.blogspot.co.uk