Meg of Margate Meets: Karen Shepherdson


Dr Karen Shepherdson is a photographer and reader in photography at Canterbury Christ Church University. She is also Director of the South East Archive of Seaside Photography (SEAS), something that I’ve been fascinated by for some time. 


The images of Margate that the Archive has are extraordinary; they offer a real insight into the history of the town. In a time when Margate is undergoing so much change, it seemed fitting to find out about the Archive's work and to discover more about the area’s iconic and significant past.

Can you tell us more about what SEAS Photography does?

SEAS Photography began in 2012 with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The Archive was established after we were alerted about an amazing collection of glass plate and film negatives which were being stored at Margate Museum. They were predominantly images taken by the photographic company Sunbeam, who until the 1970s had been based in Cliftonville’s Sweyn Road.

Such was the quantity of material that it was proving an impossible task for the Museum to catalogue and audit this ageing photographic stock (there was well in excess of 30,000 images). In addition, there was nowhere to store the negatives securely in environmentally safe conditions and perhaps most importantly, to have the mechanism to transform the images from inaccessible fragile negatives into viewable photographs that could be accessed readily.

By working together our aim in setting up the Archive has been to provide an accessible digital safety net for the Sunbeam and similar photographic collections, all of which have originated along the UK’s south east coast. We argue noisily that seaside photography is not in the least peripheral, but significant to an island such as the UK. These photographs repeatedly show the population at 'play' and because so much of this image-making was undertaken by technically skilled professional photographers, the quality is more-often-than-not outstanding. The collections (we now have many) are of cultural significance - reflecting back the seaside heritage of our place and space.


If you had to select one quintessential image of Margate, what would it be? 

This is a tricky one. It’s like asking which is my favorite child! Well perhaps not quite that… but it’s a difficult question nonetheless because I think of the Isle of Thanet in general, and Margate in particular as being so diverse in nature. Therefore to distill Margate down to a single image is to almost deny its complexity and richness. But if pushed, perhaps this one…


This Margate image was in the very first pack of glass plates we opened back in 2012. We didn’t have a clue what we would find and in a stack of dusty cardboard boxes the very top glass plate was this. Whilst we can’t see the sands, we quickly recognise the location as Margate’s seafront, the arcade and late ‘50s cafe culture is depicted with the iconic Dreamland tower looming in the background. 

But more than this, we have what defines so many of these pictures. We have freerange children, seen here queuing for free ice-creams and the café banner even tells us the date: 3rd of April 1958. Children unchaperoned by adults, with the commonplace older child (normally a girl) looking after the younger ones. These children are local, we know this as it’s pre-season and see how this picture reveals the frequent realities of 1950s coastal living. Whilst the girls wait in line the boys, having been served first,  now look to the camera with attitude - they are lean, trousers hang off non-existent hips, held by elasticated ‘snake’ belts and their shoes so tight on one of the boys’ that they’e split to reveal bare feet within.


How else have you sourced the images within the Archive?

We have made public calls for other commercially taken seaside photographs, the most common being the ‘Walkie’. Walkies are those pictures taken as people promenaded on the clifftop or lounged/played on the beach. These postcard sized images were made in their hundreds of thousands and then sold by commercial photographic companies as cheap seaside keepsakes. On the one hand these are of course humble objects, but they repeatedly prove evocative of times past and what is most evident is how precious they remain to the families who possess them.


Our current project is really exciting. We are preparing to archive an extraordinary collection of photographs taken within the coastal amusement arcades during the 1970s and '80s. Again, such imagery could be dismissed as commonplace but the reality is that very few photographs were ever taken in these arcade spaces -  cameras were/are seldom welcome -  and as a consequence the images we are working with have already gained international attention.


Have you learned anything new about Margate, or has anything unexpected come to light while collecting the images?

To paraphrase John Updike, I think the work of the Archive is to put our elbows out and confidently give the mundane its beautiful due. What’s mundane to someone often proves rich and beautiful to us within the Archive. On reflection, I suppose what has delighted me as Director of SEAS Photography most, is how culturally rich we are as a coastal community, how our roots go deeply down and how we do have a shared, complex and evolving heritage. As a place we perhaps haven’t always been wholly successful articulating this and I hope that the Archive, through various events, exhibitions and publications, has found ways in which to amplify the presence of the past in the present.



Have you noticed any patterns in the images of Margate? 

In terms of repeated patterns then the Walkies collection provide a significant and insightful record of life lived at the seaside. The beach in particular offers theatre in terms of behaviour and the body revealed. This playfulness (inevitably at times manufactured) was encouraged by the commercial seaside photographer, creating images regardless of weather or the quality of the holiday lodgings that would signify a happy time abstracted from the grind of daily life.


How do you think people’s captures of Margate today differ to those of the past? Are they preserving memories of different things?

Contemporary picture making has never been so democratic. That is a good thing. Almost anyone has the means to make pictures at any point of their day. So inevitably and rightly the images made now differ to days’ past. But not only are pictures more numerous, they almost entirely circumnavigate the object. There isn’t an actual photograph. Instead the image exists on screen and is often made available across a variety of media platforms. The technology with its ubiquitous filters and the back-lit screen is seductive. 

But the lack of the object is, I think, an absence and when the Archive has events where people actually get to hold images, or have photographs made of them and are given a Polaroid as a take-away, I am always struck by how potent the object – the photograph – proves to be. At one event a young mother cried – she surprised herself by her response – but said by way of explanation that it was the first photograph she had held of her child. It wasn’t that she hadn’t a vast number of digital images of the toddler, but the Polaroid image, though modest in scale, was for her a very powerful and tangible representation of the child she loved.


Do the photographs prompt you to recall your own memories?

Inevitably yes. I have lived on the Isle of Thanet all of my life and so the Archive often reflects back the familiar made strange. Added to this in past year my mother died and major events such as the loss of a parent prompts the looking back and the longing. As a critical thinker, I can generally resist the lure of nostalgia but from time to time I am hijacked by an image from the Archive or more often still a small vignette taking place within a photographed scene.


Is your photography inspired by the Archive? 

Yes - almost certainly. But my practice is really inspired by this place. For the past ten years my work has been conceptually and literally close to home – work generated through walking the Isle of Thanet. Prior to this, I had for some time a growing sense of dis-ease with the amount of time I was spending away from home, so I began to walk and specifically to walk to make work. This forced me to stay local and through that I have found my place. A place that was of course there all along and now into my 50s, I have also found my way of working  – slow photography – a practice not about going out and grabbing pictures - rather pictures are made and time is spent with and given too the picture’s subject and the development of that image.

As Director of the Archive and as a photographer I assumed my creative work would become more expansive – but the opposite appears to be the case. I thought I might travel further afield – but I tend not too – and when I do, I don’t tend to make pictures… My focus if anything is narrowing further still. When I reflect on this need to work so close to home I draw encouragement from the composer Vaughan Williams who, in a 1932 argued:

“If the roots of your art are firmly planted in your own soil and that soil has anything individual to give you, you may still gain the whole world…”