How do you arrange your towel (and other possessions) on the beach? What does it say about you? Do you relate to any of the pictures here? Do you find any of them particularly strange, or perhaps even poignant?
Handbag. I find this one slightly disquieting, perhaps because of the formality of the bag. Also, it has a strange "face": slit eyes, a zipper mouth with a tongue hanging out. Perhaps it has just eaten the people who were on the towel: it is not a bag at all but a strange alien life-form. The black shadow, lower left, looks distracting but if you cover it with your thumb, the sun-blasted grass below and to the right of the towel is too unbroken.
We all tell ourselves stories, and imagine things that happened or might have happened. Sometimes we're right. Often, we're wrong. But inventing stories is cheap, enjoyable entertainment, whether we turn them into thousand-page novels or just let our minds wander for a minute or two. The latter constitutes the cardinal sin, when we are in school, of “daydreaming”. It can take years to re-establish a normal, creative, “what-if” mindset after we leave school.
Shoes by the waterside. This is one of my favourites in the series because it's so simple. Also, the slightly muddy, slightly green water reminds us that most people (especially children) have to take their pleasures where they find them. We cannot hope for everything to be perfect. The blue and the pink of course symbolize the two sexes. Are they brother and sister, or schoolmates who will one day be lovers?
Photographs can provide one of the many foundations on which we can build stories, and the stories in turn can make us look at the world in a different way; and if we look at the world in a different way, we will probably photograph it in a different way. This is endlessly recursive, feeding upon itself: if we photograph the world in a different way, we will see it in a different way...
Personalities. The red, white and blue towel puts one in mind of a sports fan of some kind, a football supporter perhaps, and seems very masculine. The pink towel is a cliché of femininity. Is this a boyfriend and girlfriend, or a father and daughter? The two towels also raise the question of how we reflect or even define our personalities in the mass-market goods we buy.
“People watching” can provide the bases for numerous stories, and is at least one reason for the popularity of street photography. We can identify with the people in the picture to a greater or lesser extent, and we can ruminate upon that extent. Sooner or later, we are likely to wonder how and why (and indeed whether) they are so different from us.
Prayer mat. It isn't of course, but the pattern around the edge is reminiscent of Arabic calligraphy. The whole scene reminds me of the only Moslem boy in my house at boarding school in the 1960s: he used to say his prayers in the laundry room. Add in the neatly removed shoes, as outside a mosque, and the way the shadows seem to set limits and mark out the space on the left, and you have a very formal, organized space on a totally unorganized stretch of sand. Of course the sand may act as another subconscious reminder of Islam.
The eyes, reputedly, are the windows of the soul. But it's hard, or maybe impossible, to see into anyone's soul, and besides, there are lots of other clues we can choose. There's a gallery on this site called Glasses without Faces or Verres sans Visages, based on the premise that you can tell (or invent) a lot about people just by looking at how they hold their glasses. Here I go a step further. There are no people in these pictures, except in the background in some cases; but you can still tell (or invent) a lot about them.
No further territorial demands. Whoever set this one up is clearly of an expansive nature; or maybe it's just a family that doesn't like each other very much and wants to be as far apart as possible. Or perhaps more likely it was a group of young men: it looks as if there are six beer bottles, two wine bottles and a Coca-Cola bottle here. When I lived in Bermuda in the 1960s (the same time I was at boarding school), broken glass on the beach was known as "Bermuda paving stones". But I've never seen broken glass on this beach.
Compact. Compare this with the picture above, and the philosophy is very different. The idea seems, as far as possible, to be to maximize the benefit derived from the umbrella; though the black bag will get quite hot and one can only hope that the water bottles in the sun are empty. Somehow I identify more with this picture than with some of the others: good intentions, but not necessarily very well executed.
It is a truism that a great deal of what we regard as “natural” is man-made. Almost all agricultural land, for example, was reclaimed from nature in one way or another, or at least heavily modified from its wild state: felling forests, grazing (and enclosing) sheep, draining marshes, irrigation... The list goes on. The pictures which illustrate this article represent nothing long-term or permanent; they are as transient as can be. It's worth adding, though, that the lake around which they were taken is artificial, a reservoir fed by the river Dive (pronounced “Deeve" – it's in France). Much of the Dive itself is artificial too: drainage of the surrounding marshland began over a thousand years ago, and now arable fields sit among much diminished swampland. The fields are often below the level of the canalized Dive; which, as it passes through the village in which I live, is split in three and known as “Les Trois Dives” (The Three Dives).
Master of all he surveys. The slouched and almost arrogant "pose" of the chair is very much reminiscent of some of the pictures in The Secret Life of Chairs, and the wide expanse of unoccupied beach adds further to the Ozymandias nature of the picture: look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.
As far as I recall, all the pictures here were shot with a Nikon Df and a 50/2.8 Micro-Nikkor, though as so often, this really doesn't matter very much. I could equally well have used a Leica M8 or M9, or any of a ridiculously large number of film cameras that I own. For that matter I could have used my old 6-megapixel Nikon D70.
Hats. Sometimes a particular detail separates one picture from the rest. I'd be worried about the hats blowing away or getting stolen, but you have to admire the foresight of anyone who remembered to bring one (or indeed two) for a day at the beach. The lighter towel is right on the edge of overexposure, and in fact parts are "blown" on the worst monitors, but it's OK on a decent screen.
Overall, of course, the series is much more about a way of seeing, or thinking, than about equipment or even image quality. Sure, the Df delivers very high image quality, and so do the Leicas, but how much does it matter? Once the pictures are above a certain quality – the “quality plateau” or "quality threshold" – does it matter much how carefully I delineate every grain of sand, every thread of every beach towel?
Sandcastles. Come on: what else are beaches for? Swimming from, for sure, but sandcastles must rate very high. This picture also shows that the water is not quite as nasty as it looks in the picture of the pink and blue shoes, above, though it's never sparkling clear. The bucket at the top does look rather like a bundle of dynamite, though.
When I was in my 'teens and twenties, I used to get very annoyed with elderly photographers who dismissed the importance of equipment. Seething, I would think “It's all very well for you, because you've got all the kit you need – and I need something better than what I've got.”
Which indeed I did. The 55/1.8 Super Takumar on my Pentax SV really wasn't very good. It may simply have been a bad example – it was second-hand when I got it – but when I got better lenses, I could certainly see the difference. I've had a fair number of lenses that were absolute rubbish, and a fair number more that were (to put it politely) characterful. Admittedly I'm now better at playing to the strengths of my lenses, and minimizing their disadvantages, but the simple truth is that there are an awful lot of lenses out there, new and used, that are plenty good enough for what I want to do; and this seems to be a realization that comes to most photographers with time.
Superman and... Well, I'm not sure. Lois Lane, maybe? The shoes could definitely be hers, anyway, And where better for the Man of Steel to hang out incognito than beside an obscure French lake? One of the odd things about illustrations and logos on beach towels is that unless they are carefully smoothed out they are seldom legible, as evidenced by the apparently sporting towel a few pictures back, but Superman may be giving too much away here. There's also the question of who, above the age of about ten, would want a Superman beach towel. Except Superman?
As I said in The Red Peril, I'm always hesitant to recommend trying Formal Exercises, but you might find it interesting to try to photograph "traces of people". Examples that quickly spring to mind include fishing rods on rests; tools laid out beside a car being repaired at the side of the road; roadworks while the workers are away at their lunch... Empty/abandoned buildings ("urbex") provide another example. You can probably think of more for yourself.
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Words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2018