Saffron Smith

Seaside: Photographed - a review

So I know I said I’d write a blog post about the Kent Riviera before the summer was out and that it’s now September, but this weekend is meant to be 18 degrees with the weather forecast to be a cloud with a bit of sun peeking out behind it so, in England, this still counts as summer. There may be a breeze which whispers of a not-so-far-away winter, we may be in the process of passing down the baton of summer to Australia and the trees may have already received the memo that autumn has begun its inexorable creep – but this weekend’s weather is forecast to be a cloud with a bit of sun and that’s that.

Back in the actual proper summer though, when the weather was a whole sun unfettered by a cloud (there were approximately 13 days like this in England), I went to the beach. When I say “I” went to the beach, what I mean is that five-eighths of London came with me; for the moment we actually have a decent bit of weather that coincides with a weekend, that is what Londoners do – we pour out onto the seaside whilst acting half-surprised half-pissed off that everyone else had the exact same uncopyrighted idea.

That weekend, which now feels so long ago, I went to Margate and saw the best exhibition I’ve seen so far this year – and this weekend is the last time to catch it. “Seaside: Photographed” at the Turner Contemporary features photographs from the Victorian times to the present and boasts the work of several renowned photographers including Martin Parr, Jane Bown and Ingrid Pollard. Equally impressive is the poetic and evocative way in which this exhibition is narrated by its talented curators, Val Williams and Karen Shepherdson.

Irrespective of where you’re from in England – metropolis, suburbia or village, landlocked or not – the coast holds rich symbolism and nostalgia for many of us, and the photographs and storytelling behind this exhibition deftly capture that. Walking through this well-curated display feels like an act of nostalgia for both memories we have and haven’t. Sad arcades empty of people but full of penny-pushing and plush toy-pulling machines. Seafood stalls selling cockles, whelks and mussels seasoned with sand and vinegar; the latter appearing as much for killing off salmonella as for flavour. Sticks of rock, ends tattooed with the names of depressed and depressing coastal towns, promising dental disaster or destined to see out the rest of their days at the front of the cutlery drawer beside straws pilfered from fast food joints.

Making my way along the seafront to the gallery, I’d felt slight sadness; a forgotten memory, now remembered, of the English seaside. Its simultaneous over- and under-development; cultural collateral of the package holiday which, in turn, made victims of many a Mediterranean town. But re-emerging from the gallery, I felt differently. Not because the exhibition portrayed the seaside with cloying sentimentality or false celebration but because of its reality and realness, because it simply showed its subject as it is. Yes, the stereotypical seaside resort is unquestionably grotty but that grottiness is precisely part of its enduring charm.

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Saffron Smith