Saturday, 8 August 2009

At the River : Paul Martin, W.G.Sebald, and leaving the camera behind.

Visiting family in Suffolk again. Busy, full of family commitments, but I have at least one afternoon down by the river – a hot, close day, no wind (not sure how the dinghies in the distance manage to make any headway as they criss-cross towards the sea). A few families by the edge of the river, the only ones swimming are children and an elderly lady. Wrapped in towels, some older children are fetching tea in china cups and chocoate cake from a small clubhouse, carrying them onto the beach. The elderly lady fortifies herself with nips of martini (or similar) from a coolbag at her side. It is so quiet – so English – I keep thinking of the photographs of Paul Martin, and the book I am reading at the moment, 'The Rings of Saturn' by W.G.Sebald.

At the River: Paul Martin 1864 – 1944

Several weeks ago a companion and I visited the V&A Print Room. One of the photographers whose work we looked at was Paul Martin. My friend chose him, I wasn't familiar with his work, though I realised afterwards that I vaguely knew about him and have seen him mentioned, mainly in connection with photographs of Yarmouth (not all of which were in the box we looked at together)..

Here is a link to a V&A Catalogue of Martin's photographs, including some of the seaside ones, and one of Cromer, not so far away.

Most of the photographs were small gems, technically. But the subject matter, above all, was astonishing and inspiring. He soon gave up his early use of large format and tripod outdoors - Using a revolutionary camera called the 'facile', which was carried under one arm and had a cover that disguised it as a brown paper parcel, he was one of the earliest Street photographers. He preferred though, his own adaptations, including using a leather cover. He made many photographs of London, but also of his holidays, including East Anglia. And, as another personal connection, he was a commercial photographer who lived and worked a stone's throw from my old home in Balham, South London (I realise now that I have passed the house he lived in from 1907, and where he died, countless times, as I have also passed the premises of his studio on Wandsworth Common). It's his personal work that he is now known for. He received little recognition during his life, his sraightforward, unpretentious 'snapshots' were at odds with the more popular Pictorialist movement, which he struggled to be involved with, but which obviously - fortunately for us now – wasn't where his heart lay. The photographic establishment of the time disapproved of much of his subject matter - especially his photos of 'working class' women lying about on beaches, having fun. Apart from anything else, these photos are invaluable as social documents. Interesting to see, for example, that in the 1890's the bowler hats in London were not worn by city gents, but by manual workers and street sellers.

A few days later a copy of the out of print Victorian Candid Camera: Paul Martin 1864 -1944 by Billy Jay came through my door. Thanks to my friend (if she sees this, she knows who she is) for finding a copy each for us.

At the River: W.G. Sebald 1944 -2001

'The Rings of Saturn' (first published in the U.K. 1998) is a wonderful, rambling, intriguing and extraordinary tramp around East Anglia. Sebald draws on connections with the landscape and towns and cities within it to weave factual stories from the past into a complex, rich whole.
Knowing the landscape as I do certainly adds to his descriptions and stories, but I don't think it is by any means essential to have this context. It add to my sense of the history of the place, and I really appreciate that.

At The River: Leaving the camera behind.

No photographs from me this trip. Highly unusual.
Mostly to do with the hectic schedule we were faced with.

And the afternoon by the river, it is good simply to sit.
Sometimes it's good to choose to leave the camera behind.
Time to think about Martin, Sebald, and other less grandiose things,
and also - just as good - not to think at all.'s a couple from the same spot of river from last August – the first an evening canoe, the second I also posted last summer to this blog . To give a sense of the place, and because the present is always only a part of what we experience. The past – whether it's last year, or reaching back centuries - is always just beneath the surface.

ⓒ Cate McRae 2008

ⓒ Cate McRae 2008