In contrast to last week, this week’s focus on my practice involved the opposite of deadline/brief close working at a computer screen: yesterday was the highest tide of the year (the spring perigean) at the Severn Estuary which sees the second-highest tidal difference in the world. I had to spend a day in Clevedon, thanks in part to my involvement on a college-organised quiet day, and so a seaside watch was in the diary a long time earlier. The weekend’s eclipse, supermoon and high tide are all the sort of ancient cataclysmic events that would normally be marked with deep reverence and ascribed symbolism. Here was my small equivalent armed with a camera and a thermos.
The best day of photographing I have ever had was something similar – in 2010, I settled myself at the point on the English side of the Severn Estuary called the New Passage, and photographed the tide going out every half-an-hour between 8am and 3pm. Yesterday, at Clevedon Pier, I followed the same rule, but increased to every 15 minutes. The experience is both systematically measured and exponentially felt. I think it appeals to my right and left brain simultaneously – on the one hand, I’m constantly clock-watching and horizon-watching and focus-point watching; on the other hand, the constraints against doing anything else allow your mind to relax and tread water. More than that, I found myself exploring a spiritual exercise of retreat: even as the tide pulled out, I was imagining a real perspective on my life in which events, children, emails, jobs weren’t all piling in a big wave, and were in fact ‘going out’ on the tide.
I have yet to decide how these images are going to go together for a finished piece – possibly an animated lenticular which plays on the vertical change, rather than the horizontal change in The New Passage. But I will be trying to hold onto the verse ringing in my ears, the verse I passed on to those 7 photographers who joined me for a different perspective in their day, Psalm 18:15. To me, this verse shakes the self-absorption out the equation, because the tidal perspective is not ultimately about me.
Then the channels of the sea were seen,
and the foundations of the world were laid bare
at your rebuke, O Lord,
at the blast of the breath of your nostrils.
Highest tide of the year today. And possibly the highest workmen in the South West. Out at Aust, the pylon in the Severn Estuary is having a make-over, thanks to Ivan and his dare-devil team of four. Something mesmerizing about the air, space-clean, superhigh and white, with tiny figures and water at 14m. The bracket of day included a trip to the mouth of the Trym – the difference between 9am and 4pm. A miracle swell that hides a water-chasm of life and mud and disappeared boats. Some perspective gained on practice today – in the words of Gulliver in Gulliver’s Travels: there are no small jobs, there are only small people.
Garry Fabian Miller first showed Series 1 of the Sea Horizon series in 1977, and 2 years later, at the Arnolfini in Bristol. These 40 photographs were then published in 1997, and exhibited again at the Arnolfini (also in London), which is where I first saw them, aged 16. My visual diary entry that day:
27th April. Down at the Arnolfini. Blue gets me every time. There were about 20 1ft square of these photos round the walls of one room. This idea of looking at the same thing in different lights is like Monet. I would have got the catalogue – only it was £75. There is a serene consistency in a set like these. They’re wonderful.
16 years later, another set (Series 2) of the same sequence has been printed for exhibition, which I caught just before it closed at the Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh. For me, the conjunction of my birth year and place, at the cusp of higher education into Fine Art, and now as a practising photographer and researcher, marks Fabian Miller’s work with my own interests in a particularly personal way. Not to mention the repetitive looking at the Severn Estuary, and the later inspiration from Dartmoor. I struggle to write thoughts about his work without being spiritually reflective, preferring something more poetic than descriptive – a foreword from Fabian Miller’s early book quotes Hilaire Belloc on the sea as “the common sacrament of this world”. So at this show, on a hot summer’s day and in an empty gallery, I wrote the following:
The wavering edge of perception and cognition. A thin line or a seam between an up and a down that are held together in some sort of suspension. The down has the most mass or gravity when you can see the frill of the waves, the implacability of a sea surface and a slight perspective shift when you sense your space above it. But it has the least when it’s merely a graded shade of darker plane, either colour-blocked and solidified or a sliding angle inward. None of this edge feels outward to me, maybe it’s the scale (40cm), maybe it’s the square shape – both a tendency to abstraction contained. The clouds and the light are mostly an upwards activity, a shifting screen of billow or streak, sun or rain, pregnant cloud or dissipating veil of haze. Metal grey, azure blue, Monet pink, ricocheted sunset light in gleam or gloom – it’s like a phantasmagoria where you don’t hold the transitions, rather they hold you.
The Severn Estuary has the second highest tidal range in the world. Last Wednesday and Thursday were the perigean tides for the autumn – meaning that point in the year (another in the spring) when the greatest difference can be observed due to the moon’s closeness to the earth. In this case, nearly 14 metres difference between low and high tides. At the Severn Estuary, where I’ve spent a lot of time watching the water, I love the dramatic effect of these extremes, and this week I went at night to try some shooting in the dark.
Baleen Bridge and Pencil Bridge express the differences I also feel between the Second Severn Crossing and the old Severn Bridge. The first is a construct of concrete lumping through the waves to Wales, something about it is imposing and solid, a transverse trunk of manland. It seems to filter the elemental water and air through a baleen wall of stone. It’s humanity solidified in vehicle, crane and train hidden on the underside of the road surface. Pencil Bridge is, by contrast, a thin line of luminescence, white-winged over the world, with the arch of a transport that is more spiritual than earthy. You feel this when you drive over it, it’s incredibly uplifting. This is humanity etherealised in space, light and curve.
As for a high tide, these are for my Mum, that butterfly view under the canopy at a morning and evening swell…