Faded glory, or a bright future?
What is it that epitomises the traditional British seaside holiday? Buckets and spades? Shrimping nets? Ice-cream cornets? Beach huts? For photographer Andrew Wing, beach huts represent far more than August Fortnight at Mablethorpe. Here he talks to Martyn Oliver (with diary notes by Wivi-Ann Wells).
For most of us, mention of any one of these will bring back a wave of nostalgia. But for one man, whose shadow you see in the inset, beach huts represent far more than memories of August Fortnight at Mablethorpe. Andrew Wing and his partner, Norwegian photographer Wivi-Ann Wells, spent their holidays for the best part of five years in pursuit of every beach hut in Britain. The results are due to be published later this year.
Why beach huts, I asked Andrew. What is so special about them for you to make them the subject of such a comprehensive study?
‘Why not beach huts?’, he responded. ‘In fact, I’ve been fascinated by them ever since I was a kid and spent the summer holidays at the seaside with my family.’ Andrew comes from Nottingham in the English Midlands, a place about as far from the sea as it’s possible to be. ‘Most of the children I grew up with ended up working down the pit, in the mill, or in a factory. There was John Player (tobacco), Raleigh (bikes) and Jesse Boot (Boots the Chemist). So the seaside was a wonderland for us, and beach huts seemed like little palaces.
‘But that was all. I had no idea, then, of photographing them.’
So what was it; what was the spark that set the project in motion?
‘There were several factors. At the start, I think, the huts were just something to make a nice photographic subject. At the time, we lived in a flat overlooking the seafront at Hove. This would have been in about 2000, and of course Brighton and Hove are well known for their beach architecture: the arches under the esplanade, the two piers, and there are lots of beach huts there too. And if ever we drove along the south coast and came across a beach hut, I’d leap out of the car and start to take photographs.’
Wivi-Ann: We always argue about framing. I want him to show the huts in their surroundings; he wants to crop the images close, without any background. But it’s his project. Pleased to see that in his newest shots he’s come round to my way of thinking.
‘After a while, I came to see them as a real project. My background is in architectural photography, and I’m particularly interested in “vernacular” architecture – buildings for and of the people. And, certainly in the beginning, beach huts were very much structures of the common man, about pleasure and not money. Yet paradoxically they can now change hands for a small fortune. So the desire began to form, not only to catalogue them, but to show them in a way which illustrates what they mean to the people who own them. I don’t know how successful I’ve been, but that was one of the impulses that took the project forwards.
‘At the same time, as a photographer, I’m very interested in the notion of “similar but different”. For example, the German objective photographers Berndt and Hilla Becher would shoot a series of industrial scenes, each one so similar to the rest as to be at first sight almost indistinguishable from the others, but each one subtly different. Then they displayed them aligned in a grid, on the pages of a book or the walls of a gallery. I conceived the idea of doing something similar with my beach huts: similar, but different.
‘In the end, though, the project developed its own momentum: tracking down the huts, waiting for the light, processing the pictures and, more recently, putting the images together.’
How long did the project take? How many pictures?
‘In a sense, it’s still ongoing. One or two of the sets I’m not happy with, and there’s at least one location I know I’ve missed. Altogether there’s getting on for a thousand images in the series, nine or ten from each of about a hundred sites. And for each one of these images, I probably rejected another three, so you could say there were four thousand pictures. So far.’
Did you enjoy it?
‘Of course. It was great – as long as the rain held off. In a way it became an obsession, and not always a comfortable one, but there were some poetic moments and some humorous ones. For instance, I was setting up my tripod and camera in front of a beach hut at Church Ope Cove in Dorset. There was a low wall in front of the hut, and I’d chosen a point a few yards beyond the wall. I was just about to click the shutter when this very elderly lady rose up from behind the wall where clearly she’d been sunbathing. Stark naked, and without a word, she stepped over the wall, brushed past me, and stalked off into the sea.
‘I think Wivi-Ann has mixed feelings about the project, though. Quite often she would travel with me (to make the tea, carry the tripod, keep my spirits up), and so as to catch the early morning light at just the right angle we would often park our campervan in a layby near the beach. Of course, there were no “facilities”; that didn’t go down too well with her.’
Wivi-Ann: Wells-Next-The-Sea: Got up at 5, straight onto the beach after shower (in very good toilet block). Two hours on the beach, perfect sunrise, absolutely beautiful place, so peaceful. Golden sand, pine trees, seagrasses. And such amazing huts.
‘I’m working on a brief from the city of Gloucester. The area around the historical dockland is about to be razed and reconstructed, and they’ve commissioned me to make a photographic record of the region as it was.’
Watch this space.
Andrew Wing’s photographs can be seen online at www.pelicansyard.com