When I was twenty I was employed by a Morecambe photographer to take pictures of holidaymakers from the West Riding textile towns. Back in those days the various towns tended to descend on Morecambe en mass on particular days. This practice was related to when the main employer declared a holiday. In Morecambe the practice was called 'Wakes weeks'. I worked with a monkey. The idea was that she would create a centre of interest for the photographer and the photograph. Often the result was pandemonium of one kind or another. The technical name for this kind of photographer was a "Smudger". In those days Morecambe was vibrant and full of life.
Earlier this month I phoned the studio in Queens Street, surprised to find it still there. I spoke to a young woman who turned out to be the daughter of the man who originally employed me. She had been borne the year I worked on the sea front for her father. She had inherited the photography business after her father died three years previously. We agreed that I would make a visit to Morecambe and the old studio.
I returned to Morecambe in early May. My employer's daughter showed me around the old studio, which was upstairs from where she now worked. It was in a bad state, but I still recognised the place in which we had started each morning and to which we had returned each evening, loaded down with used Tri X film and a book of names and addresses from potential customers: holidaymakers curious to see themselves and their friends cavorting with a monkey. Daughter and I spoke of the told days. She relied on tales told to her by her Dad and old photographs (although she did have some first hand memories of being a little girl and living with a troop of monkeys!). I relied on hazy memory and present curiosity.
Then I spent a couple of days walking through the town and patrolling the sea front, capturing the way it was now, and dimly remembering how it had been. I experienced a lot of ambivalence in what I discovered. When I focussed on the town itself I found it run down and mostly past its best – this was rather sad. On the other hand when I turned towards the bay stretching west and north it was a different situation: fast changing light and a tremendous sky led to wonder and delight. That was still there.
Photographs from this trip to Morecambe form a discrete section of the gallery I have created for Oxford Arts Week. Reflecting my ambivalence, some show a search for the sublime among decay and ruin, while others more straightforwardly seek out moments of beauty in the sky and the sea over the bay. This picture accompanying this blog sits somewhere between these states. For a fisherman to name his boat after hope indicates something rather unproductive in his everyday working life, but the situation of the boat against the sky and the beach shows what I imagine is the recurring beauty of a fisherman's life in nature.
No doubt my feelings are those of the landlubber living most of his life in shore borne safety. But I also felt, just for this brief time at least, like the fisherman, venturing out to revisit familiar places, rendered strange by time and weather, in search of new life.