WITH PETER DENCH & HEATHER TAIT
Olympus Visionary and photojournalist, Peter Dench and documentary photographer and lens based artist, Heather Tait, set out a photography day-trip to remember, an experience beyond the picture postcard.
Every photographer has a unique vision of the seaside undoubtably nourished by childhood holidays, classic television sitcoms, the media and the work of preceding photographers. A lot can be documented at the seaside about the state of the nation; decline and regeneration, communities of the retired and émigrés, the ebb and flow of day-trippers. And a lot can be observed about the mentality of the English by how they behave, their habits and traditions. The seaside lowers inhibitions and often brings out the ridiculous – exciting ingredients for a photographers lens.
I was born beside the seaside, beside the sea, in the south coast town of Weymouth, in the motorway-free county of Dorset. I’m so southern, I’m practically French. The local junior school distributed free suncream along with milk. My teenage years were spent on my BMX bike, speeding along the Georgian facade that gently cradles Weymouth’s arcing bay. Playing tennis overlooking golden sands. Peeling off arm-length strips of sunburnt skin while listen to test match cricket from the radio. Falling in love with Majorettes marching in the carnival wearing shiny tan tights and tall chin strapped hats. Fathoming out the sequence of fruit machine reels – melon, orange, plum cherry, orange, JACKPOT!
This was my introduction to England and I was hooked. Over twenty years pointing my lens at planet Punch and Judy has followed. American photographers have the road trip, English photographers esplanades and promenades. When I saw that photographer Heather Tait had co-won (with her daughter Meg) an Olympus PEN E-PL10 in a competition, I invited her to show me her Margate, a coastal flower in the garden of England. Heather has been diligently documenting the town since she moved there in 2011 via her home town of Ramsgate and a BA (Hons) education in Brighton. Her seaside credentials are impeccable, her instagram account @mostlymargate.
It’s a frisky 8°C in London when I pack my beautiful black Billingham Hadley Pro Olympus 100 camera bag. I choose an Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III Digital Camera Body with M. Zuiko Digital ED 12-100 mm F4 IS Pro Lens with FL‑900R flash as my go to combination for the day backed up with an E-M1 Mark II body with 12-40mm F2.8 M.Zuiko ED PRO Micro Four Thirds Mount Lens. I choose three layers of clothing including a wool jumper and weatherproof jacket and apply factor 20 to please my mother.
Arriving at Margate is intense. The wind is so dense with sand it gives my forehead a polish. I have to lean at such an acute angle trying to walk, if the gale stopped, I’d face plant the pavement. I can barely see the brutalist, 58-metre high, eighteen-storey, Arlington House, a concrete middle finger on the Margate skyline. I do see full time documentary photographer and lens based artist Heather, with more layers that a Knickerbocker Glory and equally as colourful in a blue and red coat, orange scarf and yellow sun shades, or rather, sand shades.
I’m always terrified of a having nothing to photograph at a destination so try to make sure there’s an event happening that will guarantee lens fodder. Today is The Mile Beach Race. Scores of vintage and custom motorcycles do social distanced beach sprints alongside 10 metre waves. I pop on my flash set at TTL and +1 to really punch through the gloom and Heather and I weave among the wind whipped crowd photographing bystanders sunk deep inside Parka jackets. Tears of cold streak our faces and we eventually strike out in search of coffee.
“Each frame I take in Margate is the brush stroke of a bigger picture,” explains Heather. At least I think she does, my hands are so numb with cold I can’t hold a pen to write it down. Heather lives in Cliftonville, a mile east of Margate beach. Despite the rapid socio-economic changes taking place through regeneration, it remains one of the poorest wards in the country. It’s culturally rich, ethnically mixed and consistently vibrant. “We have one of the largest Roma populations in the country and many of my images document the families and children of these communities. Brexit fears and rising rents are beginning to push people out. The Roma community in particular are being threatened by these changes,” she adds.
Heather takes me on a photo-tour of Cliftonville’s main thoroughfare, Northdown Road, one of the most independent high streets I’ve ever witnessed. There’s Lovelys Art Gallery, Andrews Beer and Minerals Co, OCT Interiors, Pick ’n Paint a Pot, Sunny Vintage & Retro, you can even buy an organ from Thornton Bobby’s electronic retails and repair shop. There’s Mar Mar coffee shop, Cafe Vinny, Gloria’s Lounge & Cafe and enough restaurants and take-aways to get an eclectic flavour from across Europe, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Middle East.
As we explore, Heather continuously drops from my side to photograph a friend or stranger, she zips into Easy Pay Furniture shop to photograph the proprietor sat among the mattresses and beds. She’s a do it now photographer, working swiftly and with a confidence that she attributes to moving schools regularly as a kid. She always carries a camera, sees and frames pictures quickly, trying to get the composition right in-camera. “Hello, can I take a picture? You’re pretty cool,” she says focusing the 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 EZ lens on two kids wearing Halloween masks. People let their guard down and express themselves when she points the aesthetically pleasing PEN E-PL10. Children feature prominently as a subject during our day and throughout Heather’s archive – playing freely on the streets, climbing lamp posts, riding bikes, acting as super-hero or Disney princess – the kids don’t seem to mind, perhaps her pink hair helps.
We gargle the sand from our teeth with a goodbye drink at the Promenade Brewers Fayre pub, staring towards Dreamland entertainment park and The Scenic Railway, a century old wooden roller coaster. It’s been a photography day-trip to remember. I was expecting a bucket and spade experience, deep-fried food and fairground rides. Heather took me beyond the picture postcard of Margate to reveal something more rewarding. The seaside is an integral part of the English way of life and Margate is one of the nation’s original resorts, welcoming visitors for health, pleasure, love, laughter and many reasons in between since the early 18th century and I hope, for many more. Three centuries of visitors have created a rich architectural and social history. Our hope is that one or two of our photographs can enhance that legacy.
We wish you were here,
Pete & Heather.
Peter & Heather’s Top Tips
- Be prepared for changeable weather, dress sensibly, wear layers, avoid controversial slogans on your clothes
- Short of confidence? Check if there’s a public event on so ‘out-of-town’ visitors with a camera are expected
- Carry a spare camera and lens, not that any Olympus will let you down, other factors may make it necessary
- Don’t be afraid – have a short, clear and truthful answer prepared if anyone asks what you’re photographing, especially if children are present
- If photographing at an event, be there at the beginning and at the end – shoot through it, you’re more likely to produce a complete set of images
- Shoot wide and get close, ask permission if necessary
- Try to tell a story, look for interesting juxtapositions
- Shoot local – the most interesting place is often the one that’s closest to home
- Keep smiling, be respectful, have fun, shoot Olympus 🙂