Seaside Photographed Exhibition at Grundy Art Gallery reviewed by Gemma Taylor

If photography is your thing and you’ve been lucky enough to capture the latest exhibition at the Grundy Art Gallery, you will have seen a plethora of images spanning decades as well as genres.
From images exploring Brighton raves to archival shots of staged tourist scenes, this show has lots to offer. Find out more with guest contributor, Gemma Taylor.

In the UK you are never more than 70 miles from the coast. When we think of the seaside we all have memories ingrained. Whether of building sandcastles, learning to swim, or downing
Sambucas, it is more than a place – it’s a feeling. As Karen Shepherdson, co-curator of the
The Seaside Photographed exhibition, says, “the seaside is in my marrow”.

Shepherdson, from the Isle of Thanet, describes “rejecting” her harbour town in her youth, but “when I turned and faced my heritage, it was like finding a lost love”. From an initially reluctant member of the coastal community she went on to found the UK’s South East Archive of Seaside (SEAS) Photography, the largest of its kind.

Martin Parr, one of the best known photographers of the seaside, introduced her to Val Williams, who set up one of the UK’s first galleries dedicated to photography (Impressions Gallery), “so she’s kind of legendary in photographic history… we just connected in that wonderful way that can happen and knew we wanted to collaborate in some way.” Seaside Photographed, a book as well as a touring exhibition, is the result.

Seaside treats

 Enter the gallery to a whir and click of a 35mm slideshow. You’re privy to the home projector. Family photos snapped during the post-war holiday heyday of the 1950s, 60s, and beyond. The look of glee when a wave hits the back of her legs; tandem treats of ice lollies and cups of tea; lunch in their swimming costumes. Families you’ve never met, yet familiar.

Walking through the archway into the main gallery space is similar to stepping onto a pier, there’s so much to look at. More than 60 photographers, from the eminent to every day, delight your senses. Everything you’d want from your day trip is here.

The ‘Hipster Victorians’

 Traverse from the 1850s, when you can imagine that walking down the promenade felt posh. Victorian families were the first to pose for seaside portraits, taking home ferrotype or ambrotype prints in a gilded frame.

“They were often the first photographs that families ever owned,” says Shepherdson who refers to one picture in particular, c1890. “He just reminds me of the hipsters in Margate. They’re just starting to smile in the picture, but the smiles aren’t quite there yet. We do something very similar now. Even the dress sense. … You wait long enough and it comes back around.”

Onto Barry Island, New Brighton, or Butlin’s in the 1980s. I’m drawn to Barry Lewis’ shot of a family arriving in Skegness. Printed large and glossy it echos the dad’s polished shoes and the shiny hope of a guaranteed good time.

 Anna Fox’s candy-colored shots from Hayling Island in 1986 also feel like they could be now – perhaps in part because 80s fashion has also gone full-loop. Actually more recent are Iain McKell’s nighttime, party-time portraits on Blackpool’s seafront, which could equally be from the 80s or 90s.


See yourself reflected

 You can’t help but see yourself reflected in the pictures. “That would have been me coming back from the Isle of Wight,” says a woman to her friend, pointing at pictures of a young guy asleep on the coach, from Vanley Burke’s 1974 series.

“This is my era,” the exhibition invigilator tells me of the Mods in Brighton in the 1960s. I could have been here, I could have been in the photo!”

 I see myself sealed in a photo album, clutching a friend while still holding onto a drink and a pack of Marlboro Lights. Blackpool was the destination of my first girls’ holiday, and we stayed somewhere reminiscent of the Ocean Hotel, captured by Henry Iddon in 2016 before its renovation. With its textured wallpapers, patchy carpets, and handwritten breakfast menu, it’s the B&B we all know.

Collective memory

 Although the seaside means different things to different people, the curators’ selection shows that our individual memories contribute to a rich, shared history – or histories. The fun is in the familiar, we’ve been going to the beach for donkey’s years, we know what to expect.

However, Shepherdson and Williams were keen to avoid clichés. “We always said we could bash it out in an afternoon, get your big names in and have a real nostalgia-fest… but we were determined for it not to become reductionist – all seaside stripes and sticks of rock. There are elements of that, of course, but we wanted to show a range of responses to the seaside, for it to be something above and beyond the expected – to make the familiar strange.”

 Instead, it was over four years in the making, including an open call, resulting in some definite surprises.

I leave Blackpool having peeped all around the UK’s coastline, wishing I was here, there, and everywhere.


The exhibition is available to see at The Grundy throughout the summer holidays, until 11 September 2021.

Find out more: https://www.thegrundy.org/whats-on/single/seaside-photographed/

Images featured courtesy of artists:

Banner Image – Ocean Hotel – Henry Iddon

Image 2 – Vanley Burke

Image 3 – Grundy Gallery, Gemma Taylor

Image 4 – Grundy Gallery Barry Lewis – Butlins

Image 6 – Anna Fox – Hayling Island 1986

Image 7, 8, 9 Henry Iddon – Ocean Hotel


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