…here everything was a trick of the light, an endlessly shifting play of appearances without form or substance.
Michael Dibdin – Dead Lagoon
Sooner or later you have to turn your attention to the water. It is the city’s defining feature, elementally adding to sights and sounds in ways that are unique, for what other city of canals has such colourful subjects to illuminate and reflect, or a tidal lagoon to bring gentle lappings against brick and marble. Yet that water is also the city’s nemesis, eroding, flooding, drowning.
It’s the stones that grab the limelight. The mosaics, the marble, the bricks, the stucco. They all vie for your attention, but it’s wood that makes Venice.
Not just in the way-markers showing the safe routes across the lagoon, nor in the construction of its gondolas, not in the jetties or the innumerable mooring posts however jauntily some may be painted. It’s in the piling. The great stone palaces would have subsided into the sandy lagoon were it not for an amazing feat of engineering. Thousands of timber piles as long as 60′ were driven into the ground, through the sand, silt, dirt and mud into a layer of hard clay, and though hundreds of years old, they continue to provide a firm foundation, and so long as they are not exposed to the air they do not rot.
There isn’t a breath of wind. The sand is soft and warm beneath your feet.
The sea is calm and mirrors a sky full of interesting but unthreatening clouds.
There are people silhouetted against the backlighting, fishing from the shore whilst others head out further in small boats both traditional and modern.
It is a morning that would feel right on some mid summer Mediterranean shoreline, but remarkably this is the North Sea.
The shoreline anglers are seeking dabs and other flatfish, but would be happy with any catch at all on such a morning. Even the arrival of a “dogfish” didn’t seem to spoil their mood as you can see from William’s portrait.
Whilst out on Friday, I had a bit of role reversal; I was setting up my tripod to shoot some slow shutter shots of the sea lapping at the foot of the promenade steps, when a softly spoken Irishman approached me to request one or two of my pictures.
Wesley had no way of knowing what I was shooting, or whether I was in any way competent, but I think he probably made some assumptions from the equipment I was lugging about.
He explained that he was conducting a service at a residential home this weekend, and that whilst staying at Sunderland’s Marriott Hotel he had been lucky enough to see both a beautiful sunrise and the recent stormy seas. He wanted to use these as a metaphor in the message he was to share about life and how beyond every storm the light will dawn.
Well on the day it was easy to provide him with some pictures of waves crashing against rocks and the sea wall, but I needed to dig through my archives to find some calmer waters. Having recently corrupted my image database this proved harder than I would have wished, but nevertheless I found a couple of suitable options which I emailed to him.
Had I waited another 24 hours…
This morning the wind had dropped to the point where the shoreline flags were untroubled. The tide was out, and whilst there were still rainclouds in the sky, the sun was breaking through above the mirrorlike surface of the Whitburn lagoon. Although I shot some 70 or so images, there was only one picture that I had in mind and I got it here.
The trouble was that most of the people sharing the view with me were former subjects, so I was struggling for a portrait. The lazy flap of a heron’s wings drew my attention away from the bay and back to my car where I met Neil who agreed to be photographed today.
He was strolling along the cliff tops with his Sunday paper, scanning the water but with probably less pleasure than me. The calm that gave me my reflection was not so ideal for him. He is a surfer.
On the 22nd May 2009 I was on my way home when a flash of red down by the shore caught my eye. I parked my car and grabbing the Olympus that I was using in those days went to explore further.
What I found when I reached the small lagoon of Whitburn Steel was probably the closest I have come to experiencing true magic. There was no wind, it was low tide, and a small fishing boat was perfectly positioned to capture the sun’s dying rays, which were reflected from the mirror like water. Whilst I wish I had had the knowledge and equipment that I carry now on that evening, I nevertheless shot some images that I still love, though the reflections are so perfect that I could understand if people thought them digitally manipulated. (They are not!).
Skip forward three years and there was a partial recurrence this morning. To be fair, the light was very different and there was no boat in the lagoon, but the tide was as far out as I’ve known it, and there was a sense of calm on the beach that noticeably contrasted with the conditions we have grown accustomed to of late. Instead of the bright blues of that evening the dominant colour was a sludgy brown, given emphasis by the coils of kelp that were liberally scattered, the neutral light upon the wet sands, and the plumage of the adolescent gulls by the water’s edge.
The low tide revealed a sand bar giving me access to a previously unexplored outcrop of rock, and as I looked backward I experienced a new view of a familiar location. The water’s edge which I had previously always seen as grey or blue being lit by the skies above, was a now a deep green as it reflected the grassy banks which were usually behind me.
More of a surprise was in store as I turned back towards the waters. I’ve seen many wading birds here as well as gulls and terns hunting for sand eels, but here was a visitor that I didn’t expect. Whilst its initial stillness combined with my angle of view had caused me to register it as nothing more significant than a stick or stalk of kelp, as soon as it moved the profile was unmistakable as a heron. Not as magical as my red boat, but a special moment never the less.
Amongst the handful of people enjoying the stillness I met Joan out walking her lamb-like Bedlington terrier. Wish I’d got more light into her eyes, but I do like the colours. Thanks Joan.