In this blog environmental artist & experimental photographer Karen Simpson and filmmaker / photographer / artist Nicholas Godsell contemplate their recent stay at Hut 136, which was a bid to step away from their hectic everyday lives and take time to investigate slower and more considered creative pursuits…
Teatime and Tide Part 4 – Inside The Stillness
Artist Residency at Hut 136
22nd January – 2nd February 2018
51.371805 latitude, 1.109368 longitude
Rachel Lichtenstein states in her book Estuary that ‘the Greater Thames Estuary encompasses an area of over eight hundred square nautical miles, starting around Tower Bridge, stretching to Clacton in Essex and Whitstable in Kent, however a hydrological survey of 1882 shows the boundary line of the outer estuary going across from North Foreland, off Margate Kent to Harwich in Essex and Contemporary charts show the limits stretching as far as Orford Ness on the Suffolk Coast’.
Sunrise & Sunset terminology
Sunset – daily disappearance of the sun below the horizon…
Twilight – light between full night and dusk…
Dusk – darkest stage of twilight before night sets in.
Dawn – old English verb, dagian ‘to become day’, time that marks the beginning of twilight before sunrise…
Twilight – light between dawn and sunrise…
Sunrise the instant the sun appears over the horizon in the morning.
Day One Monday 22nd January 2018
We arrived bright and early soon after 9am and the tide was still receding (low tide occurred at 09.39am.)
We set about creating a temporary, inner blackout door from a couple of panels of a vintage screen. By covering the screen in blackout fabric, and then adding an inner curtain to come down over the whole double door of the hut, we created a completely blacked out space. In the quiet of this dark room we considered ourselves to be ‘inside the stillness’ and this was the basis of our Camera Obscura.
The moment of truth came; we made a pinhole in both the outer door and inner curtain and sat back waiting for our eyes to adjust as the external light seeped in. Slowly a very blurred, grainy image appeared across the back and side walls. We decided that we needed to let more light through the ‘pinhole’, so we cautiously made it slightly bigger using an awl. Again we sat back in anticipation; the silence of the space only broken by the distant sound of the sea, disjointed voices of people walking past (oblivious to our existence) and sonic booms from across the estuary.
As our eyes and brains adjusted to the light once more, an image slowly appeared; upside down, back to front and a little grainy. So simple and back to basics. In an age of instant technology one could only revel in the excitement the pioneers of photography must have felt when they made their first tentative experiments; these same experiments that we were on the threshold of for our two-week residency.
Day two Thursday 25th January
We arrived early at 07.10 to observe and record sunrise! As the sun was on its winter trajectory this event occurred behind the beach hut in the south east. Twilight ebbed into dawn and a cacophony of noise and activity erupted, as both sea and shore birds awoke from their night-time roosts to greet the dawn.
Red and green, port and starboard warning lights flickered out on the wind turbines, whilst street and house lights on Sheppey, Southend and Herne Bay seafront, slowly went out with the rising sun. A bright light still hung low over the old pier head, too big to be a star… A satellite perhaps? It gently faded as the sun’s rays no longer reflected off it.
Shipping, wind turbines and the Maunsell Forts (the alien looking relics of a bygone era) slowly appeared on the horizon. A fishing boat set course out to sea; voices of unseen people walking along the path behind the Hut drifted by; the world awoke.
A GPS shipping tracker informed us that Cha Cgm Cayenne, Victorine and Tollund, were the three cargo ships we could see way out on the horizon.
Another day of experimentation. Once again, shutting ourselves ‘inside the stillness’ of the Camera Obscura, we tentatively decided to make the ‘pinhole’ bigger to see if we could get a clearer image. So making it just a little bigger each time, we sat and waited, with every expansion of the aperture the image became clearer.
Upside down crows, people and dogs scurried past like strange disjointed insects.
A discussion about the technicalities of filming in such a dark space ensued, as although our eyes have slowly adjusted, the ironies of filming such a basic, old technique as Camera Obscura had become apparent.
Day Three Friday 26th January 2018
A misty day, both Hampton and Herne Bay Piers struggled to make themselves known, whilst the old pier head, marooned approximately half a mile offshore, remained shrouded in mist.
The shipping GPS tracker told us Boy Beau and Predator, a fishing boat and pleasure craft were somewhere out there (although we couldn’t see them, Sheppey or Southend today!) Without the vast horizon, somehow the Hut and the beach seemed bigger.
A colleague came by to see how our residency was going. We were not sure how well the Camera Obscura was going to perform on such a misty day; nevertheless we closed ourselves up ‘inside the stillness’. We explained the background of Camera Obscura while we waited for our eyes to adjust, and slowly reveal (thankfully, even on this misty day) the beach, sky, movement in the form of crows and then people and dogs; all upside down and back to front of course. Our colleague was suitably impressed!
Day Four Monday 29th January 2018
The beginning of our second week. After a cloudy start the old pier head looked resplendent in the morning sun. Out on the horizon the wind-farms shone bright and white, as Sheppey and Southend basked in the morning light. A flock of geese flew past and on the horizon Adeline, a cargo ship, and Charlotte Theresa, a tanker, made passage.
We decided upon further experimentation today and undertook filming the Camera Obscura. By making a larger hole below the ‘aperture pinhole’ for the camera lens we allowed ourselves control of the camera from outside, whilst we went about other activities, such as more cyanotype and pinhole experimentation. We also set up a time-lapse camera to record the comings and goings of the day.
As the morning worn on cloud increased. Southend became a black silhouette; the windfarm and the old pier head took on a black, brooding appearance.
We watched a crow repeatedly drop a shell to open it revealing succulent flesh which it devoured.
It was busy day out in the deep-water shipping channel as Makassar Highway (a vehicle carrier), Maersk Laurus (a container ship), Finnpulp, Cymbeline and Norsky cargo carriers and Arjo Pijk (a hopper dredger) all made passage across the horizon.
Day Five Tuesday 30th January 2018
Another lovely sunny January day; blue sky, wispy white clouds and plane trails… Obviously a good day for fishing as a fisherman was already set up on the beach and Typhoon Tow, a small fishing boat, sat moored about half a mile offshore, as a pleasure craft called Tempest chugged out of the harbour and set course out to sea.
In the distance the Clocktower chimed ten, as two people rowed past the beach hut and a couple of sculling boats enjoyed the calm high tide.
We converted the beach hut into a temporary darkroom to develop our pinhole images from yesterday, which we hung to dry in the hut.
As the morning progressed and tide receded the fisherman packed up his gear, out on the horizon a large cargo ship, Celestine, and the various wind-farms shone white and bright in the midday sun. It promised to be a lovely afternoon, sadly we both had other prior engagements.
Day Six Wednesday 31st January 2018
Today we decided to come down to the hut for an evening session to observe and record the super, wolf moon rise; a ‘blue moon’, as it was the second full moon of the month. It promised to be a good clear view, with the moon due to rise over the sea and Herne Bay in the North East.
The tide was on its way-out; sunset was due at 16.44; moon rise at 16.51. We set up a time-lapse camera to record the event and sat back watching lights on the wind-farms, Sheppey and Southend come on as daylight faded.
We weren’t disappointed. As the moon broke cover of low clouds at 17.12 it looked stunning and even more so as the evening grew darker and the moon rose higher, casting a golden reflection across the mudflats. More lights came on in the distant horizon of Essex, along with bright lights on Herne Bay Pier and seafront arcades, and on the old Pier Head a beacon started flashing; beckoningly across the mudflats.
Day Seven Thursday 1st February 2018
Arriving just after 6.30am to observe and record the sunrise once again, this time setting up a time-lapse camera. The previous night’s full moon was still very visibly casting a bright light over the morning twilight, as it slowly set in the west over Sheppey.
We weren’t the only ones down on the beach at such an early hour; with low tide at 6.55am, a couple of bait diggers were out on the mud flats. They were joined by a flock of Brent Geese, which landed to forage on the mud and edge of the tide.
A large cargo ship, Encounter, was just visible on the horizon and the Grand Old Lady (as we’d started referring to the Old Pier Head) was just awakening from her slumber; although sunrise wasn’t due till 7.30am, day was already dawning.
It was a much fresher day; several large cargo ships went past on the horizon as well as a rather plucky little sailing boat making good headway against the strong North North West winds.
Day eight Friday 2nd February 2018
Another strong North North Westerly wind; the tide was well on its way in by the time we got to the hut today. Sheppey, Southend and the wind-farms were all visible in the morning sun, although the Grand Old Lady looked dark and brooding this morning.
A couple of boats out on the horizon; Mol Paramount (a container ship) and Sand Fulmar (a hopper, dredger).
Another friend and colleague Andrea Cornish, a fellow artist, visited us to see what we’d been up to during our residency. She was thrilled to be able to experience our Camera Obscura and had a go at some Winter Cyanotype.
Our time at Hut 136 has been invaluable; allowing us the chance to experiment, research, contemplate and occasionally just be… Ideas have flooded in as a result of this opportunity and future plans are now afoot. This space has allowed us to slow down, take a step back from the fast-paced technological world we ordinarily inhabit, and embrace something else, something archaic and arcane. The hut has granted us occasion to get inside this mindset; inside a process; inside the stillness…