After making hundreds of trips to this beach I started to analyse what I actually do there, and for interest I wrote it down. Here it is –
On the West coast of Wales, near the town of Cardigan, is a beach called Poppit Sands. To get to this beach you have to drive through the village of St. Dogmaels and then continue along a narrow rural road for some more miles until suddenly Poppit is before you. Your first glimpse of it comes from high up, and this vantage point helps you gauge what state of tide the beach is in. From this moment you can begin to decide where on the beach you will walk to. You drive down towards the parking place – away from the main gateway to the beach. There you can park, open the boot of your car and prepare yourself. It is always much colder on the beach than you expect. Once dressed you can walk along the muddy path towards the stepping stones that take you across one of the many tributaries that run into the river. As you pass over these stones you begin the see the dusting of sand and the loose gripping grass that tells you are no longer on earth, but on dune. The sandy path leads up, with rough gorse either side and then within a few feet you are there – the beach suddenly opens up before you. Miles of it. The walk then starts in earnest as you get to the dry everyday sand, littered with flotsam and jetsam – sticks, seaweed, strange tangled masses – but never rubbish. Never a plastic bottle or single shoe. Not in Winter, not when the tourists are away.
After the dry and light sand, you pass along a flat and featureless mass of damp sand. Often this has been scarred by footprints and signs of desperate dogs digging. You can now scan the whole beach as it turns along and around to your left. Usually there will be nobody there. Occasionally the odd dog walker or couple out hand in hand. You try to predict their route on the beach. You don’t want to bump into them as you work.
And now comes a decision. Where to shoot.
This is the first of numerous decisions that are made in an instant. How these decisions are made is a mystery as there is often very little evidence to uphold them. It could be impatience, how your general mood is, how cold it is on the beach. It could be any number or combination of things. And yet, when the decision is made it always seems to be the right choice. There is always the confidence that you are doing the right thing. That confidence comes with knowing that you will be back again. You will be able to collect more photos another time. Probably many many other times. You can afford to go with your gut instinct as you will get your chance again.
So, at this point you either stop and unpack, or you turn to your left and instead of going down to the water’s edge you walk parallel to it. No matter which decision you make, you will always end up in the same general location – but in two different states of mind.
If you had unpacked and were walking by the waters edge you will continue slowly and mindfully. You will be in that slightly rushed and excited state of mind. You are ready for what the beach can give you – but are you really? Is your mind really open to the beach just yet? Surely it is too soon and you are already missing things? This is what will be passing through your mind as you walk. Is it too soon? Am I missing things? I must slow down. No, there is nothing here, I must speed up before the light goes and the tides change. This is what passes through your mind. A flickering of doubt. Just for a few moments, and then you continue on. The fact that you return to the beach, and will be returning to the beach over and over again, gives you the ability to just walk on, to relax and to be open to making mistakes. So what if you have walked past an incredible event on the sand? It makes no difference. There will be plenty more, and if it was to be then it would have been. The fact that you missed it just means to that your mind is not warmed up yet. There will be others events later on.
And then, as you walk along side the waters edge you suddenly see, from about 15 feet away, a point of interest. And as you slow a little and move closer, the angle of your sight changes, and you stare at this point, this feature, and hope that it keeps your interest as you continue to move forward. And as you get to within about five feet you can tell what it has to offer. You can see what it would be like inside your camera. And then you place the tripod down once. Never moving it. That is the place that you will photograph from. You have decided the best place to shoot in a fraction. You tilt the camera down, cup the eyepiece with your hand and look into it. The black square frame fills with a shape. It’s lines and curves and details all come together and it shows you what it can be. You can make small adjustments with the camera angle to make the collection of features stronger or weaker. And then you think.
Is this a good photograph? Is this a special moment? Is this a moment that deserves to be imprinted on the film? Will my heart race when I develop this frame? Have I not seen the message from this image a thousand times or more before? Will this image be a strong negative? Will it look stronger upside down as well as reversed?
And then the decision is made. Will it be or will you pass? Are you shooting too early on in the visit? Are you just grabbing a shot to warm up – to get your mind in the right place? Look again. Really look this time.
Is it special?
And then you either click the mirror up and shoot, or you un attach yourself from that black framed world, take your eye away from the viewfinder and move on. You don’t feel disappointed. You feel like you made the right choice – after all, film is expensive. If you decided to shoot you feel a vague feeling somewhat like an excited satisfaction. Nothing too strong. It’s a start. There is plenty of film left for the visit.
You look up and move on. Always checking the waters edge. Is there an interesting event there? No? Checking, checking – always checking. And mainly rejecting what is in front of you. You have photographed that event before. There is absolutely no point in doing it again. A complete waste of film.
If you choose not to go down to the waters edge then you have a long walk out into the far flats of the beach. You always scan the horizon – looking for thin dark lines in the sand. These are often strong shapes and features – exactly what you are looking for. You have to pass a sea of texture in the sands to get to the real meat of the journey – and you have to ignore a lot. It is all there – calling for your attention, but you have seen it before and you know that these images would only give you tepid weak results. So you walk by them, or over them. Always scanning the horizon for those black lines.
Finally you reach the first of the hollows. These are often filled with water, but sometimes on a sunny day you don’t want water in them. The reflection of the water in bright sunlight gives the photograph a maze of white lines and scars. You know this because you have made the same mistake many times before. So you come to the hollows, which are shrimp shaped pools of water carved out of the sand by swirls and flows. You unpack the camera and usually take a quick shot of the first one you see. It is very rarely a good one. In fact, I cannot remember a single visit to the beach where the first shot was worth keeping. It is like a sacrifice. Once it is done you can get to the rest.
Walking around these pools you watch carefully. The light and shadows change the pools completely as you walk around them. You try to imagine that your eyes are the viewfinder and you must look for the strongest play of light on the composition without it becoming overpowering. When you see a strong moment before you, you push down the tripod – just once. You know where it has to go. Then you shade the viewfinder. And go back into that dark square world. It is like being in a tent looking out through a window. Nobody else can see what you are looking at. It is all yours.
After a few minor adjustments you have to decide – yes or no? And this decision is made in a second. You either flip up the mirror and shoot or you pick up the tripod and scan again. No regrets. You have plenty of other opportunities waiting for you – if not on this visit then sometime in the future.
After your first attempt then others follow. But the first shot will have made you aware not to do others like it. Unless there is something that really catches your eye – something really unique.
The really unique image happens very infrequently. It can come at you from any angle – at any place on the beach. When you see it then you know that it is something good as you approach it. You hope and pray that it gets better as you move towards it and the angle of vision changes. You hope and pray that the sun won’t glare in all of the wrong places – and you hope that the best angle will not be ruined by your shadow. When you get to it you know where to place the tripod and you follow the usual routine without thought until you look through the viewfinder prism and cup your face to keep out any light and you are back there in a magical dark theatre – looking down on a selection of shapes and textures and tones.
It is a wonderful moment. You feel excited, but not overly so. You feel anticipation more than anything. You flip the mirror and take the shot and then you pick up the tripod and move on. No waiting and no second shot. It was all there in that one shot.
Eventually you pass through the collection of pools that always form three quarters of the way out on a low tide. You move onto another flat featureless area which sometimes holds wonderful individual shapes and patterns – if you are very lucky. It is always worth walking out this far to see the flats – just in case. Ahead of you is the recently drained wet sand. The ripples here are everywhere, but you know that they will only give you a trite image and you walk past them. This is usually the point to walk back – taking a different route. But you are also aware that the shapes and patterns in the sand can look so different coming at them from a different angle – so you keep your eyes open and even zig zag between old and new routes, just to check that nothing new comes to your eye.
At this point your mind feels tired and ready for the studio. Once you have retraced your steps there will come a point where you have to pack away your camera and walk back to the car. Hopefully you will have two or more rolls of film in your bag – 24 shots – and on the way home, with the window rolled down and music playing you feel a wonderful satisfaction and calm excitement at the thought of seeing the results in silvery black and white.
Back at the studio it is good to mix up the rolls taken during the day and then let them sit for a few days or even weeks. There is no rush – the images are not going anywhere – and I will still have rolls of film from earlier visits to develop.