Reprieve

Steetly Pier HartlepoolIn 2011 I reluctantly closed a successful photography business. It was a difficult decision to make, but for a year I had been suffering with progressively worsening mental health problems and I could no longer put into the business what it required. With my business went my enthusiasm. I had been a professional photographer for fifteen years, firstly in the British Army and then producing commercial, fashion, product, wedding, portrait and most other types of photography from a studio in Penzance, Cornwall.

At the end of 2012 following what seemed to be an epidemic of bad luck and being given notice by our landlord, my family and I found ourselves back in the North East of England. I never expected to return, we left almost twenty years earlier to find something better. I thought it was the worst decision that we could make and I felt like a complete failure. My mental health continued to decline, I struggled to find help and my run of bad luck seemed as though it would never end.

Two years have now passed since we returned to County Durham and it is only in the last six months that I have noticed an improvement. I began to write. I completed my first book, a memoire which I am now looking to have published. I found a local writing group which has been instrumental to my state of mind improving. The photography however, remained uninspiring. I had on several occasions taken my camera out into the local area and produced some more than acceptable images, but the excitement did not return. That is until this week.

I met Kim Walton many years ago while I was in the Army, we have been good friends ever since. He expressed an interest in photography and with some pointers from me has gone from strength to strength. He attained his Associate distinction with the Royal Photographic Society and is now Programmes Manager for the Beacon Camera Club in Malvern.

A few weeks ago when Kim rang to tell me he was going to visit for a week of photography in the North East, I was pretty unenthusiastic. Regardless I was up at five on the first morning for a drive to Once Brewed and Hadrian’s Wall in the hope of catching warm morning light on the ancient monument and the surrounding countryside. Unfortunately it was grey, foggy, cold and wet. The paths and tracks were enveloped in some places by ankle deep mud. We moved on. Heading back towards home, we found that everywhere but a five mile radius around Consett was hidden beneath thick fog. The weather near home though was superb, blue skies and golden light casting long shadows from the low winter sun. We spent the day traveling around the Derwent Reservoir, photographing the fields and the partially frozen water and produced some pleasing images. Within a few hours, the excitement for chasing the light took hold of me again and I was raring to be at the next fantastic location before we lost our blue skies behind the encroaching mists.

That day would be the last of the good weather and the rest of the week was flat and grey, but it didn’t stop us. It was not the actual photography that excited me, it was the thrill of the chase. Watching for a break in the cloud, hoping for moments of sunlight, to brighten our subjects. Driving from location to location in the hope that one of them would be attractively illuminated. Beamish Museum, Holy Island, Banburgh Castle, Shields, Sunderland, Saltburn and Hartlepool. It wasn’t until we arrived at the last of these that our efforts really paid off. The light remained flat and uninspiring, but we had found something to photograph which suited the soft, cold light.

Steetly Pier in Hartlepool which used to be part of Hartlepool magnesium works, has stood unused for ten years. It is in a state of disrepair. Its monolithic structure comprises of great wooden legs and struts, metal brackets and bolts, iron feet embedded in the saffron coloured sand. Slow shutter speeds and neutral density filters turned the water swirling, undulating beneath giant girders into smooth blue that matched perfectly the textureless sky. We stood in the advancing waves, the ice cold wind biting into out bones as the exposures grew longer, from fractions of a second to minutes. The waves in our images become increasingly blurred, like wraiths dancing down the tunnel created by the pier legs. Frozen fingers held filters and remote releases as we gazed at digital camera screens waiting for a successful image. Our thick jackets were not quite as warm as we wished them to be, but when the light was gone and we headed back to the car we knew that we had captured something to momentarily satisfy the hunger.

Despite the cold, there was a warmth inside me as we drove back along the A1(M) towards Durham. It felt as though the challenge, the excitement that I had found in photography years ago, had begun its return. Perhaps the enthusiasm had not deserted me but had in fact only been dormant or was it just a passing phase, a fleeting reminder of emotions from the past? As we head towards Spring and Summer, as the days grow longer and the light improves, the opportunity for me to return to photography grows. I guess that I will find out soon whether the love of photography that I once had has returned or not.