A Daily Sea – Interview with Simon Roberts

Marianne Stenger
31st July 2020

As an island nation, visits to the seaside have long been an important part of British culture, and most of us can probably recall a childhood holiday that centred around a trip to the coast.  

Through his photography, Brighton-based photographer Simon Roberts explores the collective relationship between people and place, as well as the reflection of social, political and cultural change in the landscape. With projects like We English, Pierdom, and Merrie Albion he has documented not only the pastimes of ordinary people across the country, but also the way the British seaside is closely linked to our changing habits as a nation.

“The photographs contain elements of faded romance and nostalgia for the quirkiness, and they project some of the innocence that the seaside inhabits in our sense of place,” says Roberts.

When the UK went into lockdown in March, he began taking a daily photograph looking out to sea from his home in Brighton and posting one each day on Instagram along with a sea-related quote. This series of images became his most recent project A Daily Sea, and led to the launch of a fundraising print sale, with proceeds going to support the NHS Coronavirus Appeal. We asked him to tell us a bit more about the project and his style of photography, as well as what the lockdown has been like for him personally.

How would you describe your style of photography?

Over the past decade my work has concentrated on exploring the dual concept of landscape and identity. With a focus on British topography, I observe and explore the cultural, political, and economic aspects that impact our relationship to and connection with the landscape surrounding us.  Using a large-format camera, my photographs are taken with technical precision, often from elevated positions.

The high, distanced vantage point allows a critical perspective on our relationship to the landscape, whilst the groups of people populating the scenes can be clearly observed. My most recent book, Merrie Albion - Landscape Studies of a Small Island, brought together many of these works, photographed between 2007-2017, depicting Britain during a time of immense change.

MerrieAlbion-001: Broadstairs Dickens Festival, Isle of Thanet, 19 June 2008

You’ve photographed the British seaside a lot throughout your career and explored it in your projects We English and Pierdom. What does the seaside symbolise for you?

A lot of my interest in the past has been to explore how we utilise the British landscape for leisure pursuits and as an island nation, most of us are drawn to the coastline - just look at what happened in the past few days as Britons flocked to the beaches as the lockdown was lifted.

If we take the pleasure pier, they follow our relationship to the seaside, from the early links with the Romantics, to the engineering feats and technical advancement of the Industrial Revolution. They bear witness to the growth of the coast as a pleasure destination for a monied elite, as well as the working class’ enthusiasm for the seaside brought on by the development of the railways and the bank holiday ruling.

Britain’s piers trace our changing economic fortunes too, from post-war boom to economic downturn, and now a slow re-awakening of our appreciation of these cultural and historic landmarks.

We English: Keynes Country Park Beach, Shornecote, Gloucestershire, 2008

Could you tell us a bit about A Daily Sea? What made you want to start this?

An implicit theme of my work over the past few years has centred around the idea of gatherings; photographing events and places in the landscape where people are drawn together in public for communal experiences and to share a sense of belonging. It’s therefore strange to suddenly be in a situation where we became so isolated and our social interactions are mostly conducted virtually.

One creative outlet I did find in the first few months of lockdown was making photographs of the view out to sea during my daily exercise allowance (shot with a Sony Alpha 7 III camera). I’ve always found solace in the sea - it’s one of the main reasons I moved to Brighton - and starting on the 19th March, when the lockdown in the UK was imposed, I began posting a daily seascape photograph on my Instagram account accompanied by a sea-related quote.

The daily posts seemed to really resonate with people, especially for those who were unable to leave their homes or are land-locked. I completed the series after 56 days when the official Government Covid-19 advice changed in England and the lockdown was eased.

During this period I launched a fundraising print sale of all the photographs, with proceeds going to support the NHS Coronavirus Appeal. It was one way I felt I could do something to help from the confines of my living room.

How has this time during the coronavirus lockdown been for you as a photographer? Obviously it must have had a huge impact on your ability to work. But has there been any silver lining for you?

It goes without saying that this is a hugely challenging time for many creatives as planned projects disappear and the prospect of commissions evaporates. At the same time, I believe one of the roles of an artist is to connect to our new realities and make the most of the fact that our lives have been inexplicably altered, albeit temporarily.

I’ve been inspired by how the arts community have rallied to help one another in response to this crisis, and there have been some fantastic initiatives launched, such as Keith Tyson’s #isolationartschool on Instagram, which aims to help people get creative while housebound.

I’ve found that one positive aspect of being in lockdown is the opportunity to reflect on my current practice, including the framework within which I make and distribute my work. I’ve been trying to carve out time for some critical thinking around the projects I have in progress and consider how I may need to modify my approach to reflect this new situation in which we find ourselves. Other than that it’s been a joy and a struggle trying to home-school three children under the age of 14.

MerrieAlbion-005: Download Festival, Donington Park, Castle Donington, Leicestershire, 13 June 2008

Finally, what’s next for you now that the lockdown is winding down? Is there anything currently in the works? Or something new you’d like to explore?

I’ve spent the past few weeks editing video footage for a project I’m completing on faith in Cuba, which is due to be exhibited later this year. I’m also working on a series of cyanotypes, a photographic printing process that produces a cyan-blue print using - in my case- sunlight. These can be produced in my back garden whilst taking advantage of the past few weeks of sunshine.

Pierdom: Southwold Pier, Suffolk, 2012

Images © Simon Roberts. You can find out more about him and his work by visiting his website or following him on Instagram @simoncroberts. For more photography-related interviews, tips and inspiration, be sure to browse the Bob Books blog or follow us on Instagram @bobbooks