Post image for Review of “The Welsh Coast” a book of photography by Peter Watson

Review of “The Welsh Coast” a book of photography by Peter Watson

May 26, 2014 · 25 comments

Publisher: Frances Lincoln

Published 2010

ISBN 9780711231115

Hardback : 113 pages

Price: £16.99

Signed copies can be obtained directly from the photographer at his website. I am grateful to him for allowing me to use his images for this post. I have not altered them in any way other than to adjust their size.

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I have been walking along the Wales Coast Path for just over two years. It’s not that I am such a slow walker; I am still in full time work, so need to fit in sessions when I can. I started from Chepstow, which, officially, is the end of the path. And as I live near Chepstow it was easy for me to go there on the first day of the formal opening of the Wales Coast Path in May 2012.

I started a blog about the walk after this first day and have been writing about the path and photographing it since. To date I have walked over 600 miles of the path and have posted over 40 blogs.

I did not start walking the path with the intention of doing the whole of its nearly 900 miles but I soon got hooked. I will do it all. There, I have said it. I might even complete it this year but early next is more likely.

p78 6.6 p74 Caerfai Bay op

By inclination I am a fair weather walker. I do, though, enjoy the experience of being out in all weathers.  I passed on the possibility of a few days in last winter’s gales which pretty well wrecked Aberystwyth. And to date I have not walked in heavy frost or snow, but so far those opportunities have not coincided with my possibilities or inclination. Walking in a stiff wind is incredibly exhilarating if you have the sea crashing and thrashing about nearby but it is quite hard work.

If it’s raining (and it often rains in Wales) I am reluctant to get my camera out but I will unless it is torrential. My Canon G15 is a good compact but doesn’t have the same weather tightness or the bulk of my Canon 5DMkII. With this professional quality camera it is my lenses which weigh far more than the camera and when I am walking up to 15 miles a day I really don’t want to carry more weight than is absolutely necessary.

p43 WC new Abersoch MMFC0044 small op

Professional photographers know that the best light, that which can help create beautiful images, is usually at the beginning or towards the end of the day. These are the times that I am in the garden when I am seeking to take professional photographs of gardens as I did a lot of the time, for instance, when photographing for “Discovering Welsh Gardens”. From the outset I decided that I would not try and take “professional” images to illustrate my blog posts. When you are walking all day and in all weathers you get the light that you are given. So apart from the few times when I have camped on the path, I am in bed when the professional would be poised with their tripod, patiently and often vainly waiting for that magic light.

p103 8.1 p100-101 Dunraven Bay op

I have though, set my camera to record “Raw” (unprocessed) images and I process the images myself. By processing the files myself I am basically substituting my brain for the camera’s. Cameras do a good job of working out what looks pretty good on the screen or in print. With a lot of time spent clicking and tapping, I can make a better job of it. And I can choose to crop images and often do with seaside views, to give a more panoramic sense of the view. I don’t consider this to be “cheating”, though at times I have made skies look more interesting than they did in reality and I can and do boost the contrast in images to give a more intense appearance.

In photographing “The Welsh Coast”, I can guarantee that Peter Watson spent a lot of time standing by his tripod, waiting for the magic light. And as a result he has taken many beautiful images.

Winter sunrise over Port Eynon Bay (pages94/95) is a good example of the early morning vigil.

p94 7.11 p97 Port Eynon op

The lovely  sun on the horizon at West Angle Bay (page 75) could only have been achieved at sunset.

p82 6.19 p84 West Angle Bay op

At Barmouth, he stayed on beyond sunset to get a lovely image of the new moon high in the sky above the orange glowing horizon (page 57).

p57 4.6 p49 Barmouth Bay

I admire the craft and the dedication in such images. Some of them are particularly well planned and thought through.

It was very clever to get the lighthouse at South Stack on Anglesey lit up and echoing the setting sun (page 31).

p31 2.11 p 28 South Stack op

Mostly the images in the book are broad seascapes, but I liked that Watson also shows us the beauty of the rocks close to, as in several images on pages 78 and 79 and again in pages 102 and 103.

p79 6.5 p74 Pwll March op

It is the sky and the beaches which inevitably prevail in this book and this may seem very harsh but mostly, though accomplished, the images are also, banal.

In common with the vast majority of landscape photographers, all of his images are taken on fine days in the best possible light. Nearly every image is taken with the subject in focus from the nearest to the furthest point. Nothing is portrayed as anything other than beautiful or picturesque. Even the sea’s froth is shown as a rainbow coloured delight.

Overall, then, this book presents a completely unreal picture of the Welsh Coast. There is no sense of how different weather conditions change the landscape. Man’s impact on the coast is presented as shots of lighthouses, moored boats and pretty seafronts. Even the flotsam and jetsam of the beach at low tide does not get a look in. There is no sense of the photographer saying anything about the coast other than “everything in the garden is rosy. “ And if you look at any one of my blog posts you will see this is simply not the case.

I, too, like to make beautiful images. And I will put my hand up to being as guilty as Watson when it comes to my commercial photography of gardens, which give an equally unreal sense of those spaces. But at the same time I am really quite uncomfortable about this idealization of the coast (and our gardens). It seems to me to be no different really than the idealization of the way that women are portrayed in commercial photography and I think that there is something at least distasteful and at worst quite destructive about how photography is used in this context.

If this book leads you to wish to visit the Welsh Coast, what you are likely to feel if you sought out the same views as Watson offers is disappointment. Unless you get up at the crack of dawn on a bright morning they won’t look as good. And like as not you’ll realise that the scene is not quite as perfect as it appears in the book.

To illustrate what I mean, here is the lovely shot of Watson’s of the little church at Mwnt in Ceredigion.

p58-9 5.4 p60 Mwnt op

It’s perfect, isn’t it? That perfectly placed patch of clover in the foreground, the early morning light illuminating the end of the wall of the church, that beautiful sky.

This was the direction that I approached the church from when I did the walk, and I took this picture from the path.

Penbryn_to_cardigan_-47

Quite a nice shot, in very flat light though even from here I thought it was shame that someone had stuck that caravan in the field.

But as I approached the church, its visual context changed.

Penbryn_to_cardigan_-50

To allow easy access for all  to this pretty spot, the car park is situated less than 100 yards from the church.

And that’s not all. Because in the next field, the council in their wisdom have allowed the landowner to build an ugly house and establish a caravan site.

Penbryn_to_cardigan_-52

In the little shop and cafe just below the car park you can buy postcards of the Church. Maybe even one of Watson’s pics. But none show the car park or the caravan park.

The Welsh coast is amazingly complex and interesting.  But it is not a one-dimensional picture perfect paradise as Watson portrays it, but a complicated environment where man has had a dramatic impact.

The remnants of the coal and slate industries and other mining activities are mostly now positive contributors to the visual amenity of the coast. I have found pleasure in the sight of power stations and the jetties carrying oil and gas pipelines to the shores of Milford Haven. All these are entirely absent from this book. But we have also filled many of the best parts of  the coastal environment with hundreds of static caravans and allowed many of its towns and villages to become filled with shabby, ugly houses and these views are also absent from Watson’s book.

What we are offered by Watson is the Welsh Coast through rose-tinted lenses. Yes, we should be able to celebrate this often beautiful coast.  But to only show us the beauty is both to mislead and to ignore just how fragile it is and how vulnerable  to our neglect and abuse.

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Jessica A. Hawes May 26, 2014 at 2:49 pm

Well you won’t be on Mr Watson’s Christmas cards list that’s for sure. I do see what you mean about the “pretty, pretty” aspect of his work (I have visited Munt in a howling gale) and much prefer your pics even if they are touched up a bit. Ma

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Charles May 26, 2014 at 6:08 pm

No, I thought that. Glad you like mine best!

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Tony Bowerman May 26, 2014 at 3:00 pm

A thoughtful and eye-opening look at how we portray the Welsh coast.
I probably agree, but for our books we have to make commercial decisions about how we show the coast. I think our walking (and buying) audience prefer to be sold ‘sun, summer and sea’ rather than rain, snow and grey skies. Discuss …

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Charles May 26, 2014 at 6:07 pm

Thanks for chipping in Tony. I do accept that for guide books you probably want to use the best photos – and for coffee-table eye porn such as this, too. Everyone is trying to sell books in publishing. I would only add that I think guide book pics ought to have been taken from the footpath. Lots of wonderful aerial views seem wrong to me.

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Tony Bowerman May 26, 2014 at 7:56 pm

As well as looking stunning, the aerial shots are intended to give a literal ‘overview’; as well as seeing where you’ve been, they also show you you’re heading.

If we can, we try to arrange the coastal landscapes into linked series, where one photo leads visually into the next; a headland in one shot may be the viewpoint in the next, and so on. So, to use one of your earlier analogies, a pretty face alone is not enough.

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Charles May 27, 2014 at 10:10 am

Hi Tony, I had not realised that this linked theme existed, though, not being able to fly, I am not sure that I buy it!

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Anne Wareham May 30, 2014 at 10:38 pm

I think people appreciate honesty. Showing the Welsh Coast shown without any of the masses of caravan sites littering the place is not honest.

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rob grover May 26, 2014 at 7:27 pm

No, sunsets don’t do much for me, a bit like firework displays, but I do like the rock structure pictures, especially the one with pebbles in the foreground.
To put you on the spot, which, if any, would you have been pleased to have taken?

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Charles May 27, 2014 at 10:11 am

Hi Rob. I love sunsets. And fireworks. And many of the images in the book are excellent, as I said. It is the collection of them as a portrayal of the Welsh Coast that I am objecting to.

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Charles May 31, 2014 at 6:09 am

I think they, do, too, but no one with a direct commercial interest in tourism is going to thank me. There’s plenty more caravan parks to come.

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John May 26, 2014 at 8:34 pm

As the perpetual “Devil’s advocate” and resident pain in the …. , might I suggest that it would be interesting to invite Mr Watson to contribute a guest blog reviewing the photographs in Discovering Welsh Gardens? If nothing else, it could fill a gap on one of your lazy days (I forget whom you were going to ask to write a guest review of your waistcoat collection).

OK, you don’t like caravan sites (not saying I do but my view is irrelevant) and are critical of the way in which business et al interests have despoiled the once virgin coastal (and off-piste) landscape.

But are not gardeners guilty of abuse in introducing delicately beautiful plants such as Himalayan balsam and Japanese knotweed? Going a step further, it might be argued that gardeners are, in effect, environmental vandals as their whole purpose is to force change by the introduction of at least some degree of land engineering and of species of plants that were not there before. Merely a different form of despoilation? And so could not your final paragraph be applied to just about any collection of photographs of just about any garden (those taken by Anne being the exception of course – she includes weeds!)?

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Charles May 27, 2014 at 10:08 am

Hi John. I don’t think of you as a PITA at all although I must admit to being annoyed by the concept of the devil’s advocate. I think if people have an opinion, fine. If they are not your opinion, let someone else make the point if they wish to. I’m not sure what the point would be of inviting Watson to comment on my images in DWG. But he is, of course, more than welcome to reply to my comments about his book.
I don’t accept this parallel to what people do in their gardens, which are, essentially, private spaces and once you have established a garden, thankfully, the state has relatively little say in what you do in it. For the most part as far as visual amenity to the wider public is concerned (which is my main concern regards the environment), gardens are irrelevant.
Whilst most of the coast may be privately owned it is nevertheless subject to the regulations and controls of the local authorities and the planning system as to what land may be used for. Those agencies have a responsibility to protect that environment for all of us and to balance interests. In my view we have cause for concern about how those responsibilities have been and are being discharged.

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Anne Wareham May 30, 2014 at 10:46 pm

What have gardeners or garden books got to do with the Wales Coast Path?

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Charles May 31, 2014 at 6:08 am

Well I think the link that was being made, reasonably, I think (as I made the connection) was about commercial photography.

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Paul Steer May 26, 2014 at 9:46 pm

Great post, and I agree we need a bit of honesty in the portrayal of the coast. Perhaps your archive is more photojournalistic? We need to acknowledge where improvement / protection is needed. I also love the changes in weather and skies that your photography captures so well.

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Charles May 27, 2014 at 9:52 am

Thanks Paul. I think seeing this book and thinking about it has helped me in getting closer to the kind of book that I would eventually like to do about the coast.

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Bernhard May 28, 2014 at 5:22 pm

If looking for honesty there should be no doubt whether to choose your approach or the rose-tinted one.
Yours is also a partly sad and thoughtful social cultural history, the other: cloud cuckoo land. It’s telling that beauty almost equals kitsch. Perhaps we all started from here when exploring new areas till we encountered the caravan sites of all faculties.

Unfortunately, as soon as humans arrive on a larger scale things go to the devil, which is an unfair expression because the latter seems to have a particularly picturesque taste. In any case, your “warts and all” approach is such a pleasure to follow, and, funnily enough, many warts become pieces of art; the ones to look for.

(Gardens can be a little different because “we” try to achieve the (hopefully manageable) personal ideal. Here the perfect picture, if such a thing exists, might be excused. Yet, you live at the centre of a debate and know all about the pros and cons…)

It is difficult to convey beauty and reality and honesty within the travelling genre. Perhaps you know the German Peter Sager. His guide books helped me a lot to understand Britain and to see for myself. They are somewhat out of date now but encourage to look and be critical. His East Anglia and Wales pieces are the best:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Wales-Pallas-Guides-Peter-Sager/dp/1873429681

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Charles May 28, 2014 at 6:36 pm

Hi Bernhard, thanks for this most interesting comment. I hope you will dip in again sometime. And I am glad that you agree with me about the way that I am approaching the photography for the posts. Yes, “kitsch” is quite a good word for Watson’s images. Perhaps some of mine are quite brutal. I think what I would like to do with a book is offer a range of persectives about the coast.

I’m not sure about the social history being sad. It is what it is and obvioulsy much has changed in the way that the coast has been used over time. Maybe what I have enjoyed and found fascinating in terms of the remnants of industry might have shocked me if I had been standing there in the C18th and C19th as far as the rape of the coast is concerned. It could be argued that all these caravan sites are just the next stage of man exploiting the coast but I find it hard to be philosophical about just how much they feature.

Thanks for the link. I have bought a copy and look forward to reading it.

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Anne Wareham May 30, 2014 at 10:35 pm

I think some of the pictures are lurid.

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Charles May 31, 2014 at 6:10 am

I can do lurid!

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Anne Wareham May 31, 2014 at 8:56 am

Anyone can do lurid with a digital photograph…

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Roy June 18, 2015 at 11:13 pm

Charles come on, is it not a little condescending to presume people will be misled by Watson’s book and be naïve enough to think that the welsh coast has not been spoilt in any way by man because of its content? The book celebrates the beauty and not the beast and I think that is obvious to anyone who views it, and maybe this book might actually bring some positive attention.

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Anne Wareham June 19, 2015 at 9:11 am

This is not Charles responding, just me putting my oar in. I think that people could well imagine Wales unspoilt – it’s how it sells itself, after all. And I think they could be disappointed and disillusioned to find some of the realities. And not just the caravan parks, but the comparative poverty in places. It’s not so much about naivety, as the effect of glamorising. I love Charles’ blog for its warts and all telling.

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Charles June 20, 2015 at 10:26 am

Hi Roy. I don’t see it that way at all. Unless someone knows a reasonable amount of the coast why would they think that the images in the book were selected to only show the best bits? The author could have explained this to the reader but chose not to. The coast is very beautiful in parts. But that is far from the only story. What is the point of only showing the beauty?

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