Across a twenty-mile margin of the Bristol Channel, British photographer Tim Richmond has carved out a delicate portrait of small-town England. Shot across six years in a place he once called home, Love Bites takes the form of an in-depth, sympathetic piece of documentary photography shedding light on an area of British coastline that continually remains on the periphery of its tourist-haven counterparts.
In spite of the cinematic lure that exists within his work, Richmond builds a microcosmic reality of post-Brexit Britain and the human resilience that forms when faced with homelessness, food poverty and rural economic decline. Shot almost exclusively against an overcast and drizzly seascape, empty arcades, chippys and abandoned hotel rooms punctuate the spaces in between Richmond’s portraits. Each image creates a captivating vignette as a tattooed boxer pensively gazes in a gym, crossdressers express themselves at a holiday camp and an elderly lady sombrely enjoys a lonesome cup of tea – everything suggests narratives untold. Limiting himself geographically allowed Richmond the scope to build genuine relationships with his subjects and shape a collaborative process – continually searching for the new in an environment he found so familiar. Here is a work dedicated to those it portrays.
Ella Joyce: I want to start by asking you about the title, Love Bites. How did that come about?
Tim Richmond: Well, there are two strands to the title. It came to me about halfway through because I’d seen this kid at a bus shelter sporting a tattoo on his neck. It was a drizzly day, he had half a bottle of plastic cider and it somehow summarised so much of what I was wanting to convey – I just didn’t have a camera. I wasn’t photographing at the time but that image stuck with me and it seemed like a good title. Then by year four or five of working on the project, I knew I was going to be relocating to the States and it began to feel like a love letter from me to the area. In the book itself, the only text is on the opening page; “To a small section of the Bristol Channel – a love letter.” Having photographed in concentric circles and having such a geographically limit, I was forever revisiting things – it felt like I’d got to know these people and places. That was a very different way of working from my previous book, which was always shot on the road. The combination of those two separate ideas gave it the title and obviously, the term love bites doesn’t really mean much in the states, it’s a hickey. [laughs]
EJ: What was it that drew you to that precise twenty-mile radius of coastline?
TR: I bought a place near there way before I started the project and at the time I had started a long-term project in America, which I was travelling to once or twice a year and I’m not very good at doing two projects at once. Where I lived was in the national park nearby, it was very beautiful but it was just green and I didn’t know what to do with it. I think having finished the first book, Last Best Hiding Place where I’d been on the road doing endless travelling, this project was a reaction against that. I wanted to find somewhere very geographically specific, so it was arbitrary that I chose from Weston-super-Mare down to Minehead along the Bristol Channel. The colours initially captivated me because I wasn’t dealing with green. I’m out here in the desert now so I’ve got rid of green here, too. [laughs] I started to photograph the landscape, then I started to photograph the odd person, and it snowballed from there. By giving yourself a limit, you force yourself back into the project rather than always looking for the new – the truth is that newness is always there.
“I was forever revisiting things – it felt like I’d got to know these people and places.”
EJ: You mentioned your previous project being very different in terms of scale but did the processes differ creatively too?
TR: Ultimately, this felt like a more rewarding project to be part of than the first one. Even though I love that first book, this one felt like a slightly more mature iteration of the way I work. It’s something I’m continuing out here in the projects I’m currently doing: keeping within a certain type of boundary for exactly the same sort of reasons, but in very different environments. I’m rather a stranger in the town – it’s all very different. It felt like a very organic process settling into Love Bites, it started off without the clarity that it ended with. The clarity comes through the way you come across different people and they pass you onto someone else, or a place, and then the distillation of time allows you to see where the gaps are.
EJ: You captured Britain at such an interesting time, the series ultimately paints a microcosmic portrait of post-Brexit Britain. Was it your intention to document that social climate or did it happen organically?
TR: It was more of an organic process but it became pretty darn obvious that things were going wrong. To be truthful, what I was photographing is probably the tip of the iceberg compared to what it’s like now, from what I gather over here it doesn’t sound like it’s getting a whole lot better. It becomes obvious just by keeping one’s antenna tuned to what was going on around you. For example, things like food bank usage were not just for the destitute poor but the working poor. Various aspects of it became clear to me without it being set out as a conscious philosophy I was trying to illustrate. I was just thinking, “Okay, what am I seeing in front of me?” There are a whole lot of contradictions and some aspects of society that sometimes aren’t discussed. Homelessness, for example, is often discussed in the sense of people living in doorways on The Strand but actually, the rural homelessness issue is a very real one, it’s just less visible.
EJ: There is an archetype that exists around ‘small town England’ which often carries connotations of unfulfilled desire and melancholy but your series dealt with it in a very delicate way. Are you hoping it sheds a light on the beauty that exists in those areas?
TR: I think so, I truly grew to love them in their own way. A lot of the towns were struggling to find a fit in today’s society. Some of the real coastal ones have been dependent on a certain type of tourism and people have largely changed their idea of what they really want out of being a tourist. The idea of going to a B&B or hotel where you’re told to get out for most of the daytime just to wander along the pier isn’t the same now in the land of Airbnb. People have changed their expectations of what a holiday is and I think that’s changed across the board. Those towns are always harking back to a certain heyday which for them was probably the 50s or 60s.
“Sometimes I’m not sure I was aware that there was beauty but I was aware that there was poignancy, a lot of the towns were struggling to find a fit in today’s society.”
EJ: When it comes to choosing your subjects what attracts you to somebody, is there a radar going off when you see someone interesting?
TR: That’s absolutely right, radar is a very good description because you see someone and you just think “You would be really interesting to photograph.” Then you wait for the right opportunity to introduce yourself, give a brief explanation of the project and then if they’re up for it suggest meeting up at some point to take some photographs. Sometimes I would photograph people maybe once or twice over a period of time, I might have revisited just to try something different with them. I was often passed on through a few people, which was nice because I would meet up with them to give them a print. I always try to keep the sense that there is a collaborative process going on and there is a deal involved. It’s not a financial deal and it’s not as if these pictures are going to be used as library pictures.
Other times, for example, there were a bunch of crossdressers at a holiday club that would go twice a year and the whole club was taken over for a week by this organisation. They varied from people who would literally just put on their grandmother’s frock and walk around with a beard and a pint all day, to people who would spend a lot of time getting ready, it was for all comers. Inevitably it was quite private because some people there weren’t being open with maybe their family or even their partner, they may have said they were away doing something else. It involved having to work my way in over a period of a year to gain people’s trust until eventually I would go and hang out there. Each time I take a picture it takes at least half an hour because it involves setting up an old wooden camera on a tripod, it’s not just a “click.” Different places had different ways, one of the main things was allowing time. I think when people sense you’re rushing they immediately think, “What’s the rush?” Introducing yourself, giving people time to think about it and then going back to them slowly gets people on your side.
EJ: Building a rapport with people sounds like one of the most important things, I presume that’s a perk of limiting yourself geographically.
TR: Exactly that, I do sometimes wonder why people agree to be photographed. I don’t know about you, but if people asked me to be photographed I’d be highly suspicious. My background of getting ten minutes with an actor to come up with a portrait in a hotel room in the early days taught me how to intuitively sense people really well. To understand when to push, when not to push. The beauty is the surprises, just allowing them to happen and not trying to premeditate the pictures too much.
“I think slowing time down gives people the chance to sink within their own skin.”
EJ: The portraits in the boxing gym are really striking, could you give us some insight into how those came about?
TR: I went and photographed a bunch of the guys and I think everyone has an expectation of what a picture is so everyone initially expected me to turn up with a handheld camera and just snap away. But I slowed everything down, and I think that was part of why the pictures I take sometimes have a slightly more pensive quality because I’ve slowed time down to the way pictures might have been taken between the 1930s or 40s. If you see family pictures from back then, everyone is just a little bit more chilled, they’re just standing there and they’re just them. I think slowing time down gives people the chance to sink within their own skin and that to me is one of the great joys. I think if you’re constantly clicking and moving around, there’s an expectation they have of, “Oh shit, I should be doing all these wonderful things,” which very few of us truly have.
Having photographed people for forty-something years you learn how to handle people, understanding that they just want to know that the person photographing them doesn’t necessarily have a set view, but they know what they’re doing. For me it was hugely important and always has been when tackling a subject matter like this not to try and victimise people, to have no judgement is to treat everyone exactly equal and that comes down to things like classic camera angles. If you’re shooting down on someone, psychologically it has the feeling that you’re looking down on them. So it’s keeping uniformity of how you visually approach people and just having an even hand. It’s been gratifying that a lot of people reviewing the book have said as much, it has an even-handed nature.
EJ: Definitely, that’s the best way to put it. It doesn’t feel staged or manipulated.
TR: The irony is of course that it is staged because all photography is staged but I look at a film by Ken Loach and I go “This feels so real.” I, Daniel Blake, what an amazing film that was and it felt so poignant but of course, it’s staged. There is improvisation, expression, humanity, and realism, all of that is dressed up within it, but there is a point where someone shouts, “Cut!” If you turn the camera the other way you’ve got a completely different scene, but you’re making selections and choices.
“I think slowing time down gives people time to just sink within their own skin and that to me is one of the great joys.”
EJ: I read that you enjoy giving the viewer autonomy over their interpretation of your work as opposed to sharing a definitive narrative, why is that?
TR: I always like to have a sense of it being open-ended, I hope that people will come to them with their own storyline. I’m not attempting to tell just one story. Some people get frustrated that there isn’t a whole lot of information about that and they ask, “What’s that? What’s the point of this?” And that to me is a big part of the imagery that I like, the fact that it is open-ended.
EJ: There is a value in ambiguity.
TR: I think so too, it feels that way to me. When I look at the work of people I admire, there is similarly that ambiguity and it feels as if it’s easier to revisit, too much information is sometimes not helpful. When it’s done with a sense of truthfulness and honesty, I don’t feel it’s up to me to explain what went on at a shoot or what people were saying. For me, that devalues the image and I think it’s better when the image floats around in the heads of the people that see it.
Love Bites is published by Loose Joints and is available to purchase, here.