I’ve walked past these navigational aids hundreds of times without paying them any attention. I grew up on the North East coast, and I have no memories of ever having seen them as a child. Recently, I noticed them for the first time, and now, I find them on beaches all over the United Kingdom.
For those of us on land, these markers can be inconsequential and therefore invisible, but for people out at sea, they are vital. They guide mariners into port, indicate the end of a jetty, and warn of dangerous, unseen rocks. Glimpses of red, green, and sometimes yellow poles in the distance tell ship captains when to stay left and when to steer right.
Lighthouses have long been beloved and romanticised by artists– think John Constable, Paul Signac, Edward Hopper. In the 1880s, the painter Winslow Homer even moved into a lighthouse and kept himself relatively isolated from the outside world.
Navigate is not about lighthouses. These small and unexceptional markers have not inspired generations of men and women, and that’s part of their appeal. In my estimation, I have devoted days, if not weeks, to finding these structures on foot. I’ve walked more miles than I can count, and since I embarked on the project, others have started recognising them and pointing them out to me.
I shoot the Navigate pictures at sunset on large format film. Exposures last anywhere from one to eight seconds, and in that time, I have little control over what happens. The light at dusk is unpredictable; the tide is constantly in motion. The only thing that doesn’t change is the marker itself.
In 2008, Yale University Press published the essay “Notes on Photography and Accident” by the artist Moyra Davey, who poured through the writings of Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, Janet Malcolm, and more in hopes of defining the role of happenstance in picture-making.
In the digital era, most images have been meticulously planned for our consumption, and there’s little room left for twists of fate. Navigate, on the other hand, is a series of chance events, dictated by the sea and the wind. I recently returned to the site where I had previously noticed a jetty marker knocked over by the waves. By that second visit, the old marker had vanished; in its place, I found a brand new one.
While luck shapes much of the process behind Navigate, the final images find order in chaos. We often think of “man” and “nature” as two warring bodies, but in these photographs, I find harmony.
As with some of my previous bodies of work, the pictures are split horizontally down the middle: sky occupies the top half of the frame, and water fills the lower. But in the case of Navigate, the photographs are also bisected vertically by the markers themselves. In every image, you’ll find a cross or a plus-sign, usually (though not always) in the center of the frame.
Here, the sea– feral and primordial– and the markers– rigid and manmade– exist for just a moment in equilibrium. The form and composition of the Navigate photographs mirror my own experience making them. When I wander the beach at golden hour, watching for last light, I am at peace with the rolling of the waves. Tomorrow, the tide might come and wash us all away, but for now, at least, we rest.