Shane Lynam / Fifty High Seasons
February 2016 Interviewed by Christiane Monarchi
Shane Lynam is an Irish photographer based in Dublin. His work focuses on the built environment and looks to question some of the ideas that shape public spaces. He recently completed Fifty High Seasons, which along with his first project Contours, makes up a body of work set in France, of which images will be exhibited in Paris and Salzburg later this spring.
Below, Christiane Monarchi corresponded with Shane over the past few months as Fifty High Seasons has grown, and intriguing new images were added to this project, which considers the evolution of French holiday towns by the sea.
Christiane Monarchi: These recent images you’ve made for your Fifty High Seasons series, do they continue the investigation into the same place along the French coast you’ve explored over the past five years? What initially drew you to the area and invited you to begin this project?
Shane Lynam: I first visited the area in 2003 after my family bought an apartment in one of the towns. I remember thinking how little it resembled the stereotypical ‘picture postcard’ French coastal village. I took a few photos during those early trips, but not in a purposeful way. In 2005 I spent a week there by myself, after a break up. I remember cycling up and down the coast exploring the various villages. It was not until my photography became more focused and I started working on my first project – Contours – that I began to think about making work there.
The first significant photo that I took was of the ‘terrain vague’ between two of the towns. There’s a car park that doubles up as a caravan site area for the fairground workers in the summer. The pink and yellow tones of the tarmac and pylons lit by the soft hazy light struck a chord with me. This photo, along with a few that I took of the waterpark, was the starting point for the project.
From there I became interested in the area between the beach and the holiday villages, a buffer zone between the formality of everyday dressed living and the ‘anything goes’ informality of beach culture. These shots act as portraits and allow me to say something about the people there while avoiding the artificial aspect of a posed portrait.
I began to research the history of the area, which led me to ‘La Mission Racine’ – a grand project initiated by President de Gaulle to tame and develop the wild and notoriously windy strip of coastline between Montpellier and Perpignan. It aimed to create a tourist destination centered around leisure, while offering an alternative source of income for the region. This spurred me on to visit and gradually shoot the other seven towns that were built as part of the project.
The recent images were shot over two trips during the summer of 2015. The first visit was in July at the height of the season and the second in September while things were winding down. The edit has gone through several transitions since I started working on it in 2011. By last summer I felt that I had the outline of the project photographed; with the recent images, I am trying to fill in the details and focus on certain aspects that have come to the fore.
For example, I wanted to include more images of the residential accommodation, particularly the ‘pavillon’ housing facing the lagoon behind the villages. During my second visit I took a lot of family photos inside their apartment and around the area. I realised I’d been ignoring this autobiographical element. The truth is that after twelve years of regular visits, I too am part of this landscape and it would be difficult to ignore this. It’s unclear at this stage if any of these photos will fit into the final edit, although my parents do feature in one of the new images.
CM: One feels a sense of benign abandonment, looking at some of the newest images, of nature taking back the parking lots and waterparks after fifty years, shuttered buildings passed by tourists en route to the beach. One also feels a stagnation of economic prospects, with lack of trade in the shuttered shop and apartment windows, unfinished breezeblock cottages. Or is it a long nap? What does the area feel like economically in its high season?
SL: Having lived in France on and off for over eight years I feel that I have some degree of understanding of French society. The holidaymakers that come to this region during July and August have always struck me as representing a good cross section of the French population. These resorts were originally designed to ensure French families could take full advantage of their paid holidays – a symbolically important part of French culture – without having to travel on south towards Spain or Italy. Fifty years later, one feels that the towns continue to meet the demands of holidaymakers and recently there has been a push to modernise the area. However, there’s also a sense that the infrastructure is beginning to show its age. This is probably part of a more general trend in France; when one moves away from the big cities, there’s a sense that some of the urban planning innovation – which France was known for in the 60s and 70s – is beginning to look a little tired and in need of investment.
The summer is characterised by a series of festivals and events that are set up on the wastelands outside the villages. In 2013, the first annual Electrobeach festival took place in the area. Billed as the largest dance event in Europe, it has brought in plenty of revenue for local businesses. For one weekend a year, the predominantly elderly population is outnumbered by youngsters looking to party. I try to be present for the music festival every year as this is when the town is at its busiest. These short-term attractions reinforce the temporary feeling throughout the area. A sense that nature could reclaim the land at any minute.
CM: In your latest images I notice a less central focus on man-made monstrosities such as shockingly pastel roller coasters and plastic coconut trees from past years, to favour the flash of a brightly striped wall, a terracotta-red summer cottage in siesta, and my personal favourite, the shed expertly painted to look like a floating island, to merge ‘unseen’ into the landscape. These bits have not faded at all, in fact they also look timeless. Does it feel like 2015 there?
SL: The brightly striped wall and the floating island mural were painted over the winter and represent recent attempts to cover over the cracks. The advantage of shooting a place for a substantial period of time is that, although I started by documenting the effects of 50 years of tourism on the area, I am also seeing changes that have taken place since I began the project. When I started out I was particularly drawn to the retired rollercoasters and stark wastelands outside the town, however as I read more about its history I realised that I wanted to show other aspects related to the infrastructure and the local population. The change in focus might also be an indication of how my own style of photography has evolved in recent years.
CM: You’ve mentioned that one of the towns sees its population spike to 80,000 in peak time from 4,000 off-peak. In your images, a few people are busy finding the best sun across a dune, on a disjointed roof terrace or idling in a bleached out alleyway. But it feels local, not ‘package tourist’ on parade. There is no sign of Peter Dench’s Magaluf?
SL: Although the scale of the tourism is unlike anything that might be found in Ireland for example, it’s nowhere near the level of the infamous Spanish resorts. Development was less commercial here and focused around leisure activities. Ever since the conception of ‘La Mission Racine’, there’s been an emphasis on respecting the local environment by, for example, protecting pockets of green on the outskirts of the towns. Although there’s a significant German and Belgian presence, the majority of the residents and the tourists are either young French families or retirees. The family atmosphere puts off the younger population, except during the weekend of ‘Electrobeach’. Although the villages have lost some of their shine, there’s an undeniable charm to them. I am trying to paint a balanced picture, which captures both of these elements, and show what makes the place so particular.
CM: In your most recent images from September, I am basking in the eternal afternoon, relaxing amidst the welcome emptiness of patios and touristic side streets, and the occasional overgrown lot offers up enigmatic constructions and brightly coloured tubing that hint at a possible past-future of this place. The tourists have gone home, perhaps now it’s only the locals. But time looks to be at a standstill, in quite a magical hour. Is this project finished for you now?
SL: The visitors to the towns during the high season are divided between the young French families, who holiday in July and August, and the residence owners who take their holidays in June and September. The place feels very different during these two periods.
Once September kicks in, there’s an exodus of families heading north to get their children back in time for the new school term. The locals and older holidaymakers remain. The beaches are quieter and the pace is much slower. As a thirty-something I feel out of place at times, like an adult might feel at an underage disco.
I can’t really say if the project is finished. I feel like I have plenty of material and that this will give me options when I get to the editing stage. However, I suspect that I’ll still be shooting there as long as I continue to visit, whether I publish a book or not.
The reasons for making work are never clear cut and often a combination of circumstances. Since I first started coming here, I’ve had a compulsion to photograph the surfaces of the surroundings that I’ve never really experienced anywhere else. This initial superficial pull led me to dig deeper and build a narrative around the history of the area. As I move forward looking for new ideas that I’d like to explore, I am beginning to realise how important this initial draw is in terms of eventually going on to make a larger body of work.
Shane is currently working on a new project – provisionally entitled ‘Inner Field’ – set in Dublin. www.shanelynamphoto.com