Roger Coulam / The Blast
September 2018 Interviewed by Christiane Monarchi
Seeing and discussing new ideas with artists is one of the great pleasures of working in photography. Sometimes a photographer’s ideas may revisit unannounced and weeks after our meeting, this happened to me during the summer on a trip along the UK coast, wondering about the traces left behind on the shoreline, and remembering photographs made by Roger Coulam, who had recently shared his images and thoughts about coastal archaeology. Here, six questions to Roger get inside this haunting series of landscape and still life compositions in ‘The Blast’, taken in a half-mile long section of the County Durham coastline, a place once blighted by heavy industry. Roger’s solo exhibition of works from this series opens in October in Hexham, Northumberland.
CM: Could you tell me a little bit about this coastal landscape that you are investigating, why have you chosen to focus on this stretch of the UK?
RC: Blast Beach on the County Durham coast has enthralled and appalled me ever since I first it visited by chance. It’s only 9 miles from my home, close enough to allow the frequency of visit I believe allows an understanding of a place to evolve.
“The Blast” was part of the infamous Coal Coast, and for 84 years Dawdon Colliery legally dumped coal waste over the cliffs and straight onto the beach. A major clean-up began in 1997 but mining pollution remains.
Thousands of men and boys mined coal 500 meters below the earth here and miles out under the North Sea. More than 100 were killed in often brutal accidents and those lives and deaths only add poignancy to what remains.
I had never experienced anything like the other-worldly landscapes I encountered, it was beyond my comprehension, but once I got over my outraged response to the pollution, the work became a response to how I felt about being in the unique space and to my concerns over the damage our species has brought to the place.
To try and understand I somehow needed to explore all this visually, but have always hoped that this little overlooked part of the coastline might have a story to tell that is relevant elsewhere. It often feels like a microcosm of the larger environment.
CM: How long have you spent visiting this place?
RC: “The Blast” has informed and almost guided my practice for a decade now. I first made pictures there in 2008 and it is where I have visited to collect materials for other projects, as well as where I just go to walk and think. In early 2015 a conversation with a friend made me realise that I needed to start to consolidate my many pictures, and bring together both lens based and camera-less images into one story.
CM: What strikes a visitor to Blast Beach at a first visit?
RC: That depends upon the time of year, the amount of rainfall and the recent tides. The Blast can literally change overnight if a high tide moves rocks and shingle, or rainfall floods parts of the plateau of pit slurry that was (ironically) left to protect the cliffs. But the first time visitor will arrive and look over a cliff edge to a small gently curved bay with limestone cliffs. However when they walk down they arrive into a strange world of pit slurry, bizarre red pools edged with bright yellow and strange rocks and objects they cannot quite place. I have heard several people call it “weird”, and without an understanding of the place’s history it can be oddly disquieting, feeling almost as if someone has shaken and mixed up all the geological features we take for granted. To compound this it is a place where one almost always looks downwards, intrigued by what is below us, and what we are placing our feet upon.
The area has improved a lot over the last decade as the tides continue to cleanse the beach, washing the coal waste and toxins somewhere else. It has come a long way since it was used as a bleak planet in the opening of the 1992 movie Alien 3, but it also has far to go.
CM: Are remaining malignant coal mining remains still a dominant feature? Certainly the colour of the puddles doesn’t look natural.
RC: For centuries this coast was one of the most industrialised in Europe, and before the coal mine a blast furnace stood there, with a large glass works and limestone quarry close by, so industry has shaped almost everything here. For example there is no sand, only pyrites, rocks and pebbles dug out of the pit, and the waste from the huge coal fired engines that powered the mine and its buildings. The coal slurry plateau still dominates and leaches vivid red oxides into the often large pools of water that build up seasonally. The largest pool there is known locally as Red Lake, and it changes in size from 20 – 100+ metres width depending upon the weather and tides. These pools are toxic and can release sulphuric acid into the air, and many a time I have left with a sore and dry throat. Many of the chemicals you see are unique to the Blast, and it is not unusual to see large areas of bright yellow or orange clays desiccating in the sun, or multihued chemicals appearing in bands along the base of the cliffs as the water levels in the pools decrease.
CM: What made you want to start collecting and sorting the items you photograph in the studio, what are their histories? It looks like a mixture of manmade things and found natural objects, almost all with questionable forms and functions.
RC: I have always had a fascination with our relationship to found objects and how they might connect us to a place, or how the smallest of objects can suggest larger themes. And the Blast is a place where you often pick up strange industrial and cultural items that the tide leaves behind. Initially I collected objects for other bodies of work, but then began to consider their story telling potential, wondering what we would leave behind left if our society ended abruptly.
I didn’t want to photograph objects in situ as this was brilliantly done by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen in “Coal Coast”, and thought that there was much to be learned by the handling process and through changing the context.
Objects appear from the coal slurry and from the pockets of landfill that are part of it. People have worked here for centuries and their waste often just went over the cliffs to be compressed. Add into this the modern wave of largely plastic pollution that washes down the local rivers or comes from ships, storm drains and sewage pipes, and you have an odd mix.
Contemplating future archaeology (and how others might interpret the items that we take for granted) made me realise that the hundreds of individual images I had made were taking on a life of their own. They had become a record not just of the industries of the place, but also of cultural histories past and present. Viewed together they seemed to carry more weight so my first Pictographs took shape, and I laid out my finds in a clinical manner with the objects at actual size and scale.
What we know about previous cultures comes from small objects, and often those that had some perceived value and were kept safe. But the items that tell us the most about how people lived, such as food and clothing, rarely survive, so I wanted to ensure that these items were represented in my photo-montages. I consider everything I find to be of potential interest and this includes items picked up just because of their beauty or intrigue. Everything has its own value and tells a small part of the story of our ongoing relationship with the environment.
CM: Is this a finished body of work we are seeing next month in Queens Hall or are more layers to be added to the project?
RC: The exhibition at Queens Hall will allow me to present a larger collection of works from that shown in February at Side Gallery in Newcastle, so the project has been ready for exhibiting for a while. But as for it being finished, after ten years I feel it’s coming to an end in its current form.
My relationship with the place will likely draw me back into making new images, especially as the environment is currently changing so rapidly. But only time and chance will decide what happens next.
For further viewing:
Roger Coulam: The Blast will be exhibited 27th October – 24th November 2018 at Queen’s Hall, Hexham, Northumberland.