Beyond the Shoreline

By William Ewing, 2016

‘My eyes more and more
Like a sea without shore
Continue expanding’

To Thomas Butts, by William Blake

I write this high above a great lake, the part-Swiss, part-French, Lac Leman. On the opposite shore the Alps rear up, snow-tipped even now in August. The snow on the peaks never entirely melts; the lake only ever freezes around its shoreline. Even jaded tourists marvel at the sight in all seasons and weathers. The Swiss themselves, of course, take it for granted; they’ve grown up with it. They’re also great travellers, and since the advent of easy travel in the late 19th century they have got used to seeing far-away lands and seas which are equally as stunning. But until not much more than a century or two ago, most Swiss people had never seen any ocean. Before the advent of railways, it was only the rich and the adventurous who could manage a journey to the sea. I wonder what all the others thought of when they heard mention of ‘the sea’: what did they construct in their mind’s eye from the words they heard to describe it? As, in earlier centuries, they would have had paintings and engravings to stimulate their imaginations, but even these would have been highly subjective interpretations.

Imagine describing the sea to a blind person: “Water, as far as the eye can see…. Flat, well, maybe not so flat, it also undulates…” “Does the horizon look like a sharp edge?” “Not exactly, it sort of fades away.” The words we’d use would probably frustrate both parties. We would know we weren’t doing justice to the majesty of the scene. A Swiss traveller returning home from one of the world’s great oceans must have felt this way. And there are still many people on this earth who have never seen an ocean.

We like to think that a photograph of the sea—a nice, sharp, clear, well-exposed one—would be enough to convey the reality of the experience, to, let’s say, a desert dweller. But we’d know that the photograph didn’t really grasp what the eyes had beheld. We even see this in the eyes of our friends as we show them our holiday snapshots—after one or two, a glazing over! We add desperately; you had to be there.

I think Charles March understands this too. For the past 170-odd years of photography’s existence, we’ve had all the nice, sharp, detailed, realistic pictures we’ll ever need or want. But they simply don’t quite seize that sense of elation, of release and promise, when we come upon the sea for the first time, or even after a long hiatus. Think of the opening to Lawrence Durrell’s novel Justine:

‘The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind.’

And of course, you have to dip your toe into it, feel the wave caress it—touch it, before you’re satisfied.
V. S. Naipaul set his novel, A Bend in the River, not at the sea, but, of course, at a bend in the river. The words are full of melancholy and resignation. We sense that his protagonist and everyone he encounters will remain trapped there, physically and emotionally. There is none of the thrilling, liberating feeling of unboundedness of the ocean in river waters. But, as Charles March reminds us, looking out at the sea opens “an eternal view looking out on infinity”. He knows the sea can soothe, calm, excite, exalt or terrify the human spirit. And it can just as easily kill those beings unfortunate or foolish enough to underestimate its powers. But March also sees beyond the brute physicality, beyond this immense ‘body’ of water, to something more difficult to grasp, perhaps impossible to grasp—an abstract form of it, perhaps even a Platonic Ideal. For one thing, he likes to imagine the ocean as a line—not the literal line of the horizon, but as a thick line drawn between bodies of land. And mercifully, it’s a no-man’s line; owned by no one, with room for everyone. “An eternal view looking out on infinity”… what better invitation to a photographer looking for a new world of possibilities?

‘Ah, well, then you’ve never stood on a beach as the waves came crashing in, the water stretching out from you until it’s beyond sight, moving and blue and alive and so much bigger than even the black beyond seems because the ocean hides what it contains.’

The Ask and the Answer, by Patrick Ness

The black beyond is there, literally, in some of March’s pictures.

No single subject fascinates photographers, of all times and all places, more than water. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a single accomplished photographer who hasn’t made at least one magnificent picture of the subject. Liquid, solid, gas: the three states in which two atoms of hydrogen coexist happily with one of oxygen—the expressive permutations are indeed endless. From photography’s very beginnings, think of Gustave LeGray’s shimmering seascapes, or the oddly-stilled seascapes of Carleton Watkins or Edouard-Denis Baldus (long exposure times transformed turbulent waters to the smoothness of glass); from its middle years, Edward Steichen’s romantic The Pond in moonlight, or Herbert Ponting’s icy Antarctic, ready to crush a man; from the late past century, Harry Callahan’s beaches and shells and blissful human bodies, or Herbert List’s glistening Aegean; and today? Well… a host of photographers come to mind: Richard Misrach’s solitary beings floating in the immensity of the sea, Sugimoto’s Rothko-like horizons, blending water and sky, Susan Derges’s dreamlike River Taw, every grain of sand and miniscule eddy registered with clarity; Boomoon’s rippling, cascading curtains of water, Olaf Otto Becker’s towering icebergs, seen from his perilous kayak, and Massimo Vitali’s brightly attired seaside pleasure seekers, scrambling over the rocks like crabs.

Not surprising photographers love the sea. Perhaps it’s the vexing nature of water: it won’t sit still. And getting things to sit or stand still has always been the fundamental goal in photography, even if it’s only manageable for a split-second, and an illusion at that. Water is a chameleon: changing form, changing colour, changing texture. Reflection, refraction, mirages, tricks on the eyes… the same and always different, at least to the keen eye.

And step back from the water’s edge a moment… See the life contained in it and the vessels floating upon it, from the delicate birch bark canoe to the ponderous hulk of an aircraft carrier… Transport, travel, escapism… Or in our time, the flimsy craft that bring desperate migrants to our shores, or lead them to their deaths. All of this, and more, is found in photography.

The trickle, the stream, the river, the rapid, the lake, the ocean… The dam, the channel, the canal and the lock… The fountain, the basin, the bowl…. The cloud, the mist, the steam… The rain, the frost, the snow, the ice… The shower, the squall, the storm… The flood, the drought… And beautiful words for terrible things: monsoon, hurricane,… tsunami.

Cities plant themselves next to rivers and great lakes, and civilizations arise. As I write this, our techno-civilization has discovered yet another planet circling a distant star; the excitement revolves around the fact that it may have water, and with water we may have life. NASA is probably dreaming of a probe that will either determine the fact, or dash our hopes on the planet’s dry rocks.

‘Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.’

First things First, by W. H. Auden

Much of the increasingly anxious debate about life on earth focuses on water, or rather the lack of it. Generally speaking, the forecast is terrifying, so it is salutary to hear such a distinguished geologist and historian as Karl Butzer, reminding us that human civilization is resilient, and may rise to the challenges. He writes, “Much of the current alarmist literature that claims to draw from historical experience is poorly focused, simplistic, and unhelpful. It fails to appreciate that resilience and re-adaptation depend on identified options, improved understanding, cultural solidarity, enlightened leadership, and opportunities for participation and fresh ideas.”

Fresh ideas…. Which brings us to a dot in the ocean. Or a line, as Charles March and geographic fact would have it. The dot and the line have a name: Eleuthera, in the Bahamas. And a form: an island. It’s a long thin line of a place, 110 miles in all and so thin you could almost jump across it. Its promoters sing its praises, their description reads:

‘…endless pineapple fields to white- and pink-sand beaches to secluded coves and miles of coastlines…rocky bluff, low-lying wetlands and massive coral reefs that create magnificent backdrops.’

March is more drawn to the fundamental meaning of the island’s name, from the Greek eleutheria: freedom. He has turned his back on the magnificent backdrops (for those we can just pick up a postcard) and turned his curious eyes to the sea, beginning at his feet and extending forever.

The photographer has thought about his approach, the whys and the wherefores. The sea has calmed and focused him. I find it intriguing that March’s eyes have moved from trees, specifically those of his beloved family estate, the aptly named Goodwood, to the sea. Trees have no problem standing still, but waves do. For the trees, the photographer moved his camera to impart a sense of movement; for the undulating sea, he moved his camera in sympathy with the waves. He moves the camera intuitively, of course; a viewfinder is useless, good only for a frame, a container (he tells us that his success ratio is very small relative to the number of pictures he makes).

I am reminded of the Colour Field painters, notably Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski and Morris Louis. And something of the feel of broad expanses you get in the paintings (even if they are mostly portraits) by Alex Katz. Gerhard Richter also comes to mind: the blurring, smudging and smearing, while still keeping everything razor sharp. Of more recent pictures, the painter Bernard Frize and the photographer Matthew Brandt—all of these artists trying to get under the surface of appearances.

There is great variety in this set of Charles March pictures. They are never entirely abstract: one perceives clearly what is land and what is water. Sometimes the sea seems very benign; sometimes it threatens, like a towering wall about to crash down upon us. Some pictures seem as if glimpsed from the window of a bullet train, the sun glinting off the surface. Disconcerting are one or two pictures with tilted horizons, upsetting our most cherished notions of the earth’s fundamental order.

To eyes accustomed to video games, or a visual aid like Google Streetview, the pictures have a virtual feeling. And yet they are ‘straight’ photographs: no manipulation. Still, it seems like they could have been taken on another planet, pictures beamed back from one of our far-flung probes, showing methane seas and vague landforms of unknown composition.

The pictures would have been wrecked, I believe, had the photographer tried to deal with human presence. The viewer needs this world to be somehow pure, untouched, eternal. As they are, from a pre-human era, the pictures seem to me expansive, open, full of promise. It’s the old idea of the sublime, pretty much banished from contemporary art.

It’s really not about ‘this’ sea, this one off Eleuthera, and it’s certainly not about capturing a sense of a dramatic moment, as photographs often attempt to do. It’s an abstraction in time, it’s a concept, an idea. Those landlocked Swiss of past times might have had something like this in their heads when they heard, in second- and third-hand tellings, accounts of the Tropics.

The sea remains something unknowable—and March knows it. As Anthony Doerr reflects in All the Light We Cannot See, “[the sea] seems big enough to contain everything anyone could ever feel.” One might say that the photographs of Charles March reveal some of that light we cannot see. And we can lose ourselves happily in the limitless expanse of air and water, and still find some order to our lives.

‘… may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.
for whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.’

Maggie and Milly and Molly and May, by E. E. Cummings