Silken Surf: A Wave Obsession
When I first shot the wave which became the base of this project, I was totally surprised at the result my experimentation had produced and thought that I had stumbled on something which I could really work with. The truth of the matter is: I had spent the last 15 or so years working to get to that point by gathering knowledge and ideas until one day all the components fell into place. A tendency to singlemindedness has led me through various genres and styles with one common thread – a passion for whatever I am working on at any one time. This is certainly not to say that I don’t carry on looking for the new and unusual; I do, but not always with as much success as I would like.
Home is the small island of Jersey in the English Channel, a mere 15 miles from the coast of France. The island is broadly rectangular in shape, with the four coasts facing north, south, east or west. Each coast has a unique feel: dunes and sweeping surf beaches in the west, cliffs to the north, a string of very pretty bays and coves in the south and a mixture of rocky bays and golden sands in the east. It is to the west and north that I head in search of the perfect wave. This is where the north Atlantic swell travels up the channel and hits the exposed beaches.
My children were always on the beach during their childhood and developed a passion for surfing which remains to this day. To amuse myself when they were young and in the water, I started photographing them– and my love of photography was born. Once they were old enough to dispense of my taxi driving services, I started looking for more photographic opportunities, joined the local camera club and set about to learning as much as I could about photography. That learning has never stopped.
The sea plays a major part in my photography. It is forever moving and changing but always there. The island has a very large tidal range especially during the spring tides, which means that the sea can retreat out for about a mile before rushing back up the beach.
I arrived one day two years ago at one of the local beaches with the intention of doing some long exposure work. Sitting in the car looking at what appeared to be a very uninspiring view, I decided that rather than go home I would set myself a challenge and head on to the beach and see what happened. Armed with my Canon 5d mk 4 and 70 – 200mm mk 2 f2.8, I set the ISO to 100 and the shutter speed to 1/8th second. The tripod, which was like a third arm to me, stayed in the car. The idea was to not change the settings on my camera and to see what could be achieved with this slowish shutter speed whilst handheld.
After a while I looked back through what I had taken, and one image suddenly brought that little rush of adrenalin and frisson of excitement. The experiment continued, all the while I am praying that what looks good on the back of the camera is going to look equally good on my MAC. It did, and I gave myself a year to see how far I could run with this Idea and to build a series. That year came and went and the second anniversary has just passed. I feel there is more which I can achieve so I will continue to see where this path takes me.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve mused about what it is that has kept me hooked on this series. For years I’ve loved long exposure work and still do; my Fellowship with the Royal Photographic Society was comprised of square black and white fine art prints, so the waves are a departure from what has kept me interested for most of my photographic career. Long exposure work gave me the space to look at the area around me and think about possible compositions or just enjoy the outdoors whilst my camera is performing its magic. Working at a much quicker shutter speed changes my focus, and I lose myself concentrating on the wave frequency and set patterns, trying to get the optimum expression in the wave before it crashes on the shore. Expression is the key word here. There is a moment in time that the eye does not see; the character and movement of the wave is there in that fraction of a second, and that is what I am after.
My portrayal of these waves is shaped by my love of Art Deco: the strong black lines giving a graphic feel; and Art Nouveau: the lovely sinuous movement of patterns and shapes. I also cannot help being drawn back time and again to the Japanese artist Hokusai and his Great Wave series. I am interested in how close in camera I can get to the patterns he creates in his waves.
The majority of the work in this series is taken on the beaches close to home, although I have taken a few whilst in Harris, Scotland. This is partly due to the world pandemic and the cancellation of travel plans. Planning is necessary to ensure that when conditions are favourable, I do not miss out, and shooting close to home is a major advantage as locations are familiar. Swell and wave height forecasts, together with tide tables, help me to plan a few days in advance. This is by no means foolproof but when a decent swell hits our north and west coasts, wind direction, height of tide and light all need to come together to provide perfect conditions to capture the waves in all their beauty and power. Shadow, foam trails and the colour of the sand give the waves their vibrancy and depth. The colour of the sand combined with a dull or bright sky and time of day will determine the shade of blue/green in the water.
I do very little work post processing this series. The RAW file is processed in Lightroom to bring out the contrast and cropped if needed. It is then finished in Photoshop using Curves and the gradient tool if necessary. I aim to get the light just right in camera which really helps with the final product.
So my quest goes on. What more can these waves which have been the backdrop to my life tell me? I stand back and look at the breakers rolling in and being dragged back out, reforming and repeating the process time and again. Sometimes so massive they are frightening, other times gently lapping at my feet. Always moving. Mesmeric and captivating. Always there, providing a brief escape from the turbulent world.
All images and text on this page– unless otherwise noted– are protected by copyright and may not be used for any purpose without Sue Trower’s or Nathan Wirth‘s permission.