JTF (just the facts): A total of 9 large scale color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space. All of the works are c-prints, made between 2010 and 2013. The prints are each available in two sizes: 20×24 (in editions of 7) and 48×60 (in editions of 4); there are 3 large prints and 6 small prints on display. A monograph of this body of work was recently published by Dewi Lewis (here). (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Simon Roberts’ recent series Pierdom is a terrific example of a photographic project that functions best when seen together as a group, either in book form or as a gallery show. While each of Roberts’ well crafted images of English seaside piers can of course stand alone, the ideas that form the foundation of the project come through more clearly when the images can resonate with each other.
My first reaction to Roberts’ effort to document each of the remaining 58 “pleasure piers” in England was that it had more than a passing conceptual kinship with the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, even through their visual styles aren’t remotely alike. Both have applied a patient, methodical approach to capturing vanishing forms of vernacular architecture, with the goal of preserving their details before they disappear completely. Roberts’ images are a taxonomy of Victorian decorations and construction methods: sturdy pilings, arched canopies and pavilions, elegant ironwork light posts, and long boardwalks dotted with booths and carnival rides. Seen side by side, the photographs provide a comprehensive picture of these variations, and of the many modern additions and entertainments that have transformed some of the piers in recent years.
What also comes through when seen in a group is the compositional innovation Roberts’ has applied to this subject. The off season piers are captured from nearly every possible angle, from straight down the boardwalk and up underneath the pilings, to down from an elevated vantage point somewhere nearby and stepped way back to see the piers in the context of the surrounding cities and land forms. There are close ups and long views, sweeping asymmetrical vistas taken from the beach, and images that revel in the atmospheric weather (fog, greyness, snow and even the occasional glory of sunlight that pokes through). The photographs find balance between land and seascapes, interrupted by the long fingers of man stretching out from the shoreline.
What resonates most strongly in these works is a sense of faded romance, of comfortable nostalgia for the quirkiness and fun that these piers represent. Donkey rides, trampolines, and the Crazy House roller coaster point to the easy going escapist joy to be found here, and the continued presence of hulking iron carcasses and algae covered concrete foundations is a testament to how ingrained in the collective consciousness these landmarks have become – better to let them rot and decay in the shallow water (and use them for an impromptu wine party) than to tear them down and forget their warm memories entirely.
All in, this is a deftly self-contained project, with a deceptively rich and sophisticated set of underlying constructs. Everyone loves a carnival, and these pictures record for posterity the nuances of a quintessentially English variant.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced in rising editions, based on size. The 20×24 prints range between $2400 and $8000, while the 48×60 prints range between $4800 and $12800. Roberts’ work has not yet reached the secondary markets with any regularity, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.