JTF (just the facts): A total of 20 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the office area. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1978 and 1989 and printed c1990. Physical sizes are roughly 10×15 inches (or the reverse) and no edition information was provided on the checklist. (Installation shots below.)
A monograph of this body of work was published in 2001 by Dewi Lewis. A 45 minute film constructed from Kontinnen’s seaside images was released in 1991 (here).
Comments/Context: We haven’t exactly had what anyone would call a normal summer this year. And even if some of us have gotten out to the beach to try to relax for a few hours, the invisible specter of contagion has likely hovered in the air and diluted the fun just a bit – while the sun, surf, and sand are all still there, our fear of what others might be carrying has kept us apart, limiting the casual interactions and the easy going collective play that give the beach its character. To protect each other and ourselves, we have been forced into a mode of reserved caution, but in the process, we have unfortunately lost a little of the easy going summertime joy that we all so desperately need at the moment.
Sirkka-Liisa Kontinnen’s sensitive black and white photographs of the British seaside from the 1970s and 1980s offer a welcome corrective for our current wary mood. Taken in various towns in north east England, including Whitley Bay and Tynemouth, Kontinnen’s images capture the playful eccentricity of English beach life, where people of all ages (as well as a few dogs) come together on the sand and in the water. In a sense, they trade on the same fleeting visual luck as street photographs, with a similar potential for unexpected moments and juxtapositions, just discovered on the sand not the sidewalk.
Some of Kontinnen’s most endearing pictures are filled with laughter. Boys jump over each other in the sand with glee, clothed girls get smacked by frothy waves, and elderly ladies pull up the hems of their skirts, all with big smiles and hearty laughing. Other images offer more indirect visual humor, like two pairs of flippered feet emerging from underneath an overturned rubber raft (like some kind of strange sea creature), sand castles made to look like swimming bodies, a hatted, white-sheeted blob changing clothes on the beach, and a dog happily buried in a mound of sand.
For many, the beach is place to run, jump, and burn off energy, and Kontinnen captures plenty of proud athleticism. She documents a leaping mid air football kick, the high stepping, out of control momentum of boys running into the water, and a trio of young girls showing off their headstands near an unimpressed older woman. In other pictures, the activity is more subdued and careful, from a group of small boys tentatively standing on a wooden log in the shallow waves, to older men in rolled up suits wading with their shoes off or using an umbrella to fend off the sea mist. And of course, there is the furtive romance of the beach, found both the lazy intimacy of lying in the sand and the giggling checking out of the opposite sex, as well as in the stolen hugs and kisses between couples near the seawall and out on the pier.
Kontinnen’s seaside photographs belong together with images by Chris Killip, Markéta Luskačová (reviewed here), and others which thoughtfully document the rhythms of life on the coast in 1970s Britain. As seen here, Kontinnen’s photographs tilt consistently toward warmth and affection, finding glimmers of human optimism and understated wry comedy all over the waterfront. For those of us stuck inside this summer, they remind us of the restorative power of the beach, and of the eccentric joy that emerges when we collectively frolic on the sand.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $3000 or $5000 each. Kontinnen’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.