Tim Richmond, Love Bites

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Loose Joints (here). Hardcover with faux-leather cover, 280 × 220 mm, 136 pages, with 84 color photographs. Design by Loose Joints Studio. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: For any readers unsure what sort of photobook is in store, the opening pages of Tim Richmond’s Love Bites set the tone from the start. The opening spread overlooks a drab mud flat where the receding tide has exposed some decrepit fencing and weeds. On the next page we see a man in a tight dress and enormous heels aiming a rifle at something behind us. Presumably this is the same shoreline, but it looks slightly more inviting. A derelict industrial site strewn with bales of newsprint comes next. This is the Wansbrough Paper Mill, once a major regional employer but now abandoned. The tide finally returns for the fourth photo, a shot of ocean horizon providing brief closure.

All of that before the title page. Whew! So it’s going to be one of those books: someone or something is going to wind up dragged through the mud before this thing is over, and maybe out to sea. Is it a stretch to imagine the hapless dragee is Richmond’s motherland? Love Bites follows a long tradition of gloom-and-doom depictions of England. Richmond cites film-makers Andrea Arnold, Pawel Pawlikowski, and Ken Loach as influences, and indeed some of these images might pass as downcast stills from Fish Tank or Last Resort. But the dreary tradition is perhaps stronger among photographers than directors. Everyone from Bill Brandt to Nick Waplington to Martin Parr has enjoyed taking the UK down a peg or two, not to mention Chris Killip, Anna Fox, Graham Smith, and more recently Craig Easton, Jim Mortram, and Robin Maddock (reviewed here). Critiquing England is as English as tea and biscuits or hand-wringing over the monarchy. Cheerio, stiff upper lip, and carry on.

The books that feel closest in spirit might be Paul Graham’s Beyond Caring and A1 —The Great North Road. Like Love Bites, they document forlorn outposts, lonely idlers, and creeping malaise. For students of color theory—and Tim Richmond seems an eager disciple—those titles offered a master class, molding the country’s northern light and visual timbre into a wan verdict on Thatcher’s England.

But that was the last generation and another part of the country. Love Bites documents post-Brexit England, and its focus is a twenty-mile section of the Bristol Channel in West Somerset. This is where Tim Richmond made his home in a national park from 2006 to 2021. The area boasts natural treasures including one of the world’s broadest coastal estuaries. But it has somehow eluded much photographic attention to date, “literally bypassed,” according to Richmond. He spent six years exploring local towns and non-towns with fusty monikers like Minehead, Watchet, Bridgwater, Burnham-on-Sea, and Weston-super-Mare. The resulting book is a tender homage to these places, prefaced with a heartfelt dedication: “To a small stretch of the Bristol Channel – a love letter.” But it’s offered with a twist. The title Love Bites is a double entendre. Its gentle nips at truth might approximate the love bites on the neck of a man Richmond once met at a bus stop. But of course “bites” can operate as a pejorative verb.

Richmond seems to have a foot in both camps. He shows us Somerset’s underbelly, but with obvious affection. A dimly lit casino room gives way to a stripper lounging on a tiger-skin couch. A fish & chips shop barely brightens an empty street. Richmond’s eye falls upon vacant hotel rooms, dining halls, bar games, and a strange camouflaged outpost seemingly stocked for the prophesied end-times. It’s clear he knows how to put a photo together. All are carefully composed, lit, and considered. They were shot on color film and enlarged as c-prints in an analogue darkroom, subtly undergirded with rich desaturation. In some photos the colors step forward into complimentary primaries. In others the palette has drained away entirely.

Most scenes appear shot in early morning or slow hours, which explains the lack of people. But one wonders how many might be around even at peak activity. Richmond eventually tracks down stray humans here and there. He has a photographer’s instinct for picking out visually interesting strangers, and he seems to know just how to much—or how little—to interject himself. His quiet portraits fill a relatively small portion of the book, but they play an outsized role. Most subjects are captured alone with their thoughts. Seemingly preoccupied, they pay the camera no mind. In fact, not one person in Love Bites looks back at Richmond. This must have required some direction on his part, but the impression is undirected and vérité. A man in suspenders rolls a beachside cigarette, while another in the tub is bathed in orange light. A woman drinks tea by a dartboard. Regardless of who or where, gazes always fall outside the frame. It’s a subtle nod to motion pictures, where the fourth wall is rarely broken.

Taking his subjects’ cue, Richmond’s attention sometimes strays too. When not visiting lonely inns or dank pubs, his thoughts often drift to the shore. The land-sea interface is a defining feature of the region, and it becomes a recurring motif. After initial appearing in a mud-flat, it manifests in broad grey horizons, out a hotel window, in eroded sand banks, and buffering an expansive overview of Doniford. The final photo is a Sugimoto-like sky/sea split, a counterpart to the muddy opener. The coastline also crops up in the portrait backgrounds along the way. In fact it appears so often that it becomes more or less invisible. Perhaps this is the headspace of local residents? Richmond reinforces geographical inurement with a host of beige imagery: condos, a shower interior, a graffitied wall, a payphone recess. Their colors have gone out to see like an ebb tide. These things too might pass unnoticed, if not for Richmond’s efforts.

Love Bites roughly coincides with the post-Brexit period, and it might be viewed in some quarters as softly spoken polemic. But it is not quite that. West Somerset has been economically depressed for decades. It has looked roughly like this since the Thatcher years, and that will probably remain true for years after Brexit. In a turbulent world Richmond has stumbled on a vein of stasis, and he takes deliberate measures to obfuscate dated references. His pictures generally avoid cars, fashion, typography, and other products with stylized designs. A man fills up his portable gas tank, for example, but the car itself is excised from the frame. The rear index of captions lists locations but no dates. Stripped of any obvious timeline the book becomes more about place than moment.

At least that’s how readers might view it. For Richmond, Love Bites tracks life events. He shot the photos toward the end of his long habitation in West Somerset, and they were kicked into book form by his 2021 departure. That was the year he moved to Montrose, Colorado, to be closer to his daughter. Knowing this, the dedication—“A love letter”—assumes added resonance. Love Bites transforms into a life chapter on which he has literally closed the book.

Among other current projects, Richmond now runs a facility out of his Colorado home called the Print Room, a resource center with color darkroom, workshop, library, and personal archive. It’s a few thousand miles from West Somerset as the crow flies, and two years have passed since the move. He can view that place and time with some objectivity, but his photographs still resonate like a love letter.

Collector’s POV: Tim Richmond does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely connect directly with the photographer via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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