By Julia Stanek
Sometimes the Big Wheel on Blackpool's Central Pier rotates over crashing waves. A few hours later, the sea is gone and children play on the beach.
Sometimes you can walk all the way to St. Michael's Mount. At other times you need a boat to get to the island off the coast of Cornwall in southwest England.
Sometimes the English Channel attacks the white cliffs of Sussex. Then it retreats far into the distance, as if gathering strength for a fresh assault.
The tides give Britain's coastal areas two faces. They're not just a spectacular natural event that repeats itself every six hours, as if at the push of a button. They turn the border between the land and sea into an area where man has to adapt to nature. In his new photo book "Sea Change: A Tidal Journey Around Britain," British photographer Michael Marten shows gripping images of Britain's coasts -- always with two photos of the same subject at low tide and high tide.
He got the idea for the project in 2003, when he had spent a day photographing a small harbor in southeast Scotland. Later, when he was going through the photos, he noticed that he had taken photos of virtually the same subject -- at low tide in the morning, and at high tide in the afternoon. "If you use the tides it becomes clear how natural cycles change the landscape," says the 65-year-old. So he embarked on a photographic project called "Sea Change" which aims to show the landscape as a dynamic process rather than a static picture.
He was primarily interested in the power of nature. "Many landscape photographers are interested in how humans manipulate the planet, they concentrate on built-up environments, globalization, industry and environmental pollution." But Marten focused on the earth's own rhythm and his images show nature's supremacy over man. "The planet is stronger. Its forces -- like the climate and the oceans -- are beyond our control."
The photographer got a strong sense of that during a stay in South Wales. He had taken a good photo in the coastal town of Porthcawl at low tide showing a pier with a white lighthouse at the end of it. It was a perfect picture. A person was walking across the mudflat with white clouds seemingly merging with the sea. But when he tried to take the same photo at high tide, huge waves were sweeping across the spot from where he had taken the first photo. It was dangerous but he had to take the photo, otherwise his morning's work would have been in vain.
So Marten waited for a moment that seemed less risky. As the storm calmed, he ran across, put up his tripod and took the picture. "A year later the tide tore a man off the wall at exactly that spot," said Marten. "He drowned."
Neck-High in Water
One dangerous-looking photo appears to show a man nearly covered in water. But the figure is just one of hundreds of cast-iron sculptures that have been scattered across the Crosby beach near Liverpool since 2006. An English artist placed them here after he had shown the installation for the first time in Germany's North Sea city of Cuxhaven in 1997. The further the figures are from the coast, the longer they are exposed to the tide and barnacles. Some disappear completely into the sea, while only the heads of others can be seen peeking out of the water.
"The sculptures that are far out are much more heavily encrusted," says Marten. "It's as though one could use it to measure the time they've been in the water."
But Marten doesn't attribute that much meaning to all of his photos. Some simply reflect the natural majesty of coastal England, such as the white chalk cliffs of Sussex, a tiny island church on the coast of Anglesey, Wales, or lonely fishing villages in Scotland. "All parts of the coast, even those marked by industry, have their own beauty," says Marten, adding that things often depend on a certain mood, unusual light, or simply the weather.
Indeed, many of the photos show typically British grey skies. But for Marten, this is not a flaw. "A cliffside that appears and disappears in a sea fog, a vast empty mudflat in pouring rain, a raging sea in a storm -- for me these are much more compelling and exciting than a sandy beach on a sunny day."
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