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Book Review: Pierdom


Book Review Pierdom By Simon Roberts Reviewed by Karen Jenkins Born of the Victorian invention of a holiday by the sea, the British pleasure pier has been for a century and a half both conveyance and destination, fixed landmark and mutable emblem. They sprang up from the exuberance of their day, through cast iron and steam trains – a promenade's stretch with bandstands and fun fairs. Their story follows the popular whim, as well as the effects of time and the elements. Simon Roberts has systematically photographed those fifty-eight pleasure piers that still stand today, after their heyday has waned, interested in what part they play in contemporary English leisure.

Pierdom. By Simon Roberts. Dewi Lewis, 2013.
 
Pierdom
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins

Pierdom
Photographs by Simon Roberts.
Dewi Lewis, 2013. Hardbound. 160 pp., 81 color illustrations, 9-1/2x12".


Born of the Victorian invention of a holiday by the sea, the British pleasure pier has been for a century and a half both conveyance and destination, fixed landmark and mutable emblem. They sprang up from the exuberance of their day, through cast iron and steam trains – a promenade's stretch with bandstands and fun fairs. Their story follows the popular whim, as well as the effects of time and the elements. Simon Roberts has systematically photographed those fifty-eight pleasure piers that still stand today, after their heyday has waned, interested in what part they play in contemporary English leisure. There is no intimate mix with the populace here; as in his We English project, Roberts takes a broad, collective view to get at this aspect of his nationalistic identity. He pulls back (and often up) to create his signature expansive landscapes, classical enough in their formal tropes to render his human players almost anachronistic.

Pierdom, by Simon Roberts. Published by Dewi Lewis, 2013.
Pierdom, by Simon Roberts. Published by Dewi Lewis, 2013.

Like a coastal home in a storm's certain path, in a practice sense, the pleasure piers have no business being there. Unlike the American shore-hugging boardwalks, these elevated platforms reach straight out from solid land, in varying lengths and relative boldness. Roberts' photographs show how they've fared the everyday exposure and assault of storms, fires and fear of wartime invasion. His series creates a certain ubiquity of planks and pilings that reminds me of the construction scaffolding in large cities – so ever-present as to be almost unseen, these markers of vulnerability and change, of structures repaired or reconsidered. This collection also taps into the reasons why the piers were built in spite of all this – the ephemeral pleasures of experience and view that evoke their Victorian beginnings. In Roberts' imagery, the remains of the Brighton West Pier look like a burnt out Crystal Palace, another time's fleeting fair and lasting symbol. His seascape of the place where the lost Margate Jetty once stood channels Gustave Le Gray and pulls out all the picturesque stops; the pier may be gone, but that sea and sky remain to be seen by all who have the time to stop and look.

Pierdom, by Simon Roberts. Published by Dewi Lewis, 2013.
Pierdom, by Simon Roberts. Published by Dewi Lewis, 2013.

Roberts only rarely assumes the perspective of a contemporary visitor or passer-by, keeping his distance and shooting infrequently from the piers themselves. Conveying more advertisement than action, even the healthier pleasure piers are often backdrops for people doing other things – in a shore side pull of sunbathing and strolls now parallel to the land. Yet Roberts' cool tone and certain remove belie a level of respect for the perseverance and potential of these places that distinguishes his work from the overcharged intimacy and showboating of "ruin porn" photography for example. His detached treatment of his human subjects, along with a lack of narrative elements, also sets his work apart from the call to action traditions of social documentary practice. There's little in the way of conclusion here; rather the photographs of Pierdom are an open ended, contemplative step back, a long view on how these squat platforms and elegant expanses fit with a new era's imaginings of leisure and the sea.—KAREN JENKINS

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KAREN JENKINS earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.

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