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Silver Coins – Joseph Wilson

Photography is very much at the centre of my life professionally and personally. I graduated from the photography course at Edinburgh College of Art in 2016, where I was awarded The Andrew Grant Bequest Scholarship. The following year, I was the graduate studio assistant in the photography department where I worked as a technician in the department, and continued to work on personal projects in my free time. In late 2017 and early 2018, I had my first solo-exhibitions exhibited at Woodhorn Museum, Ashington and Fotospace Gallery, Fife.

I then moved to Paris, returning home regularly to maintain a relationship with my long-term projects based in the North East of England. I continued with freelance photography work and assisting jobs, eventually becoming the studio manager at Studio Reto Schmid in Paris where I worked until returning to my native Northumberland just before the UK’s first lockdown. I have since been working on a backlog of photographic images and ideas for future projects.

I always work with film for my personal work, which is time consuming and costly. And so I use some of the money I generate from my professional career as a photographer to subsidise these costs.

What’s your story?

As a child and a teenager, I used to draw using pencil. I wanted to represent things as they were, rather than abstracting the world too much. I thought that using photography would be a more immediate way to make pictures, and so I got a camera.

I have long-term, ongoing projects in specific places, often examining the landscape and how people and culture interact with it. I also carry a small camera around with me almost everywhere and make photographs when I feel compelled to do so.

Other times I fall into conversation with people and end up making a portrait of them. As Robert Adams put it, “No place is boring, if you’ve had a good night’s sleep and have a pocket full of unexposed film.”

I don’t restrict my attention too much. If I had to boil things down, however, I would say that I am often interested in time, memory and space; the spaces in which geological, historical and human time and memory intersect. I can’t say exactly why I am drawn to these themes. When I was a child I used to switch between wanting to be an archeologist, an astronaut and an artist.

Let’s talk about your project ‘Silver Coins’.

I have photographed the changing coastline of Lynemouth, Northumberland in the UK for many years now. The landscape has responded to industrial processes and natural forces in interesting ways and I have recorded this. Some of Lynemouth’s industries, such as the coal colliery, the landfill sites, and, more recently, the aluminium smelter, have been decommissioned. The coal power station has undergone a controversial conversion into a biomass power station with the recent addition of some large structures.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the coal supplies of the nearby industries were so plentiful that they would regularly fall into the sea, only to be redistributed across the Lynemouth coastline on days where certain rough-weather and tidal conditions permitted it.

This led to an unofficial sea-coaling community and workforce taking advantage of the beached resource. The late photographer Chris Killip lived amongst this coastal community, photographing daily happenings between 1982-1984. Killip’s photographs were taken just before much of the de-industrialisation of the area, and of Britain as a whole.

My pictures document something very different; they chronicle a kind of after de-industrialisation, or delayed de-industrialisation. The large buildings making up the local topography are altered or erased. The artefacts of material culture that were buried within the landscape during the decades of shifting industrial habits are resurfaced through the forces of tide and time. The re-birth of these objects into the 21st century renders them misplaced, lost in time.

Independently wandering scrap collectors now frequent the beach. During a conversation with one of them, I was told that the sea washed up pieces of metal, which he went on to describe as “silver coins”. This idea of a seeming exchange between the sea paying with coins for pieces of churned up material culture is one that remained with me, and gave the project its title along with the only piece of introductory text to accompany the images:

Michael told me that he was foraging for the silver coins that the sea had left behind.

A former smelter worker donated a hard drive containing scans of found images of the area to me. Many of the pictures document the construction of the smelter and coal power station. Other images survey the land and the sea, presumably to calculate erosion. These found images are presented alongside my own images; they help to describe the strange melange of epochs that are evident on the Lynemouth coastline. The found images have been re-discovered, and re-presented. This is fitting given aged material culture that has come to be deposited onto today’s Lynemouth beach.

‘Silver Coins’ sits between long-form “documentary” of landscape and ambiguity. The photos individually document the the landscape over time, but are not logically sequenced and are starved of contextual information.

Share some recommendations for our readers.

I’ve just finished reading Italo Calvino’s ‘Mr Palomar’ – an individual’s observations on the shared world.

I’m planning on re-watching some Tarkovsky during this lockdown. Starting with my favourite, ‘Stalker’.

I recently saw Josef Koudelka’s ‘Ruins’ show at the BNF in Paris which I thoroughly enjoyed. Obviously, we can no longer travel to visit the show, but you can find the book and browse some of the images online.

Finally, tell us about a piece of art that has influenced you.

I received Jennifer Baichwal’s ‘Manufactured Landscapes‘, a documentary film on the work of Edward Burtynsky from my brother one Christmas when I was a teenager. It was the first time I’d seen photographs which were so explicitly about the man-made environment.

Baichwal does a very good job of presenting the scale and detail of the pictures in the documentary. I loved watching Burtynsky set up his frame and use his large-format camera, and I felt a strong desire to eventually get my hands on a camera like that. A week or so after watching the documentary several times, my brother and I decided to drive out to Lynemouth specifically because of its industrial landscape, and that was essentially the precursor to ‘Silver Coins’ -although it took years before I would begin making analogue pictures there. /

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