rob ball


From early morning to late evening - I walked along the seafront looking and re-looking, waiting for the attractions to open and documenting the flow of the crowds in the shifting light of the sun. Each British seafront is both familiar and strange. A large amount of what I see, hear and smell is ubiquitous, repeated along the coastlines of our island.

The Flamingo in Margate looks like The Flamingo in Yarmouth, the change booth in Burntisland’s arcade has the same neons as the one in Southsea. The beach furniture is similar, too. Palm trees (fake, real and representative) are widely used to signify that we are by the sea, somewhere exotic. The food and drinks are repetitive and repeating; the unnatural, toxic hues of blue and pink and the smell of deep-fried fat coalesce with the sticky, sweet aromas of the candy floss, donut machines and location-specific sticks of rock.

There are moments - however, often created by geography or trend, that signify a uniqueness. At the coast these repeated themes sit alongside a welcome lack of homogeny, almost a lawlessness, as buildings are adapted from the theatre to the arcade to the pound shop and often back again. This looseness is something that can only be found on the Front where a year can be an unusually long time. The past and present both remain visible and heritage and progress are equally celebrated and form part of the attraction. I was drawn to the epic facades of the seafront during the making of this project; these large-scale graphic edifices with grand names such as ‘Magic City’, ‘Golden Mile’ and ‘Pleasureland’ sitting alongside the parking meters and rubbish bins. As we move closer into the seafront we start to see the cracks, faded paint and signs of (over) use.

Each seaside resort has been through ups and downs, but all still exist in one form or another, a testament to their resilience. Some limp on, unable to escape the past, others thrive, benefitting from coastal regeneration funds or often piecemeal developments from relocating out- of-towners looking for a change in lifestyle and a new beginning. The freedom of the seafront is echoed by its inhabitants and visitors. Here people move to runaway and reconnect, whilst day-trippers come to play. Here we are at our most open, in our dress and attitude, and here we play within the safety of the seafront package and the time-limited awayday.

In many ways this project is a sometimes failed attempt to celebrate the coast in all its neon glory. It’s easy to be sneering, but I revere the creators of our seaside culture; the ride operators, the shop workers, the arcade owners building frontages inspired by Las Vegas in locations without the climate, budget or glamour. These culture creators cannot rest, each year demands a refresh or redesign, in preparation for a new summer season. Life is keenly felt by the coast; the weather can be at its most extreme. The impact of people at the seafront is evident all year round, from the queues and rubbish generated by the summer visitors to the eerie dormant amusement park rides and signs with their lights out during the off-peak season.

It is the constant shifting of our coastal cultures which provoked a desire to record these spaces before the next wave of change; changes perhaps hastened by an uneasy political outlook. Regardless of our future, from Blackpool to Brighton and Rhyl to Ramsgate, British coastal resorts have the richest of histories to celebrate.


Dreamlands in The Journal of Photography and Culture, Jan 2018
Margate in England and Coney Island in the United States are the locations for my long term, coastal-based photographic practice. The tintype process makes a significant contribution to this work, reflecting my growing ambivalence with contemporary photographic digitisation and the often lack of material printed images. In comparison to digital production, the tintype can appear labour-intensive, where for all its intentional and unintentional faults a singular object - held as much as seen - is created. On these humble ferro plates the fingerprints of the maker, the dust from the location, the imperfections caused by the chemicals reacting unpredictably to the environment remain fixed. For me, this obsolete process knowingly provides imperfect, handmade renditions of the subject matter, a characteristic that seems particularly appropriate in representing the fragility, and at times fractured, environment of coastal towns.

Seaside resorts are historically cyclical in their popularity and from the 1970s both Margate and Coney Island suffered from a lack of economic investment and tourist interest. As a result, these coastal communities became hardened and remain prone to fickle change and broken promises. Where upward turns are once again evident, these are perhaps signified best as repair rather than simplistic regeneration or renaissance. Buildings and redundant commercial premises are being restored, signage repainted and owners prepare optimistically for a successful new season. Yet such coastal repairs also have the connotation of vulnerability and fragility, a sutured wound of under investment, all too prone to breach and it is this threat of rupture, which proves so photographically interesting.

This community, commercial and cultural repair is arguably most visible on the seafront. It is here that the arcades, theme parks and cafes are located. These are the seaside attractions, the entry point where the town generates income from day-trippers and holidaymakers. Literally and metaphorically placed at the edge.

Like other seaside attractions, the tintype has its own rich history at the edge. Prior to the pocket camera becoming ubiquitous it was the tintype that provided cheap, instant photographs for seaside visitors. For just a small fee beachgoers could take home a tintype souvenir as record of their visit.  Numerous photography studios populated Margate’s seafront and Coney Island’s boardwalk, capitalizing on the demand for mementos and seaside ephemera. Both places also willingly reference this past in the present, Dreamland in Margate reopened as a Heritage Amusement Park in 2015 and Coney Island’s unique past is constantly referenced and rebranded. My own practice too seeks to evidence this past, but in dialogue with the present; the obsolescence of the esoteric tintype used knowingly.

I make use of the tintype’s inherent insensitivity, with the resultant long exposures leaving mere traces of people within each frame. Here the iconic Coney’ and Margate rides: the Parachute Jump, Scenic Railway, Cyclone and Wonder Wheel all appear devoid of passengers. Deceptively empty, yet the riders are there invisibly ingrained within the image. Fairground rides dominate, looming large over the coastalscapes, omnipresent, watching and twisting, monuments to the machine age, enduring the seaside’s birth/rebirth, rupture/repair. Each tintype makes strange this complex coastal actuality, flipping ride and midway stall signage, rendering text peculiar due to the medium’s lateral reversal. Tintypes, like Coney’s boardwalk, interweave the stark reality of experience with the fantasy lands of amusement parks and these coastal locations present a culture that is messy, free, and at the edges undefined.

These contemporary tintypes like constructed seaside resorts, are at once real and unreal. There is an inescapable veracity to a coastal community whilst, paradoxically, its chief offer is often escapism. As Henry Miller said of Coney Island ‘The world has become a mystic maze erected by a gang of carpenters during the night. Everything is a lie, a fake’ (Miller, 1974).[1]

[1] Miller. H, Black Spring, Panther Books, 1974, p.138


This month, Dreamland Margate will open to the public again for the first time in more than a decade. Photographer Rob Ball documented Britain’s oldest amusement park in the years leading up to its renovation. Ahead of a forthcoming exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery and a book published by Dewi Lewis, Ball talks about the project. At its peak in the 1960s, Dreamland Margate thronged with visitors. Millions of them, young and old, families and couples, piled into the seaside amusement park to laugh, flirt, ride the famous Scenic Railway rollercoaster, try their luck at the coconut shy, and wolf down candy floss and jellied eels. But over the decades that followed Dreamland waned in popularity, changing its name, losing its lustre and eventually shutting in 2003.

Now, thanks to a local campaign and a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the park is about to throw open its doors again to the public, reimagined by Hemingway Design as a hip, vintage attraction. In the years between closure and redevelopment, Dreamland was left to rot. From 2013, photographer Rob Ball captured this Dreamland, mainly using the Victorian tintype wet collodion process. Tatty, forlorn but still oddly majestic, the empty park takes on a haunting air in his photographs. The tintypes will go on show at The Photographers’ Gallery.

They also feature in a book, published by Dewi Lewis, along with contemporary colour shots by Ball and historical images of the park sourced from the South East Archive of Seaside Photography, which he deputy directs. Tintypes were first popular in the 1860s – around the same time, as Ball points out, as the Dreamland site’s first use as an entertainment venue, although it wasn’t until 1920 that it was named Dreamland, after another park in Coney Island.

“Tintypes weren’t massive in the UK, it was more of an American thing, but where they were popular was in the coastal resorts – Margate, Blackpool, Brighton,” says Ball. Because it was cheap and comparatively instant – seaside photographers could develop their tintypes in a makeshift darkroom on the street in as little as five minutes – it was one of the first democratic photographic processes,” he adds. - Rachel Segal Hamilton, British Journal of Photography


For Dreamland, once one of Britain’s most popular amusement parks, it seemed that the crowds would traipse away for ever when a plan for closure was announced in 2003. From as early as 1880, visitors had thronged to the park in Margate, Kent, scaring themselves sick or silly on its rides and betting their lunch money on the slot machines. This summer, following a decade-long campaign, it will reopen. For the past two years, British photographer Rob Ball has roamed the abandoned site, capturing the restoration process in a series of tintypes, a historic method of photography. His decision to use this style – instantly recognisable from a long tradition of seaside snapshots – takes viewers back to the glory days of Dreamland and British coastal amusement parks. We could be in Victorian Margate were it not for that crane or those electricity cables. The absence of any people helps past and present to coexist. Ball, who had been to Dreamland as a boy, had to build a temporary darkroom each time he went to the site. “You become like the crazy professor pouring and mixing, coating metal plates,” he says in his book Dreamlands. “It is physical, it’s performative, and it’s far removed from ‘pick up and click’.”
The images’ resulting imperfections echo the broader repairs going on around him. Weeds are removed, rides prepare to rumble once more, the camera clatters and a new generation of visitors prepares for its day at the seaside. - Alice Fishburn, FT Magazine, May 2015.


Unremarkable Stories
Far from unremarkable, Rob Ball presents an unsettling dislocation between memory and actuality, presenting the past through contemporary photographic practice. This publication and associated exhibition focuses on Ball’s 2011 return to the modest Essex urbanscape of his teenage years. Neither tender nor critical, Unremarkable Stories forensically documents the prosaic spaces of his youth. Whilst his landscapes ostensibly might depict the banal, the specificity of space nevertheless remains significant; likewise Ball registers the fierce potency of memory when discussing his return:

…I feel it all coming back; building dens, sitting under the bridge smoking, scouring the landscape for porno mags and most of all, hanging around because there’s nothing to do here. The park was our haven – the only place where we would be left alone.

In rejecting idealised versions of childhood, we are instead reminded of endless hours spent simply occupying spaces empty of adults. In Rob Ball’s photographs within the anonymity of the park’s hinterland or the blandness of the Essex suburban architecture, we are treated to diminutive highlights of hue. But these glints of colour, far from being  generated by some sort of natural beauty, are rather the consequence of careless youthful  disregard. Litter litters each photograph: the orange plastic shopping bag, the part submerged blue bicycle frame, the flash of crimson from a discarded coca cola can. Rob Ball’s Unremarkable Stories makes strange the everyday – the antithesis of ‘showy’, these works quietly insist on our attention and contemplation. - Dr K.J Shepherdson


Legacies of the Engaged Image: The Redemptive Beauty of Life after Death
In the photographs by Robert Ball, of second hand guns and pacemakers taken from the bodies of the deceased before cremation, two sophisticated technologies are productively contrasted. The former machines were explicitly designed to remove human life, the latter to extend it.   That the guns Ball records, laid out on a dark background as though in a museum display case, reminds us that photography’s history is closely tied in with the development of evidence-gathering. Ball’s work draws on an aesthetics of plain display, of a no-nonsense presentation of the object, an approach whose (false) neutralisation of the thing recorded strangely forces one to concentrate upon the weapon’s functional attributes. [9] Almost everything about these firearms looks to be “about” the carrying out of the act for which they were designed, though the placing of the guns on a dark backcloth might be not so much a museological conceit as a metaphor for the weapon’s hidden power, the way that the firing of a gun “can change a hundred lives in a split second” (Ball).

With the pacemakers, the niceties of their workings are hidden away, firstly in their active life whilst operating inside a human body, and, secondly, even when one sees the revealed object, a generally rare sight of something that is today a quite commonly employed device. It as though Ball is visually staging the claim that whilst it is easy to take away a life, preserving and extending it, for all our scientific and rational understanding, remains one of the most technically complex and morally convoluted issues we face. - Peter Suchin


On Pacemakers
Ball’s photographic study of pacemakers ‘happened by accident’ coming out of a previous two year documentary project on morgues.  Pacemakers are removed from their owners before burial or cremation and the artist gathered twenty-five specimens which he photographed with a large format camera in a studio.  Ball was compelled to the visual scrutinisation; ‘everything about them fascinated me, each on representing a life (or death), each one powering a body until its final moments – before the human or the machine gave up’.

In presenting his prints of these devices as clinically as possibly Ball highlights an indexical function or objectivity of photography owing much to the industrial and architectural photographs of contemporary German photography particularly Bernd and Hiller Becher.  There is also a more surreal and disturbing element to the series of photographs if one considers the objects in terms of a metamorphose from inert mechanism with only slight variations between units, to part of a living human. Though subsequently removed each pacemaker has in fact been a vital part of an individual human biology and life. - Magdalene Keaney, The National Portrait Gallery