Text Kaisu Tervonen
The Damp Britons More Cinematic Than Film Stars
On a rainy November day, Tim Richmond sat next to a young man at a bus stop. The lad, supping on a can of cider, sported a massive hickey on his neck. The image was stark.
“He just sat there and waited for the bus with that enormous trophy of victorious passion from the night before,” says Richmond. “There was something so fantastically cinematic about that.”
Cocksure yet slightly misanthropic, the boy had an aura about him. Richmond never made his portrait and has not re-encountered the young lad in the three years, but the meeting gave Richmond focus and the series a title. Love Bites is a document of people along the Bristol Channel, the body of water between south Wales and southwest England lined with small, seasonal resort towns.
“Up the coast and on a 20-mile radius,” says Richmond about the area he photographed. “I decided to make an artificial boundary because otherwise it would spread out too wide.”
This current, more local focus is new. Known and loved for his wandering, long-term projects, Richmond spent seven summers exploring South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana for his series Last Best Hiding Place which riffs on imagery of the mythical American West.
Further back still, at the start of his career, Richmond shot portrait and fashion shoots for magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair. He’d bring in stylists, hairdressers and make-up artists. Everything he photographed—from actress Emma Thompson to the clothes of the French Hermés fashion house—could call on high production tools. Anything could be made to be perfect, but that young lad with the hickey proved perfection can be right around the corner.
Tragedy, too, is closer than we think. In 2008, Richmond’s wife died. Afterward, he hit the reset button.
“I decided to go for the type of work I really wanted to do. I left those [high-end] assignments for the most part and concentrated on refining my own long term projects.”
That was when he went to wrangle images in the U.S. Love Bites was a return home and allowed Richmond to shoot closer to his everyday life. It may not conjure a mythical landscape, as such, but Love Bites is no less story-oriented. Wet asphalt replaces desert trails and British seas replace the sun-scorched mesa.
Love Bites is a host of fringe characters as fascinating as any cowboy. In one image, a man sits naked in a bathtub under a red light. In another, a cross-dresser stands on a tennis court, holding a racket and a ball. It is difficult not to construct fictional narratives around the real world situations. Richmond is fine with that, and even hesitates to reveal the background of his images.
“There is part of me that wants to tell you and part of me that doesn’t want to,” Richmond smirks. “It’s far less exciting described than just leaving it open-ended.”
The truth is that cross-dressers feature because each year, around 150 of them gather to spend one week in a local caravan park. And the man just happened to have a red lamp in his bathroom.
“Everyone has these wilder fantasies of what the hell happened here. The red is almost like blood red–maybe someone is in deep tragedy?”
The scruffy diners, mundane red-brick houses and frozen vacuum-packed rabbit heads add elements of melancholy and the macabre. The people in the Love Bites images, too, seem to be living in an alternative reality. Along the Bristol Channel, Richmond has met everyone from Romanian fruit pickers and Latvian pole dancers to working-class skinheads.
“People choose to be like this, whether it’s being into motorbikes or living in a caravan in a field. It’s often through their choice and not just by purely some socio-economical situation.”
But the individuals are also part of the society, even if they chose a life at its outer fringes. In the time that Richmond has been shooting the series, there have been large shifts in politics and attitudes. Though Richmond never set out to frame the issue of Brexit or to comment on British identity in relation to Europe, he cannot deny that new cultural frames for his work have emerged. The idea of a united Europe is under strain.
“Europe has dis-amalgamated. To me, it’s important to document this now because who knows where this nonsense is going to end up?”
Certainly, Richmond is concerned about Britain’s political future but he’s also bothered by the homogenization of culture, mostly driven by corporate culture.
“Most of the high streets in England are starting to resemble each other,” he says. “You can be anywhere, they’re all interchangeable. It’s only in the very high-end and maybe in the low-end [business offerings] that you get some sort of difference. In the middle, it’s just bland.”
The search for the out-of-the-ordinary will continue. Richmond will continue to point his lens at people pushed outside the mainstream and those who’ve chosen to step beyond it. He’ll carry the project forth until he feels it is ready.
“Maybe a couple of years? Or more?”
Who knows what the peoples and subcultures along the Bristol Channel will look like then?
Special Editions of Last Best Hiding Place are available from Tim Richmond’s website: www.timrichmond.co.uk/por/book-shop-2/