Britain's piers in focus

Teignmouth Grand Pier, Devon, July 2011

Britain's obsession with the coast is an understandable one given its geography and naval history, yet the coast also played an important part in the country's social history.

It was here that millions of workers first enjoyed time away from the tough working conditions of Victorian towns, and any self-respecting resort would require one key ingredient, a pier. Their popularity lasted well into the middle of the last century, but since then, many have struggled to survive the changing holiday habits of the nation, and in some cases natural disasters.

Yet in some way these structures jutting out into the ocean reflect the nation's one-time desire to spread its influence, for good or ill, around the globe. Today those that still stand have mixed fortunes, with some like Ryde Pier reborn and others still seeking regeneration.

Start Quote

These pictures may encompass some of the seaside things we know best through such photographers as Tom Wood or Martin Parr, but they put those scenes in a broad context where people live in a landscape and a country, not just a car park. They also derive something from that quite different tradition, of the wild skies and unquenchable nature that we find in Turner. ”

End Quote Francis Hodgson, 2013

Photographer Simon Roberts has spent the past three years creating a comprehensive survey of Britain's piers, depicting all 58 surviving pleasure piers along with a handful of those lost in photographs marking where a pier once stood.

Robert's approach is in a similar vein to his previous work We English, The Election Project and of course XXX Olympiad, shooting on large format cameras to create a formal record. Within the collection are one or two that have a more journalistic feel, a link back to his previous life as a press photographer.

Roberts studied Human Geography at the University of Sheffield prior to taking the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) course in press photography, the two disciplines now seeming to mesh well and drive his work forward.

His projects come at an important time for the country and his long term immersion in the subject is to be admired.

Looking back at a piece we ran by Roberts in 2003 about a group of basketball-playing monks in New York you realise how much of a journey he has been on. Not in terms of miles travelled, though his work has encompassed the Middle East, a year in Russia and of course the US amongst others, but in terms of developing his own voice through his images.

That's not something you can do overnight. And though the beauty of these pictures can only really be experienced first hand as large prints on the wall, the smallish reproductions here do offer a glimpse of the eye and brain behind them.

Weston Super Mare Birnbeck Pier, Somerset, September 2011 Weston-super-Mare Birnbeck Pier, Somerset, September 2011
Ramsey Queens Pier, Isle of Man, May 2013 Ramsey Queen's Pier, Isle of Man, May 2013
Southwold Pier, Suffolk, June 2012 Southwold Pier, Suffolk, June 2012
Brighton West Pier, East Sussex, April 2011 (Lost Pier) Brighton West Pier, East Sussex, April 2011 (Lost Pier)
Bangor Garth Pier, North Wales, September 2011 Bangor Garth Pier, North Wales, September 2011
Southend-on-Sea Pier, Essex, October 2011 Southend-on-Sea Pier, Essex, October 2011
Skegness Pier, Lincolnshire, September 2012 Skegness Pier, Lincolnshire, September 2012

Here you can watch Roberts at work and see him take the final frame of the project.

Photographer Simon Roberts shoots the final frame of Dunoon Pier

Simon Roberts at work

Pierdom is published by Dewi Lewis and an accompanying exhibition can be seen at the Flowers Gallery in London until 12 October 2013.

You can see more of Simon Roberts's work on his website.

Phil Coomes Article written by Phil Coomes Phil Coomes Picture editor

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