Beken & Son Ltd was founded in 1888 by Alfred Beken, a chemist and photographer from Cowes. More than a century later, his great-grandson Kenneth continues the tradition of photographing boats; there are now about 300,000 pictures in the family archive. It was Alfred's son Frank who brought the Beken name to fame, snapping most of the important boats of the day. To combat the problems of using conventional cameras at sea, Frank designed his own. The Beken camera was held in both hands, and the shutter was released by biting on a rubber ball attachment held between the teeth.
Money was no object to the owners of famous ocean racers. They included Sir Thomas Lipton and the entrepreneur TB Davis, who requested that his yacht, Westward, be sunk after his death. These were men in pursuit of nautical perfection. Endeavour I (above) was built by the aviation magnate Thomas Sopwith, who used it on the occasion of his first unsuccessful challenge for the America's Cup.
The Bluenose (right) was photographed in 1935 by Keith Beken. A Grand Banks fishing schooner which raced regularly for Canada, it skims through furrows between the swelling waves, spray blown like desert sand over the surface of the waters. The sails billow and the ropes are pulled tight; and yet the loungers on deck, in their plimsolls, high collars and hats, look incongruously sedate. One woman, unperturbed by the glowering black clouds ahead, turns to smile at the camera.
The Beken Collection will be exhibited at the Atlas Studio Gallery, 55-57 Tabernacle Street, London EC2 (0171 490 4540), from 27 May. A book of the exhibition will be published by Harvill in JulyReuse content