It is the most British of summer days on the south coast. The Channel is lashing wildly at Brighton beach and its waves aggressively punch the shoreline, spraying spit and fury. Not that this matters. In fact, this excitable weather is all grist to my photographic mill, supplying atmosphere and texture as I point a camera at Britain’s most feted city by the sea. (Brighton and Hove, to give it its full name, was granted city status in 2000.)
Beside me, Kevin Meredith gestures at a flatbed truck inching along King’s Road on which a man in a top hat is touting the imminent arrival of a circus via a loudhailer. “That could work for your ‘Quintessentially English’ shot,” he nods. Meredith is not a tour guide. A Brighton resident for seven years and a photographer for longer, he offers weekend courses on how to improve your camera work.
“A good photo is about three key factors – subject, composition and lighting,” he explains when we meet, talking me through the basics of the art before handing me a list of things I need to capture with a click. Some are obvious: food, architecture, and a statue. Some are specific: a sign of the credit crunch, “through a window”, shoes and a dog. Some are vague concepts, leaving room for imagination: “broken”, “communication”, “reflection”, and “something in motion”.
He also hands me a camera, with which I am to tick these boxes. But this is no flashy piece of 21st-century kit that can turn a rank |amateur into Rankin through sheer force of technology. This is a Lomo |LC-A, a relic of the Eighties, a simple Russian box of black. Gizmos are few. It takes photographs at four distances – 80 cm, 150 cm, 300 cm and “infinity” – asking you to flick between these focus options with a tiny lever (and even use a ruler to ensure you are sufficiently close to or far from your chosen object). But it produces images of such raw, grainy character that it has obtained cult status. “They still make them in China,” Meredith grins. “They’re pretty resilient.”
Initially, lining up a snap without the aid of a wide modern viewfinder – while denied the digital safety net of being able to delete, instantly, any unpleasing results – is discomfiting. And keeping to the rules on distance requires discipline and concentration. But this puts me in a mindset where, soon, with encouragement from Meredith, I start to notice all manner of photographic possibilities in a place or situation.
The West Pier closed in 1975 and was subsequently destroyed by fire in 2003, which left the erstwhile Palace Pier as the only show in town. Adopting its current name in 2000, Brighton Pier is a parade of moments demanding to be enshrined on film: droplets on the flaking paint of metal rollercoaster girders and antique carousels; a fibreglass Joan of Arc figure, jarringly out of context as she rears on horseback opposite the Horror Hotel ghost train; marshmallows flashing a sugary rainbow for £1.95 a bag; a grandmother trying to jolly her grandchildren through the memories of her youth; and a female day-tripper’s red shoes, bright against the soggy brown beams of the wooden walkway.
Meredith gives gentle instruction – pointing out that shooting into sunlight will cause an unwanted silhouette effect, suggesting a different focus setting – as we move to the beach, where the photogenic parade continues.
There’s the iconic shingle, splashed by the surf. Rowing boats are beached on the pebbles outside the Fishing Museum. The Volk’s Electric Railway, a Victorian relic and the oldest still-functioning electric railway in the world, rolls slowly past the Adventure Golf course. A banner, printed in red, boasts of being open all year. It reads as the definition of optimism on such a sour day.
The hulking skeleton of the West Pier caters nicely for the “decay” category on my to-do sheet – although it surely looks more striking in death than it did in life. It’s a marooned scaffolding corpse still defying the sea swells that lick greedily at its rusting limbs.
It is also proof that here is a place that is perfect for photographic study. Brighton has long been a hive of happy contradictions. It’s a city where the rainbow flag flies with pride and distinction, where the Royal Pavilion (the holiday palace built at the turn of the 19th century for George IV) is still |a monument to extravagance, yet where 21st-century tourists grab bargains in the second-hand stores of the North Laine area.
Filtered through a lens, the city’s eccentricities are thrust forward. Thus, alert to the unusual and the interesting, my eye is caught at almost every turn. On the sloping streets of Kemptown, east of the centre, the Tea Cosy occupies its own world as a café obsessed with Diana, Princess of Wales – but belies its chintzy front with the knowing touch of the portrait above the entrance, where the princess is joined by Dodi al-Fayed rather than Prince Charles.
Nearby, the door of snooze implies a basic B&B – but swings open to reveal a boutique hideaway where rooms are decked in retro chic, and the covers of classic soul records hang framed on the walls. Back at the beach, Brighton Smokehouse proffers fresh crab sandwiches for £3.20 from what is effectively a hole in the wall under King’s Road. And at Fabrica, hidden amid the narrow alleys, jewellery shops and eateries of The Lanes, a defunct Regency church has found renewed impetus as an arts space, a colossal wire sculpture filling the vacuum where rows of pews once stood.
Not that Fabrica is an isolated outpost of visual culture. Galleries are dotted across Brighton, evidence of its easy fit with all things photographic: First Light, elsewhere in The Lanes, sells elegant snapshots of the city on blocks of canvas; Crane Kalman, tucked discreetly among the vintage-clothing stores and bookshops of Kensington Gardens, specialises in slices of dark Americana – including the shattered cars and dusty desert scenes immortalised by the English lensman Michael Ormerod (examples of whose oeuvre will be on show in October).
Then there’s Lighthouse, which displays challenging works in an elegant studio in the North Laine district – and will take on a key role in the forthcoming Brighton Photo Biennial (2 October to 14 November), hosting a celebratory exhibition that will depict the city’s gay scene in vibrant glory.
I, of course, have a way to go before my photos encounter a gallery wall. And as the shadows lengthen, my list of photographic tasks is still incomplete. Where to satisfy “architecture”?
Lambasted by commentators of the era who saw it as a shameful waste of money at a time when an economic crisis was pushing France towards revolution, the Royal Pavilion has never been a universally popular attraction. But its flamboyant Arabesque roof, with its domes and cupolas, smiles for my camera – as, you suspect, the Prince Regent might have done had cameras existed in his time.
The hard-partying George commissioned the pavilion in 1787, seeking a fashionable refuge from life in London. Brighton met his expectations. More than two centuries on, it probably still would.
Learning photography there
* Kevin Meredith runs his two-day “Hot Shots” photography course once a month (07951 479 552; lomokev.com ) – £200, plus the cost of film and processing (about £30).
* The writer stayed at snooze in Kemptown (25 St George’s Terrace; 01273 605 797; snoozebrighton.com ). Double rooms from £85 per night, including breakfast.
* Brighton Pier (Madeira Drive; brightonpier.co.uk ). Open 10am-11pm daily.
* Crane Kalman (38 Kensington Gardens; 01273 697 096; cranekalmanbrighton.com ). Open 10am-6pm from Monday to Saturday, 10.30am- 4.30pm on Sunday.
* Fabrica (40 Duke Street; 01273 778 646; fabrica.org.uk ). Open 12-5.30pm Wednesday to Saturday.
* First Light (3 Nile Street; 01273 327 344; firstlightclick.com ). Open 10.30am-5pm Wednesday to Saturday.
* Lighthouse (1 Zone B, 28 Kensington Street; 01273 647 197; lighthouse.org.uk). Open 9am-6.30pm Monday to Friday.
* Royal Pavilion (4/5 Pavilion Buildings; 0300 029 0900; royal pavilion.co.uk). Open daily 9.30am-5.45pm April to September, and 10am-5.15pm October-March. Entry £9.50.
* Brighton Smokehouse, 197 King’s Road Arches
* Farm Café and Market, 99 North Road (01273 623 143; farmsussex.co.uk )
* The Tea Cosy, 3 George Street, ( theteacosy.co.uk )
* Brighton Photo Biennial (01273 643 052; bpb.org.uk ) 2 October-14 November
* VisitBrighton (0300 300 0088; visitbrighton.com )