The Challenge of True Solitude

I am fascinated by people who live very solitary lives. Recently, I enjoyed Winter’s Watch, a short documentary about Alexandra de Steiguer, the caretaker for the Oceanic Hotel on Star Island, 10 miles off the coast of New England.

“You have to be at peace with the fact that something might happen, and you might not make it through,” says Alexandra de Steiguer, the caretaker for the Oceanic Hotel, in Brian Bolster’s short documentary, Winter’s Watch. De Steiguer has spent the past 19 winters tending to the 43-acre grounds of the hotel, on Star Island, which sits 10 miles off the coast of New England. In the long, wintry off-season, she is the island’s sole inhabitant.” (via YouTube)

Thanks to CJ Chilvers‘ and his newsletter for the heads up. Subscribe to it here.

Ben Roberts

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© Ben Roberts

Ben Roberts always seems to be creating new work. Every time I look at his Flickr, there is something new to see. His photographs are beautiful and atmospheric, with many of them being shot at night. We recently spoke about his work and inspiration.

Hi Ben, please tell me a little about yourself. 

I am a 38 year old American living in Japan. I live in the nature heavy area of Nagano. I live with my standard poodle. I actually grew up here in Japan, (my parents were Christian missionaries), but I didn’t attend the public schools. I am not a professional photographer, I just love photography.

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© Ben Roberts
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© Ben Roberts

How did you develop an interest in photography?

I always enjoyed the idea of photography as a medium for capturing memories. I shot instant cameras for fun while I was at college in America. When I got my first digital camera and started to take photos of things around me, I figured I would get more serious and bought a DSLR. Film photos were always more beautiful to me, and when I inherited a film camera, there was no turning back.

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© Ben Roberts

What cameras do you prefer to use?

I have used and owned a lot of different cameras. The film camera I first inherited was a Minolta CLE – a really nice rangefinder that is pretty much a Leica. I still use that camera. I also bought a Pentax LX which is great for the type of photography I shoot. I also love my Mamiya 7.  I have found I love the look of reversal film.

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© Ben Roberts

Do you have a favourite photographer or artist whose work you admire?

I spent tons of time on Flickr, so was inspired by many photographers on there, like Patrick Joust, for example.  I also like movie directors like David Lynch because I find their images inspiring.

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© Ben Roberts

Thanks Ben!

If you’re interested in seeing more of Ben’s work, go check out his website or follow him on Flickr and Instagram.

Not every shot is a masterpiece

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I love to look at photographer’s contact sheets. They’re private and intimate, like leafing through a sketchbook or reading someone’s diary. So often, we see a finished image and forget all about the process behind it. Henri Cartier Bresson likened contact sheets to the analyst’s couch, It’s all there: what surprises us is what we catch, what we miss, what disappears.” It’s amazing to think about all of deleted, discarded or forgotten photographs that go unseen. 

Some of my favourite contact sheets belong to the photographer, Robert Frank. While working on the The Americans, he took thousands of photographs, however, just 83 made the final cut. His contact sheets helped him sort through huge amounts of film, while figuring out which shots worked best.

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Spencer Bentley sums up brilliantly in this PetaPixel article, “Great photographers don’t just take great photos. They build them, they work at them, they move about a scene testing, and probing, and experimenting to find that one shot that will be shared. While I’ll never be Bresson, I can do that. I can test. I can move. I can probe. I can experiment.” 

Contact sheets remind us that great photographs don’t just happen, they’re carefully crafted, considered, framed, and often, edited.

Not every shot is a masterpiece.

Insights rarely occur fully baked

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In Perennial Seller, Ryan Holiday asks Scott Barry Kaufman, a leading psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on creativity, about how ideas happen. He says: “Insights rarely occur fully baked. The creative process is often nonlinear, with many detours along the way that inform the final product. The creator often starts with a hazy intuition of where he or she is going, but breakthrough innovations rarely resemble the seed idea or vision. This is because creative ideas, by their very nature, evolve over time, reflecting the colliding of seemingly disparate ideas.”

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My ideas rarely appear fully-formed. I hope for successful images but never go out seeking them. It’s important that I remain open to outside influence while I’m taking photographs because I like to experiment and work with what’s available.

As Kaufman says, “the best we can do is sit down and create something, anything, and let the process organically unfold.” 

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Fawley Power Station

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Located about ten miles away from where I grew up, is Fawley Power Station. No longer in service, this oil-fired power station employed more than 700 people at its peak. It’s huge chimney dominates the local landscape and can be seen for miles.

Commissioned in the late 1960’s, Fawley began generating electricity in 1972 and stands testament to Britain’s era of nationalised industries. It’s ambitious design included a number of distinctive and unique architectural features such as the flying-saucer-shaped control building and the zig-zag glass cladding on the outside of the boiler house.

Underneath Southampton Water, a two-mile-long tunnel was dug, mostly by hand, to house the high voltage electricity cables, negating the need for pylons. The tunnel was ten feet wide and a small electric railway was installed to carry away excavated dirt. The Irish and Scottish mining crews were paid piecework depending on their output, working long shifts to make as much progress as possible and thereby increase their wages. Their work was difficult and fraught with risk. Miners used decompression tanks before entering which adjusted them to tolerate the high-pressures beneath the seabed. If injured, no miner could go straight to hospital as decompression had to take place, lasting about three quarters of an hour. Sadly there were fatalities. One miner fell in the shaft and another accident was said to have involved an improperly closed airlock.

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Unfortunately, Fawley went online just before the 1970s oil crisis, was deemed too expensive to run and was never used to full capacity as a result. Since closing in 2013, it’s become all the more alluring, especially for television and film crews who come for its retro interior monitors, buttons and dials. Currently, its fate hangs in the balance as plans are afoot to transform it into a “residential and commercial waterside community.”

It’s funny that I associate such an industrial building with comforting feelings of home. I’d miss the looming presence of its tower if it was demolished, although I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it belching black smoke. These photographs were taken on a recent visit. I’m glad I’ve gotten the chance to shoot it, before the Fawley I grew up with is gone.

For more images, go to my Flickr.

Sources of information include C20 Society, Ian West and Power Stations of the UK.