We’ve come to the end of our time in Suffolk County and Felicity and I reflect on our project Change, Chance and Circumstance: Field Notes. What started out as a conversation on Aldeburgh Beach last summer and an exchange of emails over the year led to us contemplating possible journeys to two coastal locations: Orford Ness, Suffolk, UK and Montauk Point, Suffolk County, New York, USA. The difference between talking about doing a speculative research project such as this, and actually doing it was a-n’s Artist Bursary 2018. The kernel of an idea suddenly became possible with the generous support of the Bursary to cover my travel to the USA.
Our starting point was a shared interest to find out more about two Suffolk UK/USA locations that seemed to have geographical, historical, and environmental commonalities. As we explored Orford Ness and Montauk Point, by ferry, car and foot, we walked, talked, recorded, not entirely sure what we would find, but open to a curiosity of location and environment.
Our precondition to create a tangible outcome was one that we both struggled with at Orford and Montauk. We had to keep reminding ourselves that this was an opportunity to be in a pre-defined ‘field’, to observe, take, and exchange, visual notes, rather than process too quickly into product.
Although we did produce a pair of short moving image sequences, To the High Light and Around the Light, these served more as a manifestation of a shared visual experience of the sites, brief notes of collaborative seeing, and definitely not a conclusion.
The experience of us both travelling thousands of miles to a different site (albeit one we had identified as having commonalities) allowed new observations, experiences and meetings of place and people. It also allowed both of us to reflect on, and see afresh the environments closer to our respective homes.
As we left Suffolk County and drove back towards New York to urban life, I thought about how, as an east coaster, I feel drawn to these two coastal locations with their lighthouses that have vantage points, both as beacons of navigation and exploration.
The coastal landscapes of Orford Ness and Montauk Point are stunning: the quality of light is dazzling and there is a feeling that we could be on the edge of the world. The sublime presence of recent(ish) military historical architecture and remains is simultaneously psychologically terrifying and visually quite beautiful in a brutalist kind of way.
Both sites have an undercurrent of precariousness in terms of the continuing coastal erosion. Whilst Montauk Point Lighthouse has more resources and backing to fight that battle, Orfordness Lighthouse is in a very different place and it is there where I want to return: to continue to record its particular Change, Chance and Circumstance.
Felicity and I look at the footage we have of Montauk Point Lighthouse in relation to the one-minute film we made from our visit to Orfordness Lighthouse To the High Light in June. The images we took at Orfordness Lighthouse were about the sense of movement in the disused architectural structure, and the natural light and shade within and outside the space. Here in Montauk, we mirror the circular movement of climbing the stairs that we caught on the film, but here, it is less about the structure of the building and more about the functioning light and the life outside it.
The result Round the Light is an accompanying film for To the High Light. At the moment we can only view them side by side on laptop screens.
I’d like to see them projected on a double screen to get a sense of how they work together. Hopefully, we will see this when they are shown as part of a programme of short films Alive in the Universe that Caroline Wiseman is taking to Venice next year.
On our last trip out to Montauk Point, we visit Camp Hero which lies next to the Lighthouse. Again, the parallels with Orford Ness are striking. Camp Hero, like the Ness, was a strategic military defence station looking east from the C18th to C20th. And, like the Ness, its east coast location lead to it being used for long range radar, now decommissioned, and a nature reserve and State Park.
The crumbling former military concrete structures are set within the Camp Hero State Park, but can only be viewed from afar. Most striking of all is the AN/FPS-35 Radar structure, a ghost of the Cold War era with a reflector that is 38m long and 12m high. It is said that it was so powerful that it disrupted local TV and radio broadcasts when it was first used in the early 1960s. It is an incongruous landmark in the State Park and can be seen from miles around (including from the top of the Lighthouse).
Like the Ness, there is an eery, menacing feel to the place that nature is slowly taking over.
Using the footage of the concrete ‘pagodas’ at Orford Ness and the Radar here, I experiment with overlaying the two sites on film.
Felicity and I have decided to make another short film to accompany the one we made at Orfordness Lighthouse in June. So we spend the time we have at Montauk Point Lighthouse capturing moving image material in and around the lighthouse and museum that we review over the next few days whilst we’re staying in the same place. It’s so much easier to make editing decisions and discuss whilst we’re looking at the same screen.
As we found in Orford, we’re drawn to similar visual imagery and when we review the material we find duplication in how we’re trying to capture what we see digitally.
It’s almost like we are providing two ‘takes’ of the same, or similar composition, which helps in the limited time we have here. We’re both slightly anxious that time and resources are limited, and we want to have something tangible after our week in Orford and Montauk.
I feel a bit like a moth to a flame. The rotating light at Montauk Point Lighthouse is mesmerising. I could watch it for hours. Felicity and I return to it with cameras charged and ready.
The current light is a modern affair: light, bright and small. Its refracted light flashes every 5 seconds and can be seen for 19 nautical miles.
Gone are the days of hand-cranked whale oil-fuelled lights that can be found in the museum at the foot of the Lighthouse tower.
During my trip, Felicity finds a recent article published in the New York Times about the Montauk Point Lighthouse Keeper who is retiring after over thirty years tending the light.
There is an incredible collection of previous lenses and lights, including the innovative lenses by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel. The Fresnel lenses were developed in the early C19 and are designed for maximum aperture and focal length of the light whilst cutting down on weight and volume of glass. In Theresa Levitt’s book A Short Bright Flash, she charts the development of this invention which revolutionised lighthouses world-wide. The principles are still used today in modern-day lenses.
It is incredible to see the dancing of light caught in the lens up-close and I spend some time filming and photographing it, mesmerised by the moving light and rhythm of the silent rotation of the light.