Suffolk through my viewfinder
PUBLISHED: 12:07 11 September 2010
One of the great things about being human is that we can pursue new passions, given the rub of the green. 'Perpetual student' Caroline Munn, busily looking at life through a viewfinder, tells Steven Russell about her love of photography and the inspirational beauty of her adopted Suffolk
“When cigarettes were banned in pubs and public buildings I thought that would be a good one – to photograph all the people smoking out in the street. Lots of people have done that, though. But there are little ideas coming up all the time. What I do hark back to again and again, however, are the landscapes. Sometimes I look on my computer and think ‘This is ridiculous! I’ve got so many images!’”
That’s what comes of living on the Suffolk coast – and, particularly, having a house with stunning views across low-lying grazing land. On the horizon is a line of beach huts on Southwold seafront and, beyond, the waters of Sole Bay. You could spend ages daydreaming . . .
Caroline has – in the dining room that has become a workroom. “It took me ages to write my dissertation because I spent so much time gazing out of the window,” she confesses. No-one could blame her.
Indeed, with such wonderful scenery on the doorstep, it’s little wonder her collection features innumerable woodland photographs from the Southwold area and many sky shots. “In January you can walk up the beach to Covehithe, with a bright blue sky and frost. It’s completely magical.”
Having said all that, there are other subjects in her portfolio. Now studying for a masters degree in fine art at Norwich University College of the Arts, Caroline has been taking characterful portrait shots of local men who have spent their whole lives in Southwold or neighbouring Reydon. She’s photographing them in front of the resort’s Sailors’ Reading Room in a non-digital way, using largish-sized film and a Hasselblad camera “which is completely mechanical. I use a tripod, take light readings, and it’s good to go back to basics”.
Another theme inspired the final project of her initial degree course. Caroline produced an atmospheric collection of pictures based on Tinker’s House – a derelict and isolated cottage on the coastal marshes.
The photographs ooze pathos. Wipe away years of grime and it would look as if the owner moved out yesterday, leaving many of his belongings behind. There are newspapers showing the horse-racing fixtures, a tinned Fray Bentos-style pie with fluffy pastry, music books and records with the famous His Master’s Voice logo (dog Nipper and a wind-up gramophone), colourful cigarette cards depicting the nobility, and an old Board of Education Handbook of Suggestions “for the consideration of teachers and others concerned in the work of public elementary schools”.
Another picture shows a mound of rusty cans spilling from a cupboard: an image that reminds Caroline of piles of human skulls photographed in Cambodia, and all that remained of genocide victims.
“It is a very ‘haunted’ place, in a way,” she says of Tinker’s House.
It was thus perfect for that last major project of her degree course at University College Suffolk. That and the dissertation focused on the relevance of Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay on The Uncanny in contemporary photography – not a concept that’s easy to get across in words.
Basically, it means something can feel familiar and foreign at the same time. It can leave us feeling uncomfortable because we are trying to reconcile conflicting ideas of something that simultaneously attracts us and repels us.
Caroline offers the example of statues in a garden. At a quick glance, we can’t be sure if they are stone or actually animated – hence that sense of spookiness.
Both Suffolk and photography were passions she found in her second flush of youth. A Londoner, Caroline left school at 15 with a handful of O-levels and landed a job as a secretary at Wartski, the antique dealers specialising in fine jewellery, silver and Russian works of art, particularly those by Carl Fabergé. It was there she met her husband to be, Geoffrey, who today is Wartski’s managing director and one of the jewellery experts on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow series.
“I didn’t stay all that long because it was difficult to be stepping out when we were in this small company,” she smiles. So she moved on: working as a freelance cook, selling antiques and doing other secretarial work. Caroline and Geoffrey married in 1983 and have two sons, now aged 22 and 24.
It wasn’t until about 2002 that she got her hands on her first single-lens reflex camera. The family lived at Crystal Palace at the time and she signed up for a one-day-a-week City & Guilds course at Croydon College. “I got the bug big-time and there’s been no looking back.”
It was the first of many courses. “I became a bit of a perpetual student! I almost need the discipline of that. It focuses you, because you have projects on the go all the time, and deadlines. They were slightly running out of courses for several of us!”
The family put down roots in Southwold in the mid-1990s. Caroline would shoot the landscape when in Suffolk and got a lot of street photography under her belt in the capital, too. One project involved a series of pictures on the huge variety of cafes between their home and Croydon.
In 2006 she embarked on a new photography degree course in Ipswich. Graduating in 2009, she signed up for an MA in photographic studies at Norwich University College of the Arts, but it was cancelled and she switched to a masters in fine art.
Much of her interest in photography, she recognises, echoes the work of PH (Peter Henry) Emerson, who quit medicine to throw himself at photography. In the late 19th Century he took many pictures of East Anglian marshes and waterways such as the Norfolk Broads, and was once a Southwold resident.
“Lots of the photographs he took here are in George Eastman House (the international museum of photography and film in New York state). Quite often he’d written on the back where they were taken. He was very much the high priest of ‘photography as art’.
“That in itself is quite inspirational, really. You don’t realise what a craze it was” – taking photographs of local scenes. “There’s a quote about people coming along in the 19th Century with their tripods and aiming to put them in the holes Emerson had left!”
Web link: for more pictures, go to www.carolinemunn.com
Falling in love with the seaside
IT was 1982, probably, when Southwold’s magic began its work on Caroline Munn. She and Geoffrey had friends who used to rent a house in Stradbroke Road, and the Munns came to stay for the weekend. “I drove a Morris 1000 that was two years older than me, so it was quite a journey getting here!” she remembers.
“The husband was keeper of prints and drawings at the British Museum. They were thrilled, because they didn’t have a car, and I was chauffeur for the weekend. I remember doing this tour of Suffolk churches and he was definitely the person to do it with, because he could read all the Latin inscriptions and tell us what they said! So that was when we got the bug for Southwold, really.”
Living on something of a shoestring at that stage, they asked at the grocery store who did holiday lets, were pointed in the right direction, “and so we would come down at least once a year. Then, when the boys were born, even more so”.
Later, in the depths of a recession, they were able to buy a beach hut left in quite a dilapidated state after the death of its owner. “We would stay in B&Bs, or camp at a farm in Wenhaston, and come across to the beach hut. You weren’t allowed to sleep in it, but we used to have breakfast, lunch and tea there, and keep the bicycles there in the summer. We never dreamt we would ever be able to afford a house here.
“Our children sometimes moaned and groaned, because we didn’t go anywhere else! There were no foreign holidays – which we don’t regret at all, because we completely love it.”
In 1995 they managed to buy a little terraced house in Marlborough Road. Then in 2003, following the sad death of Geoffrey’s parents in reasonably quick succession, they were able to bump the mortgage and buy their present home on the edge of town. There’s also a London flat.
“Up here, if you go for a walk, you always want to take a camera,” says Caroline. “It’s such an inspirational landscape.”