British photographer Simon Roberts has travelled the coastline of Britain over the past three years in order to create a captivating and fascinating photographic record of the country's remaining 'pleasure piers'. The resulting book, Pierdom, pays homage to Britain's piers, those monuments of Victorian engineering and eccentricity. While it may seem just as eccentric to make a photographic study of piers, Sir John Betjeman reminds us at the end of the book: “Piers provide a walk on the sea without the disadvantage of being seasick, and are havens of fresh air and freedom which we can ill afford to lose."
Pleasure piers were first built during the 19th century, concurrently with the introduction of the railways that enabled mass tourism to make its way to seaside resorts. However, while approximately 100 piers existed at the beginning of the last century, only about half that number remains today. Roberts beautifully captures the 58 surviving piers with a 4x5 plate camera, evoking a sense of nostalgia by poetically narrating their former days of glory. Also documented in this book are six “lost" piers, either damaged by fire or devoured by the sea over time.
In many of the images, the grey of the sea meets the lighter grey of the sky, creating a flat, detached feeling, underlining the present neglect that these formerly significant structures receive, to captivating effect. Despite its cool, almost cold tone, the book also shows piers which still have a vibrant life, such as the Southend-on-sea pier in Essex, an impressive theme park, or the Brighton palace pier in East Sussex, complete with pubs and the pier's entertainment games.
Pierdom is a natural continuation of Roberts' last work, We English, a careful look at the changing patterns of leisure in a country where overpopulation and decreasing employment has meant that more people have more time on their hands than ever before. Focusing on the niche of pleasure piers for this book, where Roberts succeeds is in capturing the variety of styles and structures of the remaining piers in Britain; some of modest and minimalistic stature, others more refined and exotic, reminiscent of the Victorian era they were built in. Using his established landscape style, Roberts documents the remaining piers with a similar tone and aesthetic of We English, beautifully mundane and timeless.
Pierdom is an alternative and distinct representation of England. The book's simple yet clear design, and large format – a 246mm x 305mm landscape hard cover – gives room to the photographs to reflect the piers' majestic structures. Accompanied by a historical introduction written by Francis Hodgson (photography critic for the Financial Times and former Head of Photographs at Sotheby's, London), and a legend of all existing piers dotted on the map of Britain, the book is as documentary as it is creative.
Bangor Garth Pier (Bangor, Gwynedd, North Wales)
Cromer Pier (Norfolk)
Ramsey Queen's Pier (Ramsey, Isle of Man)