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Boxing Club, Watchet© Tim Richmond 2022 courtesy Loose Joints

A bleak but beautiful portrait of life on the Bristol Channel

Tim Richmond’s new book, Love Bites, captures the human impact of austerity, food poverty and rural economic decline

The sombre remains of Wansborough Paper Mill, closed after 265 years as Watchet’s biggest employer. The muddy exterior of a homeless shelter. A mound of Pot Noodles on the shelf of a food bank. When Tim Richmond began documenting the coastal towns of West Somerset in 2014, he didn’t do it with a political agenda. But – echoing the stark social realism of British filmmakers like Ken Loach and Andrea Arnold – the human impact of austerity, food poverty and rural economic decline in the culminating images is hard to miss.

Love Bites, Richmond’s cinematic new photobook, is a product of six years spent drifting between the margins of Minehead, Watchet, Bridgwater, Burnham-on-Sea and Weston-super-Mare: an approximate 20-mile stretch along the Bristol Channel, as the crow flies. Where the photographer’s last major body of work, The Last Best Hiding Place (2015), constituted his take on the overwhelmingly well-documented American West, Love Bites is the polar opposite. It is a quiet but piercing portrait of a place largely undocumented in art history – and, in many ways, forgotten by society at large.

“It is literally bypassed, as well,” Richmond says of West Somerset, where he moved in 2006. “It's bypassed by people bombing down to North Devon and to Cornwall [in the car]. People tend not to stop on this little stretch of the coast... But in its own way, it has this incredible charm.”

Like many of the UK’s seaside towns, those pictured in Love Bites were developed to cater to the nation’s growing domestic tourism trade in the 19th century. But with the rise of low-fare air travel to Europe around the 1970s, they soon dropped off the popular map. Factors like poor access to employment opportunities, low pay and a lack of affordable housing have been driving up coastal poverty for decades, and austerity made things significantly worse. The constituencies of Weston-super-Mare and Bridgwater & West Somerset are Tory strongholds nonetheless.

Richmond’s book doesn’t locate any of its images within this context. Or really any context, for that matter. Love Bites includes no curatorial text, and even over Zoom, the photographer is careful not to say anything that might “short-change the viewer”; that is, to ascribe any particular message or narrative to the work. “When people come to it with their own imagination, I think that’s probably far stronger than any explanation I could give them,” he says. “That’s the power of image-making.”

Rather, in each solemn gaze or drizzly seascape, each empty hotel room or deserted arcade, there is a lingering ambiguity that both enthrals and unsettles. Such scenes are unfixed stories; springboards that invite viewers to contemplate things that may have happened, or may still happen. But saying nothing for certain. 

There is one piece of text in the book. Printed on the first page, in small letters, words read: To a small stretch of the Bristol Channel – a love letter. Richmond acknowledges some audiences may not read it that way, were the words not there. “But it feels like that to me,” he says. “To the people. The places. Even the endless muddy estuaries. Sometimes love can be bitter and hard. But I lived there for a long time. And I grew to love it in a very true way.”

Love Bites is out now via Loose Joints Publishing