INK Focus - Max Miechowski's Land Loss
Max Miechowski is a British photographer based in London. His projects centre on themes of community and connection and have been exhibited widely in places such as the Paris Photo Fair, Photo London, Peckham 24 and The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery.
In 2022, he was honoured with the Photo London x Nikon Emerging Photographer Award for his solo exhibition, Land Loss, debuted at Somerset House, a project that we had the privilege of being a part of. Land Loss delves into the enigmatic realm of Britain's eastern coast, which stands as the fastest eroding coastline in Europe. Through Max's lens, the photographs portray the land and its inhabitants, some displaying the weathered resilience of the cliffs, while others exude youthful freshness tinged with introspection. We asked Max some questions about the project and his process.
As the project was shot over a number of years, can you give us an overview of how that affects your post-production process?
The post-production process is something that I'm continually looking to improve on and tweak. As well as seeing it as something very technical, it also has a huge impact on your voice as a photographer, really setting the tone for a project; establishing a certain atmosphere in terms of colour and how the images read.
Whilst I was shooting the work, there were a lot of experiments, working with B&W, and working with colour. Seeing how those two interact with one another, doing test prints, large format prints, seeing what's working and what's not.
This project was the first one where I bought in a professional retouch studio (INK) during that final leg of the process. Which really helped establish the right kind of atmosphere within the work. Bringing everything together in terms of making everything feel uniform and fitting precisely in the same world – essentially just dealing with the levels of accuracy and detail that I'm not always able to.
As the images develop from digital files to large format prints and then to layouts in a book - does it affect the way you perceive your own work? Or do you tend to think in one of those mediums?
I've historically thought more in terms of exhibition space, working with larger-scale prints, considering how they sit on the wall next to one another. How you create a narrative within a particular space.
I was always conscious that this work would eventually become a book and that the images would need to be sequenced. It's not often it’s just one image being seen at one time, which is quite different to an exhibition space. So that was something that I was conscious of and definitely had an impact on the work.
In some ways, I see them as two separate things. The work behaves on the wall in a certain way but does something differently when it's in the book. Although they're the same images, I think they're quite different in terms of approach and discipline.
That was a big learning curve; understanding how they work between the two platforms.
What initially drew you to the subject and was there anything that subverted your initial expectations as the work developed?
I'd been making work in London for a long time and wanted to start working more around Britain, looking at rural areas, working with the landscape. That led me to make work along the East Coast. Growing up in Lincolnshire, I had a connection to those towns. It felt right to go to that part of the country and to begin to explore and take pictures. That led to a body of work called ‘A Big Fat Sky’, which was predominantly focused on the resort towns and the communities overlooking the North Sea.
That work naturally became about the booms and busts of the industry that those places experienced over the years; fishing as well as the domestic travel industry. With a lot of these resort towns taking a big hit. It then started to become about the interaction with the sea and what that represented.
There was definitely the introduction of a more poetic, metaphorical idea into that work. Whilst making it, I became aware of these places on the periphery of the towns that were essentially disappearing into the sea. For a long time I wondered whether those projects would be able to sit next to one another. Eventually I decided that the coastal erosion work, which would become ‘Land Loss’, needed to exist on its own.
As I started to shoot it, it became more complicated; a lot of these philosophical and metaphorical ideas started to become very apparent and ultimately, necessary to communicate the story. So I ended up focusing specifically on that for a number of years.
In terms of subverting my initial expectations, that was really down to the introduction of people. ‘Land Loss’ began with the idea of it being a landscape project, just focusing on how the land and the sea were interacting. Then, naturally, as a portrait photographer, I started taking pictures of the people who were living in these spaces. That's when the project became much more interesting, mostly because there was conflicting opinions about the situation, one of which was they were very accepting of this situation. A guy saying ‘The sea giveth and the sea taketh away.’ Then a lot of other people were very frustrated and upset by the situation, demanding more help and support from the council to try and stop this process from happening. That was something that I wasn't really expecting - I really wanted that work to sit in between those two ideas.
The characters in the photographs represent a broad range of ages, characters & personalities - whose story was the most engaging for you as a photographer and can you explain why?
There were multiple people that I felt drawn to and there were four or five that I visited multiple times and continued to photograph. One of which was Steve. He was living in a converted upturned boat on the cliff, which obviously was pretty unusual in itself. But I remember when I first knocked on the door, this big tall guy answered and it was clear that he'd been crying. I explained the project and he told me that his dad had just died and he'd been living with him in the boat for a number of years and that he was really grieving.
We spoke and the conversation became very much about loss, impermanence and time – subjects which eventually became the centre of the work. I would speak with Steve quite regularly, even on the phone when I was back in London, about a lot of these ideas. I felt this was really helping to get him through his grieving process.
Initially, I didn't want to photograph him in this state, but by the end of that first conversation, he insisted that I take a picture of him in his living room. It felt like an important moment to document. He had an understanding of the ideas that I was trying to deal with, and he had a grasp of photography in that way somehow. That particular portrait never made it in the book, as it felt a little too charged. The experience was just very profound and it set the tone for the rest of the work.
Climate anxiety is a very real issue for many people today, but it is rare that we are able to visualise environmental change quite so literally. Has this project affected your perception of environmental change and if yes, how?
Although that work has this undertone of climate and the issues that we're dealing with around that, the cliffs etc, it is a process that's been ongoing for a very long time. The relationship between these cliffs and the sea and them continually disappearing is something that's been happening long before climate change was probably in most people's vocabulary.
However, there is an increase in instability in these places, it's impossible to completely ignore it. I think in the UK, I'm sure there are a few other issues that do illustrate the changing climate, but maybe not as dramatically and as poignantly as a house on the edge of a cliff that's about to tip into the sea.
In terms of whether it's affected my perception of environmental change, I'm not sure it has. I think my opinions stay the same, what I was really trying to focus on within this work was something a little broader that relates to impermanence and loss and our relationship to time. Obviously the climate is a prominent part of that and it's impossible to completely remove it. But for me, the project very much centred around our relationship to the landscape in general and how we fit into that. And these broader ideas of time and change and different natural processes.
The passage of time is a key theme in the project, do you think there is scope to go back in the future to re-visit the places and people as a continuation of the work?
I certainly don't want to rule it out - I think it's about creating some sort of parameter or timeframe. Maybe ten years would be long enough for things to have really changed and for our perceptions of climate change to have shifted, or for them to have intensified.
To make work in the same space from a new perspective would definitely be interesting. I'd like to keep in touch with all the people that I photograph throughout the project. I guess I'll see how it plays out - I'll see where I'm at in ten years and if there's really the inspiration to go back and see what's going on there.