In the activity “Place Over Time”, we were invited to revisit a place we had already photographed and then visit it again. I chose to use the picture of Brighton’s West Pier that I had included in my Work In Progress portfolio.
As a child, I visited the pier when it was still fully open and can remember the Victorian grandeur of it. The pier was originally built in 1866, went through various modifications, but hit hard times in the 1960s and was finally closed to the public in 1975. A long period of deterioration accelerated, then the pier was badly damaged by the Great Storm of 1987.
Vandalism, suspicious fires, neglect and further storms eventually reduced the pier to the cast iron skeleton which is visible today. My photograph at the top of the article was taken in January 2019 and so is a contemporary image of the pier. Yet despite its diminished status, it has genuinely become an icon of the City of Brighton and Hove.
Being an icon is a rare thing. An icon is not just recognisable as being in a certain place, its presence makes the place recognisable. Icons are structures like Tower Bridge, the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids of Giza. We may not have visited these places, but an icon makes that place instantly recognisable. The West Pier performs that function for Brighton.
An icon must be unique and unmistakable. There are many piers around the coast of the UK, but none look like the West Pier. Whereas, in it’s prime, it was a grand example of the Victorian craze for piers, now in its decline, it is truly unique.
The West Pier is a ruin. Each year, thousands of visitors flock to ruined castles like Corfe and Bodiam. Bodies like the National Trust preserve them in their slighted state. But whereas the condition of most castles is relatively static, they look much as they did two or three hundred years ago, West Pier is rapidly disintegrating. In the fifty years since I trod its boardwalks, it has gone from proud Victorian seaside attraction to little more than a tangle of cast iron.
On any evening, when the weather is good, numerous photographers will be taking pictures of the pier. The rusty ironwork looks very appealing in the golden light. The structure silhouetted against the colourful sky of sunset makes a memorable image. So the pier works aesthetically, it is photogenic. But perhaps those photographers are also attracted by the thought, that next time they visit, the pier may look different or not be there at all. The last major collapse was in 2014 and another could happen at any time. In 2016, the trust which owns the pier concluded that restoration was impossible. The pier has effectively been left to die. The ironwork will corrode and further collapses will reduce the pier to nothing. Maybe the picture I take today will be the last.
The pier’s photogenic qualities and its transient nature make it a highly appealing subject. Go to any exhibition of Sussex photographs, or look at the portfolio of a Sussex photographer and it is highly likely that a picture of the West Pier will be there.
I have addressed the iconic nature of the West Pier. The relentless reproduction of its likeness by photographers must surely have been a part of achieving that status.
Eventually the pier will disappear, it cannot be saved. But it has a replacement, a new structure. The Victorians marvelled at being able to walk out over the sea on the pier. Twenty first century visitors can marvel at seeing the city from a height of 162 metres. The i360 is a stainless steel column with an ascending cabin that carries passengers aloft.
Passengers board the i360 at exactly the same place that visitors would have stepped onto the pier.