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March/April 2015

One winter afternoon, Igor Emmerich was walking up the estuary at West Wittering on the Sussex coast. On rough days, when the English Channel is choppy, it’s often calm here, and as he walked along the water’s edge he saw a mellow cloud shape-shifting in the sky. He had taken several pictures already that afternoon, but they were too busy. Not this one. He chose an exposure that would darken the picture and pick out the highlights to the cloud’s left, and took his shot fast, before the cloud broke up or floated on. The result, with its tenebrous glow, has the quality of a deep breath.

Emmerich, who is 49, was brought up in Malaga on the Costa del Sol, a stretch of coastline choked with hotels. His mother was Spanish and his father was a German Jew, who left Berlin before the war and made his way, via Rhodesia and the British army, to Spain, studying art at the Royal Academy along the way. Igor started taking pictures when he was 14 on his father’s Pentax MX. They would escape the tourist sprawl by driving west, beyond Cadiz to the Atlantic coast, where the landscape empties out. “I like big wide spaces,” Emmerich says, “and being in Malaga, I wanted somewhere open and clean.” His father taught him about composition, and the most important lesson was that what’s not in the picture is as important as what is. He also instilled in his son the importance of sketching. Emmerich describes the pictures in this photo essay as “sketching with a camera”.

They were shot over a span of six years, on trips in Britain, France and southern Africa, and were never intended to be a set. But they are bound together by Emmerich’s eye for calm and cleanliness, by a palette in shades of blue and bronze, and by gentle echoes of arrangement. The picture of fishermen on the sea near Zanzibar was taken two years before the shot of the beach at Tenby in Wales, and he didn’t have the first in mind when he took the second. Nevertheless, they share a high point of view, a pair of diminutive figures, and the tight texture of the sea – which Emmerich calls “crispy”.

The difference is up above: more than seascapes, these are skyscapes, with the clouds setting the mood. It’s hard to resist the correspondence between the heavy nimbus over the beach on Ile de Ré and the woman coming out of the water, worriedly holding her head. The figures in Emmerich’s pictures work with the cloud, colour and empty expanse to give you a narrative poke. And yet whatever effect they have is down to happenstance and opportunism. “If I’m on a commercial photo-shoot,” he says, “and I’m shooting models, I’m controlling the situation.” But with these pictures he had to let it happen. Looking down on the beach at Tenby, he liked the arrangement of shallow water on the sand. “It was interesting, almost like the figure of a bird. But it wasn’t enough.” Then two people walked into the shot and suddenly it had a sense of scale. Cycling around the Ile d’Oléron, off the west coast of France, he was between the salt marshes and the sea when he saw a patch of water “that looked almost like oil”. Then a wave came, and a flock of seagulls flying along its line. “With these shots, it’s just walking and seeing something. It’s about being sensitive to what’s in front of you. There’s always an element of luck.” ~ simon willis

ILE D’OLERON, FRANCE
The water here is full of weed and debris, but Emmerich thought the texture was beautiful and jumped off his bike to shoot it. “There was masses of light, so I could go very fast on the shutter speed” – which is why the seagulls are picked out so clearly

ILE DE RE, FRANCE
This vast beach is on the south side of the island, which is near La Rochelle. Emmerich likes to keep his pictures as free of clutter as possible, so he made sure the second-world-war bunker further up the beach was out of shot

TENBY, WALES
Emmerich was waiting for his moment as this tanker moved along the horizon. “Then,” he says, “a little pocket of light opened up in the cloud”

WEST WITTERING, ENGLAND
The estuary in winter. This picture stood out for Emmerich not just because of the cloud, but also because of the emptiness around it

TENBY, WALES
This picture was taken from the town wall high above the beach, and shares a “crispy” sea with the next picture

ZANZIBAR
Fishermen photographed from the deck of the morning ferry from Dar es Salaam. “It was very still, with these gentle waves,” Emmerich  says. “I like the contrast between all that metallic water and the softness of the sky”

ILE D’OLERON, FRANCE
Near the lighthouse at St Denis. It was September, and the sun was beginning to drop in the sky: Emmerich took advantage of the lower light to catch the colours melting into one another

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