Marc Wilson: The Last Stand

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We are pleased to release December's print, Hayling Island, Hampshire, England, 2013 from the series The Last Stand by Marc Wilson. Read more about Wilson's work below.

Purchase this print from our print sale page.

Hayling Island, Hampshire, England, 2013
Digital C-type photographic print
8 x 9”, signed and numbered edition of 5

As the shadow of war spread over Europe during the last world war, military construction sprang up, dotting the landscape with pillboxes and artillery platforms, constellations of steel and concrete. Construction was densest along the coasts, where fear of the enemy’s landfall spurred the development of elaborate shoreline defense systems. As Nazi Germany constructed its “Atlantikwall,” Great Britain built its own series of coastal redoubts, anti-tank barriers, and maritime booms. These structures were abandoned when the war ended, left to slowly decay and fall into the sea. Today, these forgotten defenses are the tangible memory of a war that has largely faded from the public consciousness.

Wissant I, Nord-pas-de-Calais, France, 2012

Documenting these memories is the primary aim of The Last Stand, a series by British photographer Marc Wilson. Although he was born in London well after the war’s conclusion, Wilson was drawn to these coastal defense structures because of his interest in photographing landscapes that contain distinct histories and stories. The Last Stand was initially limited to the United Kingdom, but the project soon grew to include visits to 143 sites along the coasts of the U.K., the Channel Islands, France, Denmark, Belgium, and Norway. Traveling these distances required time and funds, stretching the project to four years. Wilson’s time and effort was well spent: Upon its completion in 2014, Triplekite Publishing released a monograph of the series, which is now in its second printing.

The images from The Last Stand were the product of careful planning. Wilson photographed each site with his large format camera over several days, working in the soft light of the early morning and late evening. For many images, the tides also had to be considered. When asked about this process, Wilson commented, “Many hours were spent standing on isolated beaches, cliff tops, or in the sea, waves lapping—or in the case of the North Sea off the coast of Denmark, crashing against me—as I peeked out from under the darkcloth.” Despite this, his reverence toward his work and subjects made the process calming and enjoyable.

Cramond Island, Firth of Forth, Scotland, 2012

The images themselves are striking yet serene. The structures jut out from the landscape, straight lines and sharp angles springing from atop jagged rocks and rolling coastal dunes. Despite this, Wilson depicts them as monolithic and almost organic, now at home in the land that claims them. The concrete is weatherworn and covered in accretions of moss or seaweed that tell of age and disuse. Wilson’s deliberate compositions highlight how much these defenses are consumed by the landscape, both by design and decay. The anti-submarine “dragon’s teeth” of Scotland crumble and fade in the morning fog, while elsewhere bunkers built on soft ground have listed from the shifting beaches or toppled into the surf completely. Everywhere, the muted, heavy sky accentuates the surrounding stone and heath, imbuing the scenes a sense of rugged solemnity. The delicate colors of morning emphasize the tranquility of the present. The absence of human life makes clear that in peace, these structures are forgotten.

Wilson is part of a growing photography movement that seeks to document stories bound up in the landscape. These artists make pictures that recall past lives and events by depicting the fragments of those histories now etched into the earth itself. Their photographs serve as recorded evidence of these past stories, and as a statement that, through such documentation, they will not be forgotten. In The Last Stand, Wilson’s images tell of World War II, both in broad strokes and in the particulars of each place, be it Norway or Normandy.

The coastal defenses of World War II have been decaying for more than 70 years, and will probably continue their slow journey to dust for hundreds more. But for Wilson, time was of the essence. Direct participants in the war are largely gone, and stories of the war have receded or lost vitality in their retelling. Wilson wanted to photograph these structures before their use and meaning was lost to our collective knowledge. He sought to photograph beautifully but honestly, encouraging the viewer’s gaze to linger long enough for the subject matter to seep through. Nonetheless, The Last Stand is not about the beauty of industrial decay or the reclaiming power of nature. Wilson’s interests lie more with the power of man—the power to transform the land, and ultimately, the power to remember.

Portland, Dorset, England, 2011

By documenting the land itself, Wilson’s images serve to remind us of the lives lived in war and in fear of attack, as well as the physical impact that the Second World War had on the European coasts. But just as importantly, The Last Stand reminds us of time’s inexorable march forward, and that mankind’s achievements will all crumble and eventually be lost without dedicated preservation. While some landscape photography celebrates the unceasing power of time and tides, Wilson’s images lament the fading of memory and crumbling masonry that comes with the passage of years.

The images of The Last Stand are conspicuously devoid of contemporary life. Only rarely does an empty park bench or distant building intrude upon the solitude of the scene. To include any more would shift the focus away from the stories of these places and toward our present relationships with them. While a few are part of managed historical sites or parks, the majority of these coastal defenses are essentially forgotten or ignored, left to adventurous beachgoers and idle youth. For Wilson, this tangled relationship distracts from the stories and lives lived at these places, and from the war itself. It is important to him that his subjects be addressed with sensitivity, and that these remnants of war not receive undue drama or bombast in their photographic treatment. As Wilson comments, “For me, the history is quite dramatic enough.”

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This article first appeared in print in Issue 5.

W.G. Beecher is an Editor for Don’t Take Pictures.