‘The Coal Coast’ is a documentation of the “terrible beauty of Durham’s coal-scarred coastline.” Between 1999-2002, Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen photographed what remained of the mining industry along the East Durham coast: discarded miner’s boots decaying and partially submerged under the sand, ventilation ducts that look like alien sea creatures, rusting pieces of metal – bright orange contrasted against vivid green sea weed. These images capture a moment in time, evidence of the industry that once existed here, now modern fossils. The coastline has since been tidied and landscaped and any other evidence all but reclaimed by the sea. Konttinen recognised the importance of photographing the evidence of the memory of coal, the strange beauty of the images are a fitting metaphor for the paradox of the loss of a way of life that defined and shaped the area and yet was an undoubtedly difficult, dangerous and polluting enterprise – the new audio visual installation ‘Song for Billy’ which combines the moving testimony of ex-miner Freddie Welsh with percussion and images from the series is a reminder of this.
Before ‘The Coal Coast’, Konttinen’s work was in a documentary tradition that was immediately identifiable – black and white, gritty, real. The nature of the subject for ‘The Coal Coast’ meant she could only visualise the output in colour – in a sense this is what the photographs are about. Also, the work could be interpreted as closer to landscape than documentary – a fact that is direct evidence of the difficulty in defining documentary as a genre. Certainly the fact that Konttinen describes the work herself as documentary is important, however, the images are undoubtedly a record, survey even; each caption detailing location, date and a factual account of what has been photographed. (For example, Hawthorn Hive, afternoon 31 May 2000. Beached section of a mine ventilation duct; bricks among boulders. Without this description would it be possible for the viewer to understand fully what they are looking at?)
The images are certainly depictions of something that is real while also showing and recording something that is at the point of disappearing. Her previous work, ‘Byker’ in the 1970s similarly shows a disappearing world but in a more direct way because of the inclusion of people in the photographs. ‘The Coal Coast’ shows no people but the hand of man is evident in every picture – there is both beauty and sadness, a post-industrial sublime. It is not just the mines that have been discarded but the people and the communities that relied upon them – from experience I know many have still not recovered from the closure of the pits and to me, this is evident in each image.
‘The Coal Coast’ is the work chosen by the Amber collective (of whom Konttinen is a founder member) who run the Side gallery to mark their 40th anniversary. The series was also featured in the opening exhibition of the Gateshead Baltic gallery which also turns 15 in 2017 – I remember distinctly seeing these pictures then and feeling my understanding of what photography could be being challenged. These were images that were both beautiful, terrifying, relevant, documentation and art all at once. Although I have looked at these pictures many times in the exhibition catalogue from 2002, this does not compare to seeing the large, beautifully printed pictures in the gallery setting. For this exhibition, the majority of the prints are fixed directly onto the gallery wall, the viewing experience is not hampered or distracted by frames and glass with the added poignancy that like the subject of the photographs these will be destroyed when the exhibition closes. A metaphor for the loss that is inherent in each of them.
Film of Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen’s talk for the exhibition opening of ‘The Coal Coast’, 13th May 2017