In between the pandemic lockdowns of 2020, Max Miechowski began traveling to the east of England to photograph the parts of the coast that are falling into the sea due to natural erosion, year after year, day after day.
Most of the time he slept in his car, parked as close to the cliffs as possible and got up at sunrise.
“I’ve been on the beach photographing the cliffs and quite often I’ve seen people come out of their houses in their dressing gowns with a cup of tea and immediately go to the end of their land to see what damage they’ve had that happened during the night is,” he says.
Miechowski, 32, who grew up in Lincoln and now lives in London, traveled to Yorkshire’s Spurn Point, a narrow peninsula that always more disappears; Then he continued up the coast to Withernsea and Skipsea.
“Green Lane [in Skipsea] is particularly bad. A whole row of houses will be gone in five to ten years.”
While cliffs sometimes crumbled during his work and the effects of heavy rains, shifting cliffs and marine erosion were all too visible, what he was keen to capture in the two-year work that has become Land Loss was not a dramatic documentary of damage, but the atmosphere of the place and the people who live here on the outskirts of England. Among the images is a portrait of two young sisters whose grandparents had owned a cafe that had fallen into the sea and were hopping together in a garden. Half Way House captures the preserved facade of a former family home in Hemsby – “The owner cut it in half because otherwise the cliff would have taken the whole thing. He just wanted to keep the front door and have a reminder of everything.” In another image, a butterfly rests on the hand of Dave, a man who found alternative housing when his home went missing but can’t take it, inland to live.
“He’s so used to the sea and this landscape,” says Miechowski. “He has placed a caravan on the piece of land that is left. When he dies, he wants his ashes thrown off the cliffs into the sea.”
In this way loss of land becomes a moving and evocative reflection on the passage of time.
“The entry point is the reality of the situation. It exists in a documentary way, in the sense that the coast erosion is a real story and something is happening, but the imagery and interpretation of that situation is much looser, more philosophical.”
Miechowski, who was a musician before becoming a full-time photographer seven years ago, became interested in the idea while filming A Big Fat Sky, his colorful and critically acclaimed 2019 project about fading seaside resorts in the east of England. Land Loss is perhaps even more melancholic.
“There’s beauty in there [the landscape] but also sadness. You’re watching the time go by,” he says. “That was the interesting thing about the people who lived there, this direct connection to that fact. If you live in the city, the reference to time is more about exponential growth, while on the coast everything disappears – the reference point is the opposite. So the work was centered around this idea of being like a moth to a flame, being pulled into that landscape and almost falling off the edge yourself.”
The people he photographed and met during the project cope with the reality of the vanishing country in different ways. “Obviously it’s stressful, but a couple of them, after seeing the house next door collapse, joked, ‘Well, we’ve got a sea view now.’ And it’s funny because it’s like, “Well, you do for a bit …’
“Others are very frustrated. They want naval defenses to be put in place, for the coast to be protected, for it to be stopped. Which I totally understand, but it’s interesting: the paper says you own this piece of cliff, but if the sea comes and takes it away, that signature or mortgage means nothing. You don’t own this land; it is a construct. It is useless in this room.”
Miechowski’s work, shot with a Japanese medium-format analog camera from the 1980s, has become synonymous with his magical use of natural light, as well as the empathy with which he portrays his subjects.
“I have a pretty romantic take on things, and this dreamy backlight — working early in the day or working late in the morning — speaks to that,” he says. “It creates softer tones, softer shadows, richer colors; it can be gentler for portraits. It brings a warmth that is totally in line with my vision and the subject matter that gets me there in the first place.”
Although loss of land is now finished, he extracts from it the meditative mood that he discovered in the process. “I’ve become very interested in philosophy over the past two years and look forward to further exploring how it works with photography,” he says. “Because I wouldn’t get these ideas if I wasn’t standing on a cliff with a camera.”