Creating swell pictures on the Irish coastline

From left: A picture taken by Chris May — sunset view of the Blaskets.

A photographer devoted to capturing the Irish coastline, tells Richard Fitzpatrick about his close encounters with waves

'There is a moment when a wave reaches its peak, and it hangs like some cartoon character, just for a second.'

It is surprising what you can learn from the sea. Chris May spent five years cataloguing the wonder of the Dingle Peninsula with his manual camera, and discovered all kinds of remarkable things along the way.

“I’ve learned the sea can be the colour of a can of Guinness. It’s certainly not green,” he says. “I’ve learned sands have tides, that the best waves are born in Greenland, and only weeks later do they flower on our shores.

“I’ve learned a bag of stones and a tea towel are the best thing a photographer can have to hand when photographing waves — a bag of stones to weigh the camera down and a tea towel to put over it to keep the waves off it.

“You have to wait 20 minutes after the sunset before you take a photograph because that is when the colours come out — and when most people miss it.

“There is a moment when a wave reaches its peak, and it hangs like some cartoon character, just for a second or two, almost like it’s poised, before it comes down again. If you take it too early — before it gets to that point — it looks like it’s in a rush. If you take it too late, it’s tired, but if you take it at that moment it hangs there, it is in all its glory.”

May was once surprised by a wave that nearly did him in. He was down on Clogher Beach immersed in a study of a winter storm during the month of February. It was about three o’clock in the afternoon, and bitterly cold with a howling gale blowing.

“When you’re staring through a camera, you don’t tend to notice things that are coming towards you. I’d set my camera up. I thought I was beyond the reach of the waves. I was focusing the camera on a distant thing, and the next thing when I looked up there was this wave right in front of me, and all around me in seconds. I lifted my camera high into the air, but the sea was up to my waist and swirling around.

“It was a fairly gross shock. I’m much more careful these days. There have been people that have been swept away by waves for that reason. There was a Polish guy taking photographs only with a point-and-shoot and he went down on the rocks and was swept off to his doom.”

May’s family is from Cornwall, England. Aged 52, he came over to the Dingle Peninsula about 14 years ago to write a book. He hadn’t intended staying but has been happily beached there since, and has a gallery locally, which looks out onto the sea on three sides. He shares it with his wife. He is convincing when arguing how special the Dingle Peninsula is compared to other stretches of Atlantic coastline along Ireland’s west coast.

“Every time I go somewhere else like, say, Donegal, it’s brilliant — they’ve got lovely moors and beautiful mountains and I go to Killarney and they’ve got beautiful mountains, but when I come back here, we’ve got a little bit of everything packed in together in a very small area — we’ve got the mountains, a lovely river, beautiful mountain valleys, fantastic coastline and fantastic cliffs just as good as anywhere along the Cliffs of Moher.”

May has all kinds of vistas in his collection, which has been gathered in a book along with an exhibition that runs in The Blasket Centre over the summer. They include sunsets, colours that make you stagger, and wild, 20-foot waves. He admits one particular shot of a wave is his favourite. It’s called Six Meter Breaker and was shot on the edge of Clogher Beach during the winter storms earlier this year. It has been shortlisted by National Geographic for a Photographer of the Year award.

“It’s a big splashy wave. It’s my favourite because that was the moment when I suddenly realised waves are flowers, and their roots go all the way across to Newfoundland or wherever and they’ve taken weeks and weeks to get here. Then just for that moment they are alive and then they are gone.”

-Chris May’s Atlantic Portrait of an Ocean: Photographs from the West Kerry Seaboard is published by Perspective West Photographics. The exhibition Atlantic — Portrait of an Ocean runs until Monday, August 11, at The Blasket Centre, Dunquin, Co Kerry.


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