Rob Ball: Dreamlands @ The Photographers’ Gallery

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Frances Green reviews Rob Ball’s intimate tintypes of Dreamlands Margate and Coney Island amusement park in New York.

Over the past years there has been a surge in photographers engaging with anachronistic photographic methods — from cyanotypes, to calotype, to daguerreotype, it seems that there’s no type that’s left untested.

British photographer Rob Ball has embraced the tintype process, a technique that was invented in the 1860s and was extremely popular for portrait photographers taking pictures of holiday-makers on the beach. Following in the footsteps of his predecessors, Ball’s series has taken him to the coast – to Dreamlands Margate and to New York’s Coney Island amusement park.

The images on display at The Photographers’ Gallery depict the derelict sites of the two amusement parks. Yet despite the state of desertion shown in the images, there is a certain majesty in the Margate structures which carry a mood of hope for renovation and rejuvenation. As Ball says: “Our image of Margate is one of repair, rather than renaissance – something that was broken and [now] slowly being put back together again. This, I think, is echoed in my own work where cracks, dust and the materiality of each plate is evident.” So although Ball’s tintypes are imbued with an eerie, silver-tinged beauty, they are still testament to how specific the medium of photography is lending, as it does, a permanence and resolution to each frame.

Ball produced these plates by actually setting up a makeshift darkroom where he “coated, sensitised, exposed and developed” each piece. Tintypes are made by putting a positive image on a cleaned metal plate that has been prepared by spraying with black paint. The plate is then coated with a light-sensitive emulsion before being exposed then developed in a special chemical solution. The results are unpredictable and the pay-off for the photographer’s patience can be surprising yet ethereal images.

What’s interesting to consider is whether Ball’s method of production is a return to a form of instant photography. This was certainly its purpose in the 19 century when portrait photographers working on the beach would produce the tintype on the spot for customers to take away. Can we consider Ball’s work a backward looking take on the Polaroid? Certainly his method of working is evidence of an immediate, hands-on approach to picture-making.

Weirdly, the tintypes are printed in reverse and all lettering is back to front – a result of the image being exposed directly onto the metal surface. This heightens the sense of alienation; the viewer feels almost as if they are reading a foreign language and transported — for a fraction of a second — to a strange country.

These images of a forlorn, yet strangely magnetic Dreamlands, work on another level — that of conjuring the shrieks of excitement, the vanilla ices, the kiss-me-quick hats and the sunshine. These imaginary echoes of laughter are intensified by a display cabinet in the exhibition that contains the ephemera of the original Dreamlands park: a booklet of tickets for rides, a sign that forbids litter-dropping and smoking and, by way of contrast, a beautiful photograph of Margate’s Dreamland in its hey-day.

Frances Green