In Depth with the artist – Rachel Spender: Essex Saltmarsh from the Air

14th December 2020

Artist and photographer Rachel Spender talks about the photographs featured in her exhibition ‘Essex Salt Marsh from the Air’.

“Aerial perspectives can completely change and enhance our perception of landscapes we felt were so familiar.

About 10 years ago, before drones were in use, I made some flights in a light aircraft with an open door. With traditional film cameras and black and white film, I wanted to capture the amazing formations which revealed themselves to me.

It was in winter in order to catch the lowest light, and longest shadows, and at low tide in order to see the textures. Working in black and white I was able to print these images by hand in my own darkroom, thereby enhancing some of these contrasting qualities which appealed to me.

A marvellously sculptural but ephemeral and fragile landscape became clearly visible -the constant process of growth and decay, of shifting mud, shingle banks and sands, but also of alluvial deposits and formations created by the ebb and flow of tides.

I was fascinated to see how some features of the saltmarsh resemble those of our own bodies, such as the veinous system, the brain, or of the growth of a tree.

Human interaction and the attempt to control and reclaim this natural landscape for grazing, farming and fishing use goes back through the ages. The juxtaposition of man-made structures with the naturally meandering water courses gives rise to a visual contrast and tension.

Try to imagine this coastline before man built sea walls and defences and you can visualise it as a purely organic landscape, stretching out as a vast uninterrupted intertidal water/ marsh land; there may well have been space for all the tidal waters and freshwater rivers running freely, without the damaging flooding we have today.

Saltmarsh is one of the few truly natural, untouched wild places we have left. It is a fragile, living, breathing landscape which feeds and nourishes plant life, sea creatures and bird life. As sea levels rise, and marinas and wind farms are built, let us hope that it survives a good while longer.”

–Rachel Spender 2020


Rachel Spender was born in 1965 in Maldon, Essex. From an early age she was encouraged by her father, landscape painter James Hewitt, to record the countryside around her, either by drawing or by using a camera and black and white film. Sitting with her cinema projectionist grandfather, watching films from his projection box, also made a lasting visual impression.

Following an art foundation course at Colchester Institute, she then went on to study art and music on the Expressive Arts degree course in Brighton. Her tutor here was Landscape photographer, John Holloway, and through his encouragement she went to study with Paul Hill at his workshop.

Other influential visiting artists included Chris Drury, Richard Long, and John Blakemore. Probably the most pivotal meeting was with her future husband, the painter and photographer, Humphrey Spender, whose darkroom and studio Rachel still uses today.

In 1989 she made a photographic expedition to Greenland to record the icebergs with landscape painter, Keith Grant. This encouraged her to do more photographic trips around the world to places such as South America and Antarctica.

Her keen interest in the saltmarsh and its ecology began whilst working with children on a Thames Sailing Barge on the East Coast. An invitation to fly over the Essex marshes in a small plane opened up a whole new visual world, which was equally as exciting to the artist as anywhere she had travelled to around the world.


Rachel Spender: Essex Saltmarsh from the Air
Exhibition open every day 10:00am – 5:00pm Thu 3 Dec 2020 – Sun 14 Mar 2021. Find out more
Welcome area at Firstsite. 'Big Hello' (2018) Peter Liversidge. Photo by Jayne Lloyd.

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