Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside

I had never been to Whitby Goth Weekend before and I will admit that I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect; besides people dressed in strange outfits, I mean.

On this outing I was accompanied by a couple of friends, Vanessa Barkley and Guy Carpenter, both of whom had been to the weekend before. Guy had, in fact, told me about his last visit when he saw people with cameras behaving in a most aggressive way in order to grab a shot and I had decided that I would try to avoid the places they hung out. As will be seen, this plan went out of the window fairly early on.

River Esk, Whitby (c) Kim Ralls

The weather started off beautifully and after parking the car in a side street (the old van, I am sorry to say, is no longer with us) we walked into town along the river. As Herman Melville once wrote, there really is something about streams and rivers that draws people to the sea and I am certainly no exception – odd, perhaps, for someone who never learnt how to swim in any direction other than down.

Of course, childhood holidays spent with my grandparents on the South Wales coast may have something to do with it.

Lobster pots, Whitby (c) Kim Ralls

It wasn’t long after we reached the town centre that we saw our first goths. Men and women were dressed head to toe in black and red and white with various adornments to their clothes and bodies. There were many who were obviously into steam-punk and the likes of Marvel’s Captain America (one man even had a Hydra symbol on his uniform, the insignia of the villains in the Captain America comic books). The three of us took a table outside a small cafe and talked about cameras and photography – Guy and Vanessa use Fuji gear, whilst I use Canon and the pair of them made a vow that by the end of the day I would be a convert.

They’re still trying.

Whilst we sat enjoying a drink in the sunshine, my eye was caught by a woman sitting outside the cafe with a hot chocolate. She was dressed in an Edwardian-style outfit and reminded me of the ghost in the 1989 film of The Woman In Black (a far superior version to the 2012 film, in my ‘umble etc). I felt that I had to take her picture, but my nerves kept getting in the way, despite Guy and Vanessa urging me on. Eventually I got up and walked over to her and asked ‘would you mind if I took your picture?’

I fully expected her to tell me where to go. Instead she smiled and said ‘yes. You don’t go out dressed like this without expecting people to take a photo.’

Woman In Black (c) Kim Ralls

Just one photograph suddenly shattered any concerns I had about photographing people, goths or otherwise, and the rest of the day passed amazingly quickly. We finished our drinks and decided to take a slow amble around the old part of the town below the Abbey. Almost straight away we came upon a man with a pair of macaws on his arms. We had a fascinating conversation whilst the red macaw, called Inca, seemed only too happy to have her photo taken.

“Who’s a pretty boy, then?” (c) Kim Ralls
Inca (c) Kim Ralls

Alas, Inca ignored all my attempts to get her to talk and we eventually moved on towards the East Pier and its small lighthouse. I don’t usually plan my photos in advance of going to a location, mainly because you can never be certain that the conditions will be as you hope, not to mention planned shots are almost never as good as the spur-of-the-moment photographs that creep up and surprise you at just the right (or wrong) moment.

In this case, I had hoped to take a long exposure of the crowds on the pier so I would have the pier and lighthouse in focus with the blur of people moving back and forth.

Except there weren’t any people on the pier.

Well, at least I could take a few shots without waiting for people to move out the way – I like photographing people, but there are times when you don’t want any distractions from the rest of the photo.

East Pier Lighthouse, Whitby (c) Kim Ralls

As you can see from the photo, the weather was starting to turn at this point in the day and it wasn’t long before the sky became overcast and we felt the occasional spot of rain. I will admit that I had not planned for the weather – something I’m normally quite good at – and I was to spend the rest of the day trying to keep my camera still despite shivering from the cold.

Despite my earlier plan to avoid the places frequented by the more aggressive photographers, we suddenly decided to head up the steps to Whitby Abbey, made famous by Bram Stoker in Dracula and something of a photographic cliche. This was evidenced by the sheer weight of camera-toting people trying to climb the steps.

Indeed, this is the sort of place I would normally avoid for the simple reason that the world doesn’t need yet another photo of the abbey taken with the nearby pond providing a mirror-like reflection in its still waters.

Whitby from the Abbey (c) Kim Ralls

That said, the afore-mentioned photos are usually taken at sunrise or sunset with a perfectly clear sky. We had the advantage of dark clouds hanging ominously above the ruins looking as though at any moment a storm might erupt with horror-movie timing.


Cliche #1 (c) Kim Ralls

I was surprised that there were no goths in the abbey, apart from one woman taking a goth-selfie with a remote-operated DSLR. Both Guy and I took photos of her, though I think Guy had the better angle.

Goth selfie (c) Kim Ralls

We stopped for a lunch of smoked kipper pate on oat cakes (the pate was from Fortune’s Smoke House below the Abbey) and then headed round the pond to the site of the afore-mentioned cliche. Although it’s a view that everybody and his dog has photographed, I was fairly pleased with the result. The wind was blowing steadily and so the water in the pond was rippling and distorting the reflection of the Abbey. With the grey skies, it makes the photo more stark than the usual fare and, whilst I’m not saying I’ve done a better job than others, at least I think mine is a little different.

Cliche #2 (c) Kim Ralls

We headed down at this point, and just in time as we passed large crowds coming up the steps. I was glad we hadn’t got stuck in with them. A gentleman with red eyes and a top hat stopped and graciously let me take his photo – I’m still not sure if the red eyes were contact lenses or just the result of a really great night out…

Red Eyes (c) Kim Ralls

Come to think of it, it reminds me of the old red-eye effect you used to get with film cameras when a flash went off (if people still remember those).

Looking at the elaborate nature of some of the costumes, I find it incredible how many goths there were. It must take some of them ages to get ready, not to mention there were quite a few accoutrements that had an expensive look to them. I saw men and women wearing all manner of outifts, from faux Victorian and Edwardian dress to Rocky Horror-inspired outfits to original creations that had the mind well and truly boggled. I had also never before seen so many men in drag.

Back in the town we decided to cross over the river and head to the West Pier for a final photo session before heading for home. Passing a fabulous-looking motorbike by the bridge, the owner was only too happy to let me photograph it.

A lot of videos and articles that I’ve read on street photography emphasise shooting with the camera on your hip for more candid photos as well as not interacting with your subject to avoid ‘posed’ photos. Had it not been the goth weekend, I might have gone for that approach, but I felt that the situation merited a bit of interaction on this occasion. I’m also not a fan of trying to disguise what you’re doing. I think people would be more inclined to feel suspicous of someone hiding the fact that they’re taking photos. But that is an argument that will, in all likelihood, never be resolved.

“Born to be wild!” (c) Kim Ralls

On the ‘New Town’ side of the river, Whitby looks like a lot of other seaside towns with arcades and ice-cream stalls and fish & chip shops (we stopped in one briefly so that I could warm my hands around a portion of chips). The gulls were out en masse, as was to be expected, and I shot quite a few photos of them both in flight and on the ground, though most of these were discarded as my kit lens simply isn’t long enough for that kind of photography.

The gathering storm (c) Kim Ralls

As we walked out onto the West Pier, the sky grew ever darker and the wind began to whip the waves into foaming white-caps that broke on the shore and provided a few good photo opportunities. I made a mental note to come back in the Autumn and Winter for some truly dramatic photos.

Breaking waves (c) Kim Ralls

This would have been a good time to try my shot of people on the pier with the brooding storm clouds and the waves growing in strength. Except that the sensible ones were taking shelter in the town and so I settled for some normal exposures trying to capture the drama of the weather. I actually began to hope for a little thunder and lightning to really spice up my photos, but was disappointed in that regard. Of course, with Whitby only an hour and half’s drive from home, it wasn’t as though it would require any great effort to return in better (worse) weather.

After a few shots on the end of the pier that didn’t come out very well, we headed back into town for a cup of tea and a slice of cake before heading for home. Vanessa’s other half had arranged to pick her up and so we said goodbye after what, for me, was one of the most rewarding photo outings yet.

Are you talking to me?! (c) Kim Ralls


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