The Last Stand, by Marc Wilson

“Whilst Wilson utilises the language of the landscape photograph, The Last Stand is far removed from the genre in the traditional sense, firmly placing him within a small group of contemporary photographers whose work — whilst landscape in nature — has more in common with that of the documentary photographer.” – Wayne Ford, former art director of The Observer’s award winning colour magazine & Design Director of Haymarket Business Media.

“Since 2010 I have been photographing the images that make up The Last Stand, that aims to reflect the histories, stories and memories of military conflict.
The series is currently made up of 43 images and is documenting some of the physical remnants of the Second World War on the coastlines of the British Isles and northern Europe, focusing on military defence structures that remain and their place in the shifting landscape that surrounds them.” – Marc Wilson, photographer.

Findhorn, Moray, Scotland, 2011. ©Marc Wilson 2011, all rights reserved. In 1943 four Norwegian sailors working at the nearby shipyard drowned in Findhorn Bay. Part of the Norwegian resistance, they were members of the ‘Shetland Bus’- a Special Operations group. Using volunteer Norwegian crews it ferried agents and equipment from the Shetland Islands into Nazi-occupied Norway, maintaining contact with resistance groups.
Loch Ewe, North West Highlands, Scotland, 2012. ©Marc Wilson 2012, all rights reserved. A secret naval base, from 1942 Loch Ewe also became an assembly point for the Arctic convoys that carried vital supplies and munitions to the USSR. Over 3,000 seamen serving on these convoys, which were attacked by enemy submarines and aircraft, lost their lives in the icy waters and raging storms.

Document Scotland – Can you tell us Marc, how your Last Stand project began? From where did your initial interest come?
Marc Wilson – The roots of the project lie in a piece of work I made about 8 years ago. Called ‘Abandoned’ it was my attempt to look at locations that had a cultural, social or historical significance that had now been abandoned. I’m not certain I was quite ready to embark on what could have been a project of huge scale and ended up feeling a bit limited, producing a set of just 18 images. Within those were some locations of military significance, and then just over three years ago, looking back at this previous work, I realised the importance of this subject matter and started to look into it in further detail, and out of these thoughts came The Last Stand.

DS – Do you have a deep interest in World War 2 history, or of the architecture of war?
MW – When I began the work no not at all. I had no specific interest in military history as such, but it was more the emotions, histories and stories that these locations could contain that drew me in. Like many though I do have a family connection with the war, with one of my family being lost whilst flying with the RAF over the Scottish borders.

DS – We see from your folio of Last Stand images that you’ve been photographing in many locations, can you tell us where and how you choose
which to visit? How many have locations have you visited so far, and how many more do you envisage visiting and photographing? Are they easily
MW – Perhaps I can answer this and the next question together if that is ok? I am not working using any particular methodological approach as for me the work is not necessarily about specific structure types as such but more about the emotions and memories that these structures and surrounding landscapes contain. It is the stories and histories that I wish to convey. So although the locations do have some very specific histories, which I am having researched, and make fascinating reading, the locations and therefore images can be seen as representational for the many other defences around these coastlines.
So far I have visited over 100 locations to make up the current set of 43 images, travelling over 11,000 miles. In terms of what I hope to still visit and photograph there are approximately 32 locations based around the coasts of The Northern Isles, Norway, Denmark and The west coast of France, as well as 3 still to photograph in England and Wales.

DS – Is there even a database listing these locations and defences? How difficult are they to research and how much of your time is spent on this as opposed to on the road photographing?
MW – there are various onlie resources which I have tried to make use of for location research which have of course been really helpful as starting points but for many of the places visited it can not be until I see the locations, made up of both object and landscape, to decide wether it is right for the work. The in-depth research, which I am very lucky to be having done for me, is undertaken only once I know an image has made the final edit into the main body of work. In fact my researcher spoke to me today telling me she had started the overall research into Norway and Denmark and was already unearthing fascinating and incredibly moving histories.

DS – You’ve been working on The Last Stand for a while now, is the end in sight? Or perhaps now that some of these structures are crumbling with age and the passing of time, or as happened in France recently when a structure was dismantled and removed, how long do you think you have left in order to complete your aims and project?
MW – Yes and no…I am hoping to complete my work on The Last Stand in Northern Europe over the next six months but this is dependant on funding.
There is then talk of me photographing the work in another region but this is just under initial discussion at the moment so… After that, whilst I can see the work being made in other continents I would have to see if the ‘need’ for the work is there first in these regions. Whilst the idea of having a ‘decade long’ project to work on is quite enticing there are other factors to consider! How much time I have to complete the work I just can’t tell. The natural process of coastal erosion works at one speed, the influence of man at another. With the recent events in Wissant I do certainly feel a sense of urgency to continue and complete the work and would love to be able to set off tomorrow and come back in 3 months with the complete body…but of course practical considerations come into play…light, weather, commercial commitments, funding, famly, etc, etc (those were in no particular order of course!)

DS – The images we show here are all from the Scottish coastline, are there many such locations in Scotland? Have you photographed them all or will you be back to shoot more here?
MW – Ah there are countless more defences dotted around the coastline but as I mentioned before my aim is not to catalogue them all. That said I will be adding to the 7 Scottish locations that currently form part of the body of work (I visited about 15 to get these 7 images) and do still need to photograph in locations on both Orkney and Shetland and with funding aim to be doing so in the next 2 to 3 months.

Lossiemouth, Moray, Scotland, 2011. © Marc Wilson 2011, all rights reserved. During 1938, German aircraft were seen photographing the north-east coast of Scotland, believing its sandy beaches and good communications would make it ideal for invasion. By 1940 a series of defences along the Moray coastline were constructed to slow down a beach landing and possible invasion from Norway.

DS – There is quite a haunted, quiet and subdued feel to the images. All of them show only the landscape, and the structures, with no people, no other tangible signs of humans. Can you explain your reason for photographing them as such? Are you spending a while at each location photographing them extensively, or are you quite selective on your viewpoint and how many sheets of 5×4 film you expose? What are your thoughts whilst in the
locations, apart from watching the light, and taking your exposure readings?
MW – The images are to me very much about the memories and stories of these structures and landscapes. They are about the histories of 70 years ago
and also the intervening years in terms of the shifting and changing landscape. To me the images are in effect full to the brim with the signs of
human life but in what is left, what has happened and just as importantly what is missing. The histories are so full of emotion and of course huge and frightening loss of life that I have to photograph these locations in this subdued and I hope subtle manner. There is, to me, no need for any added ‘glamour’ to these locations and histories. My images are there, I hope, to allow the viewer to reflect on these pasts and present locations, and take these stories away with them to dwell on. In terms of the process, these sites demand the considered approach so I try to shoot either one of two viewpoints only, after spending some time walking around and amongst a site, often just the single sheet of film. Some locations do though have more than one structure that I choose to photograph. My thoughts are very much split into pre and post exposure. Pre exposure it is all about the set up, the light, the consideration of the visual, the waiting for the perfect combination of light, tides and feeling and then after the shutter is released, and the darkslide removed from the camera and put safely away into my bag, then the stories I know of these locations start to flood into me…so I’m usually a mixture of being excited about the image but feeling quite, for want of a better word, reflective about the subject….and, in some cases, the thousands of lives lost at these locations.

DS – The Last Stand has quite a list of exhibitions planned, can we look forward to the work being shown in Scotland? Is there a book planned for the work?
MW – The work is currently on show near Portsmouth and yes, after further shows in London and Leeds the work heads to Scotland for an exhibition at
Peacock Visual Arts in Aberdeen next year. I am also hoping to exhibit the work at more venues of course. A book of the work has always been one of my aims and I am meeting with a couple of publishers next month to discuss what can be done so yes, I am hopeful that a book will be made of the work…but like most things in the creative world…until it’s in print…

DS – Some of the work shot so far was financed by crowd funding we believe, and at the moment you’re in the midst of a second round of crowd funding in order to help you complete the next stage of the photography, how is that going? What have you learnt from crowd funding in relation to working on a large project, does the interaction with the supporters change how you approach the project, or the work? Are there limitations placed upon you, or is it the opposite, are your freed up and encouraged, by accepting funding from supporters?
MW – Yes the current crowdfunding campaign is running on Emphasis. Having the financial backing that a crowdfunding campaign can in theory bring
is the only way to produce a project such as this in a realistic time scale. The production costs of the shooting stage alone for this second stage are over £4000 so the help is needed. For me the interaction you get with your backers and supporters can only be a good thing. People back a project not so they can form and control it but because they believe in it as it is and want to see it made, and be a part of that. So the backing places no limitations but in fact provides the opposite, the means with which to make a work. As well as this of course it is immensely encouraging and each backer and supporter allows me to believe in the work more each day. You are building your core audience.
The campaign has just over 10 days to run and is currently just over $4000 towards it’s target of $6738. It’s a 100% or nothing campaign so unless it reaches the full amount needed to make the work, all contributions are returned, I receive nothing and the potential investment is lost…and that may have to be the end of the road for The Last Stand…so I dearly hope it does not fall short…it’s odd but a $10 contribution can in effect make the difference between over $6500 of investment and nothing!

DS – Thank you Marc from graciously allowing us to show your work, and for taking the time to let answer questions giving us more insight into your project and working ways. It’s much appreciated.  (A crowd funding campaign for Marc Wilson’s The Last Stand is currently running on to gather funding for the second stage of this work. Please visit this link to view the video about the project, see rewards available and help Marc complete this important work.)

Lossiemouth, Moray, Scotland, 2011. ©Marc Wilson 2011, all rights reserved. Some defences were constructed by a Polish Army Engineer Corps stationed in Scotland: ‘First we used wood to make the mould for the large concrete blocks, then a combination of corrugated iron and wood…mixing the concrete with a shovel…’. Once construction finished, many Polish troops remained to man the guns.

The following is an extract from the research by Marc for his project:

“In the summer of 1940, in order to obstruct German troops in the event of a possible invasion from Norway, a line of defences was constructed in the north-east of Scotland along the Moray coast, between Cullen Bay and Findhorn Bay. The defences went through the Lossie and Roseisle Forests.

Concrete anti-tank blocks ran the full length of this part of the coast; square and hexagonal shaped pillboxes zigzagged in a line. The long-range guns stationed at the coastal battery protected Lossiemouth from attack by sea.

In 1941, two men recruited by the German Military Intelligence (Abwehr) in Norway, were flown across the North Sea in a Luftwaffe flying boat, which landed in the Moray Firth. They rowed ashore in a rubber dinghy and after reaching the shore gave themselves up to the authorities, as German spies.

They were John Moe and Tor Glad. They had joined the Abwehr in order to reach Britain and to make contact with the Norwegian forces in exile. Recruited by MI5, they became double-agents, under the code name Mutt and Jeff, and were involved in numerous deception schemes, passing misleading information to the German Intelligence about invasion preparations during the build-up for the Normandy landings. One of them, Operation Fortitude North, was intended to mislead the Germans into expecting an invasion of Norway from Scotland. A fictitious army – the British Fourth Army- had been created, with its headquarters in Edinburgh Castle.

Roseisle Beach, which stretches six miles along the Moray Firth from Findhorn to Burghead, was used- among other coastal locations- by US and Canadian military, for training for the D-Day landings in June 1944. During the training, 8 amphibious Valentine tanks sank, despite their having been built for their ability to land on beaches from landing craft offshore.

On Easter Sunday 1943, four Norwegian sailors, billeted at Burghead and working at the shipyard at Buckie, drowned in Findhorn Bay, where they had gone to retrieve an old boat. The four sailors, who were working for the Norwegian resistance, were members of the ‘Shetland Bus’- the name given to a clandestine Special Operations group which, using volunteer Norwegian crews, ferried agents and equipment from the Shetland Islands, north of the Scottish mainland, into Nazi-occupied Norway, helping to maintain contact with resistance groups.

The ‘Shetland Bus’ was originally operated by a large number of small converted fishing boats, armed with light machine guns concealed inside fish-barrels on deck. The crossings, mostly made during the winter under the cover of darkness when daylight was very short, were under constant threat from German aircraft and patrol boats. Several fishing boats were lost during the early operations, but when, later, fast and well-armed American-built submarine-chasers were added, no more were lost.

On the return trip from Norway, the Shetland Bus boats also evacuated civilians who were facing arrest by the occupying Germans.

After Dunkirk in June 1940, in order to keep fighting and to harass the enemy in occupied Europe, Winston Churchill had ordered that a special force should be trained for raids and sabotage missions on enemy-occupied territory. With its rugged mountain terrain, its sea lochs and its challenging weather, the Scottish Highlands played an important role in the development of commandos. Remote properties were turned into special training centres. One of these, the Commando Basic Training Centre, was at Achnacarry where, as well as British commandos, others, including American, French, Belgian, Dutch, Norwegian, Polish and Jewish refugees from Germany were trained.

One iconic Scottish commando commander was Lord Lovat- whose No 4 Commando had taken part in the Dieppe Raid in 1942. His first mission, in 1941, had been the successful Lofoten Island raid, off the Norwegian coast, just north of the Article Circle.

In 1944, as commander of 1 Commando Brigade on D-Day, he marched onto Sword Beach with his personal piper, Billy Millin ‘the Mad Piper’, at his elbow, who played, under heavy gunfire, ‘Highland Laddie’, then ‘The Road to the Isles’.

Playing bagpipes into battle had been banned during the Second World War because of the high casualty-rate suffered by pipers during the First World War. But Lovat ignored the order from the War Office in London. “You and I are both Scots”, he said, “so that doesn’t apply!”. – Marc Wilson.

Newburgh, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, 2012. ©Marc Wilson 2012, all rights reserved. In Newburgh cemetery is the grave of GA Mitchell, the region’s Chief Royal Engineer. A veteran of the First World War, in 1940 Mitchell was made responsible for the coastal defences in north-east Scotland. Within a few months he organised the construction of beach defences including concrete anti-tanks blocks.
Newburgh, Aberdeenshire, Scotland 2012. ©Marc Wilson 2012, all rights reserved. In Newburgh cemetery is the grave of GA Mitchell, the region’s Chief Royal Engineer. A veteran of the First World War, in 1940 Mitchell was made responsible for the coastal defences in north-east Scotland. Within a few months he organised the construction of beach defences including concrete anti-tanks blocks, pillboxes, observation towers and large, tubular-steel scaffolding poles, as well as barbed-wire entanglements, mine-fields and gun-emplacements. The entire local population was asked to help with anti-invasion preparations.  Long, wooden poles prevented enemy gliders from landing behind defence lines.

Click here to see a further selection of the full series of Marc Wilson’s  project The Last Stand, and if you have comments please send a note to Marc Wilson on Twitter, we’re sure he’d be happy to hear from you.

A crowd funding campaign for Marc Wilson’s The Last Stand is currently running on to gather funding for the second stage of this work. Please visit this link to view the video about the project, see rewards available and help Marc complete this important work.

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