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By Colin Harding on

Commercial beach photography and reflex operators at the seaside

Colin Harding looks at the rise of commercial beach photography, and the shift from stiff, formal portraits, to the unposed holidaymaker by the sea.

As early as the 1850s, commercial photographers had already become a familiar sight at the British seaside. They took ‘while-you-wait’ portraits using the collodion positive process that could produce a finished photograph in just a few minutes. As well as a camera, photographers also had to have some sort of mobile dark tent or darkroom on wheels.

Beach photographer, c.1890, National Media Museum Collection / SSPL
Beach photographer, c.1890, Science Museum Group collection

During the 1920s the nature of commercial beach photography changed dramatically.

Beach photography becomes big business

While traditional operators could still be found plying their trade, a new and very different type of beach photographer began to appear. As the British Journal of Photography reported in 1923:

Your picture while you wait will soon be a lost phrase at the seaside, where the antiquated ‘studios on wheels’ are quickly vanishing from sight. Most up-to-date resorts are this year leasing exclusive beach photography rights to the modern ‘reflex’ man, who has no use for mobile dark-rooms and unnatural backgrounds. The ‘reflex’ man… has other methods. He doesn’t pose his customers, but wades into the water, snapshotting the bathers in perfectly natural attitudes. Then he exhibits prints at his stall on the beach—and waits for the orders to roll in.

By the mid-1920s reflex camera operators could be found in most resorts. Beach photography became big business. In the 1930s, Sunbeam Photos of Margate, for example, employed nearly 50 photographers. On August Bank Holiday in 1939 they took 35,000 photographs.

Who were the beach photographers?

Reflex operators were a stark contrast to the shabbily-dressed and beery-breathed photographers typical of the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Many were students, attracted by the prospect of seasonal work at the seaside. They were employed for their ability to learn quickly but also for their smart appearance and pleasant manners.

Indeed, if it were not for the large cameras that they carried, they could easily be mistaken for holiday-makers themselves.

Reflex Operator, Margate, c. 1930
Reflex Operator, Margate, c. 1930

Theirs was not a life of leisure, however. The season was short but hours were long. They normally started work at 8.30am and were on the beach or promenade by 10am, where they stayed until most holidaymakers had returned to their guesthouses at about 6pm. Their work was still far from finished. The day’s negatives had to be developed and printed ready for display and, hopefully, sale, the next day. Most days they might not finish work until after midnight.

With the appearance of professional, salaried reflex operators, not only did the nature of the photographers change, the photographs they took were also very different to the stiff, formal portraits of earlier years.

Most of the photographs taken by reflex operators were so-called ‘walking’ photographs taken as holiday-makers strolled along the promenade.

Walking photographs were the bread and butter staple of beach photography and all operators had to master the basic technique required to get them exactly right.

Typical walkie photograph, 1938
Typical walkie photograph, 1938

The trick was to focus slightly in front of people walking towards you to allow for the slight delay in taking the photograph after releasing the shutter. Once walking photographs had been mastered, the aspiring reflex operator could then progress to more demanding subjects, moving on to the beach itself to photograph holidaymakers at play.

Beach photographers become part of seaside history

With the outbreak of war in 1939, commercial beach photography in Britain effectively stopped. With the coming of peace, firms attempted to pick up again from where business had stopped so abruptly six years earlier.

During the 1950s, while not reaching the peak of the inter-war years, business was good. By the 1960s, however, commercial beach photography was struggling to compete with the combined threats of almost universal camera ownership, 24-hour developing and printing services and cheap package tour holidays which lured many holidaymakers away from traditional British resorts to the Spanish Costas. For beach photographers the writing was on the wall.

Roy Kirby photographing Miss Carmel Martin, Ramsgate, 24 September 1949, Daily Herald Archive, National Media Museum Collection
Roy Kirby photographing Miss Carmel Martin, Ramsgate, 24 September 1949, Daily Herald Archive, Science Museum Group collection

Beach photographers, once such a familiar sight, began to disappear – to become a part of seaside history, viewed through the rose-tinted lens of nostalgia.

Further reading and interesting links

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