THE SOUND MIRRORS 

Phil Coomes, BBC, December 2018

This is the full transcript of an interview I did with the BBC about my series In Defence of Lost Causes. In the interview I discuss how the project started and share a few behind the scenes insights into the making of the work.

What drew you to the sound mirrors?
It started with a conversation I had with my dad the night before I moved to Brighton a few years ago. After the rest of the family had left the dinner table he shared a story he hadn't told before. He began to describe large concrete structures dotted along the coastline between Brighton and Dover, a precursor to radar that used sound to detect enemy aircraft that in turn his dad had to described to him. When I was a child he told me stories about my grandfather and his involvement in radar. One of his recurring joke’s has always gone along the lines of, “It’s not rocket science, I should know, my dad was a rocket scientist.”

Initially I was drawn to the family connection, but later after researching early aircraft defence experiments I became fascinated by the story of the sound mirrors.

I began to think more and more about the relationship between art, science and the creative process. Experimentation and ultimately failure are an intrinsic commonality of all three. The sound mirror experiment, this idea of having a chain of concrete structures facing the channel using sound to detect the flight trajectory of enemy aircraft, was just that, an experiment. They tried many different sizes and designs before the project was scrapped when radar was introduced. The science was solid, but aircrafts getting faster and quieter made them obsolete. Some of the structures were removed by local councils; many more were planned but never built. This series is a celebration and cataloguing of all the remaining examples.

Why did you shoot them on an old camera?
I shot all of the structures using a wooden large format plate camera for two reasons. Firstly I liked the idea of photographing the structures using the technology that was around when the structures were first built; all of the archival photographs of them in action during the First World War would have been photographed using a similar camera. Secondly, for practical reasons, this sort of camera allows you to correct the perspective of the structures in camera. Shifting planes of focus and seeing the changes happen live on a sheet of glass 5 x 4 inches across instead of later on a computer screen adds an element of excitement.

Do you have any anecdotes in terms of finding their locations, getting access to the sites?
Abbot’s Cliff - When I originally arrived at the cliff’s edge the sun was creating a harsh shadow down the face of the concave, which wouldn’t have done the structure any justice. I knew it was going to pass at some point so I just got my book out and waited. Around 3 or 4 hours passed and eventually the sunlight started making the eclipse in the concave that makes the picture what it is.

Kilnsea - This is in a farmer’s field in Yorkshire. On Google Maps a landline number pops up for a caravan site next door, after speaking to them I got the number for the chap who owns the field and he kindly said it was okay for me to cut across and photograph the structure. So my thanks goes to Peter for this one. Luckily his sheep were in the next field along. Interestingly the Kilnsea mirror is one of the only structures to still have the remnants of the metal microphone pole that would have originally been used.

Redcar - When this structure would have been originally constructed the whole surrounding area would have been marshland, built away from the population to avoid any intruding sound pollution. Today, however, it stands on the edge of a housing estate. So there I was, tripod half on the pavement half off, jacket over my head framing up the picture when I notice a few bystanders have started to stop and stare. I start chatting to them and a crowd of maybe 4 or 5 individuals began to gather as I told them about what I’m doing, the camera and the structure’s history. One lad said he passed by it every day but didn’t know what it was, let alone that it was one of many up and down the country.

Selsey - The design of the Selsey mirror matches structures on the Northern coast in Boulby, Redcar and Sunderland but the opposite side has been bricked up. The letterbox had a mobile number on it. I called it on the day, left a voicemail and that evening Darren, the owner, called me back and we spoke at length about the sound mirrors and the peculiar history of the Selsey mirror. Unlike the other remaining mirrors, the Selsey mirror is a Grade II listed building and was converted into a domestic residence shortly after the end of WWII.

Warden Bay – From what I can gather from old Ordnance Survey aerial photos, this sound mirror used to be mounted on the neighbouring cliff but has since fallen in to the sea due coastal erosion. When the tide is up it is nearly entirely submerged so I had to work out when the tide was going to be fully out to be able to photograph it. It was then a case of finding an angle that accentuated the curve of the surviving section of concave.

©BBC 2018 - This text is for research purposes only, no copyright infringement is intended.




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