At the Fringe of Reality: The Work of Sir Simon Marsden

Earlier this month came the release of Russia: A World Apart, the latest collection of work by renowned photographer and master of ruins Sir Simon Marsden.

Sadly, the book is a posthumous publication as Simon died in January 2012. Here I pay tribute to the man who accelerated my own love of ruins, and the incredible photographic legacy he left behind.

Simon Marsden book collection

I first discovered Simon Marsden in my early teens, when searching for photographs of my favourite childhood holiday destination of Whitby. I had spent time here almost every year since birth, and had always been captivated by tales of Dracula stalking its misty alleys. This no doubt informed my burgeoning preoccupation for all things gothic, and I was suitably captivated by the dreamlike photographs of the town’s famed Abbey and churchyard I found on The Marsden Archive.

St Mary's Churchyard, Whitby - Simon Marsden

After exploring his work a little further, I acquired two of Simon’s books; The Haunted Realm and The Journal of a Ghosthunter. I was enchanted by the haunting black and white photographs these books contained, and this is when my veneration was truly ignited. The images seemed to belong to another time, or rather a place outside any recognisable concept of time, and shone a suggestive light on the fringe of reality. When regarding Simon’s work, I found it was all too easy to believe in a life beyond our own.

It was not only Simon’s photographs which had me hooked, for his words too struck a resounding chord. In Journal of a Ghosthunter, he affirms his belief that “…a hidden, very different ‘spiritual world’ runs parallel to our own so-called ‘reality’…” and implores us to “…rediscover the forgotten knowledge of our ancestors and rekindle our sense of wonder in and respect for the power of nature and the mystery of our universe.”

Among the reason and rationality of our modern age, I found Simon’s sentiment refreshing. As someone who’d felt an unquestioning affinity with the ‘spirit world’ from an early age, I found great admiration for a man who identified his lifelong driving force to be “a respect for, and a fear of, the unknown.”

After this gripping introduction I was compelled to discover more, and proceeded to devour his other publications with enthusiasm. In each volume Simon invites us to follow him on what always feels a very personal journey. The solitary and sometimes unnerving nature of his quests to photograph sites of supernatural interest is demonstrated in a wonderful film entitled The Twilight Hour, which follows him as he delves into Ireland’s haunted past.

Ecclesgreig House - Simon Marsden

One of my all-time favourite images from Simon’s books is his photograph of Ecclesgreig House. I find it beautiful and chilling in equal measure, and it had a great effect on me when I first saw it.

In conjunction with my initial visit to Cambusnethan Priory, this picture became the catalyst which fed my desire to seek out Scotland’s abandoned mansions. When my project first began, Simon’s books were one of the main resources I had for discovering new ruins and his photographs went on to lead me to some of the best locations I have explored.

Crawford Priory - Simon Marsden   Poltalloch House - Simon MarsdenBalintore Castle - Simon Marsden   Buchanan Castle - Simon Marsden

I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to discuss some of these places with the man himself, at a talk he gave in November 2011 following the publication of his then most recent book, Vampires: The Twilight World. In the small upstairs room of a Canterbury bookshop, I soaked up the stories Simon told of his fascinating experiences, and revelled in his slideshow of photographs.

The range of sites he visited throughout his career is truly amazing, and I think it is this diversity which makes his picture library so rich. His work is proof that, to a perceptive mind, the ‘haunted realm’ may be found wherever it is sought.

After his speech we spoke about the various houses we had both visited, and I loved hearing his recollections of places he photographed some thirty years before I did. It was a very special evening I will never forget.

Russia - A World Apart by Marsden and McLaren

Simon told me then of the book about Russia he was working on. Although he had completed the photography before his death, the task of compiling the book fell to his friend and collaborator Duncan McLaren. His efforts are commendable, and make this an arresting final volume to their trio of collaborative works.

The book is the culmination of three separate trips to Russia. During these visits the two men scoured the desolate landscapes around Moscow and St Petersburg, journeying through “one dead or dying village after another” to discover sites affected by the country’s long and troubled history. Among the dilapidated former estates of the Russian aristocracy are featured places of worship and monuments to the country’s past, all captured in Simon’s characteristic eerie manner and accompanied by McLaren’s text.

Ruined Wooden Church, Kaibolovo - Simon Marsden   Soviet Tombs, Novodevichy Cemetery - Simon Marsden

Photographers are often described as ‘voyeurs’ or ‘outsiders’, but never before had I felt such a stranger in a strange land. Everything in Russia was the exact opposite of what I had grown up with…

So wrote Simon in 2011, and I feel his photographs capture this feeling expertly.  As the title may suggest, pouring through the book left me feeling as though I were viewing not just a different country, but an alternate world. All appears foreign in the strongest sense of the word; the unfamiliar architecture and strange imagery unlike anything I know.

I find that Simon’s depictions of foreign lands always entice me to experience them for myself, and in this way he is also a brilliant travel photographer. With Russia: A World Apart, he has once again succeeded in kindling my intrigue, and I would recommend the book as a fascinating introduction to both Simon’s work and the mysterious country which is its subject.

Gates, Kiritsy Estate - Simon Marsden

When recalling his first impression of Simon’s work in the book’s introduction, Duncan McLaren writes: “These were images one could never recover from…” I wholeheartedly concur. Since I first set eyes on them, Simon’s photographs have drawn me in and set my imagination alight, and I know they will continue to do so.

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Thanks go to The Marsden Archive for allowing me to include the photographs in this post.

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