This month, Dreamland Margate will open to the public again for the first time in more than a decade. Photographer Rob Ball documented Britain’s oldest amusement park in the years leading up to its renovation. Ahead of a forthcoming exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery and a book published by Dewi Lewis, Ball talks about the project.
At its peak in the 1960s, Dreamland Margate thronged with visitors. Millions of them, young and old, families and couples, piled into the seaside amusement park to laugh, flirt, ride the famous Scenic Railway rollercoaster, try their luck at the coconut shy, and wolf down candy floss and jellied eels.
But over the decades that followed Dreamland waned in popularity, changing its name, losing its lustre and eventually shutting in 2003.
Now, thanks to a local campaign and a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the park is about to throw open its doors again to the public, reimagined by Hemingway Design as a hip, vintage attraction.
In the years between closure and redevelopment, Dreamland was left to rot. From 2013, photographer Rob Ball captured this Dreamland, mainly using the Victorian tintype wet collodion process. Tatty, forlorn but still oddly majestic, the empty park takes on a haunting air in his photographs. The tintypes will go on show at The Photographers’ Gallery.
They also feature in a book, published by Dewi Lewis, along with contemporary colour shots by Ball and historical images of the park sourced from the South East Archive of Seaside Photography, which he deputy directs.
Tintypes were first popular in the 1860s – around the same time, as Ball points out, as the Dreamland site’s first use as an entertainment venue, although it wasn’t until 1920 that it was named Dreamland, after another park in Coney Island.
“Tintypes weren’t massive in the UK, it was more of an American thing, but where they were popular was in the coastal resorts – Margate, Blackpool, Brighton,” says Ball. Because it was cheap and comparatively instant – seaside photographers could develop their tintypes in a makeshift darkroom on the street in as little as five minutes – it was one of the first democratic photographic processes,” he adds. - Rachel Segal Hamilton, British Journal of Photography
For Dreamland, once one of Britain’s most popular amusement parks, it seemed that the crowds would traipse away for ever when a plan for closure was announced in 2003. From as early as 1880, visitors had thronged to the park in Margate, Kent, scaring themselves sick or silly on its rides and betting their lunch money on the slot machines. This summer, following a decade-long campaign, it will reopen. For the past two years, British photographer Rob Ball has roamed the abandoned site, capturing the restoration process in a series of tintypes, a historic method of photography. His decision to use this style – instantly recognisable from a long tradition of seaside snapshots – takes viewers back to the glory days of Dreamland and British coastal amusement parks. We could be in Victorian Margate were it not for that crane or those electricity cables. The absence of any people helps past and present to coexist. Ball, who had been to Dreamland as a boy, had to build a temporary darkroom each time he went to the site. “You become like the crazy professor pouring and mixing, coating metal plates,” he says in his book Dreamlands. “It is physical, it’s performative, and it’s far removed from ‘pick up and click’.”
The images’ resulting imperfections echo the broader repairs going on around him. Weeds are removed, rides prepare to rumble once more, the camera clatters and a new generation of visitors prepares for its day at the seaside. - Alice Fishburn, FT Magazine, May 2015.
Far from unremarkable, Rob Ball presents an unsettling dislocation between memory and actuality, presenting the past through contemporary photographic practice. This publication and associated exhibition focuses on Ball’s 2011 return to the modest Essex urbanscape of his teenage years. Neither tender nor critical, Unremarkable Stories forensically documents the prosaic spaces of his youth. Whilst his landscapes ostensibly might depict the banal, the specificity of space nevertheless remains significant; likewise Ball registers the fierce potency of memory when discussing his return:
…I feel it all coming back; building dens, sitting under the bridge smoking, scouring the landscape for porno mags and most of all, hanging around because there’s nothing to do here. The park was our haven – the only place where we would be left alone.
In rejecting idealised versions of childhood, we are instead reminded of endless hours spent simply occupying spaces empty of adults. In Rob Ball’s photographs within the anonymity of the park’s hinterland or the blandness of the Essex suburban architecture, we are treated to diminutive highlights of hue. But these glints of colour, far from being generated by some sort of natural beauty, are rather the consequence of careless youthful disregard. Litter litters each photograph: the orange plastic shopping bag, the part submerged blue bicycle frame, the flash of crimson from a discarded coca cola can. Rob Ball’s Unremarkable Stories makes strange the everyday – the antithesis of ‘showy’, these works quietly insist on our attention and contemplation. - Dr K.J Shepherdson
Legacies of the Engaged Image: The Redemptive Beauty of Life after Death
In the photographs by Robert Ball, of second hand guns and pacemakers taken from the bodies of the deceased before cremation, two sophisticated technologies are productively contrasted. The former machines were explicitly designed to remove human life, the latter to extend it. That the guns Ball records, laid out on a dark background as though in a museum display case, reminds us that photography’s history is closely tied in with the development of evidence-gathering. Ball’s work draws on an aesthetics of plain display, of a no-nonsense presentation of the object, an approach whose (false) neutralisation of the thing recorded strangely forces one to concentrate upon the weapon’s functional attributes.  Almost everything about these firearms looks to be “about” the carrying out of the act for which they were designed, though the placing of the guns on a dark backcloth might be not so much a museological conceit as a metaphor for the weapon’s hidden power, the way that the firing of a gun “can change a hundred lives in a split second” (Ball).
With the pacemakers, the niceties of their workings are hidden away, firstly in their active life whilst operating inside a human body, and, secondly, even when one sees the revealed object, a generally rare sight of something that is today a quite commonly employed device. It as though Ball is visually staging the claim that whilst it is easy to take away a life, preserving and extending it, for all our scientific and rational understanding, remains one of the most technically complex and morally convoluted issues we face. - Peter Suchin
On Pacemakers -
Ball’s photographic study of pacemakers ‘happened by accident’ coming out of a previous two year documentary project on morgues. Pacemakers are removed from their owners before burial or cremation and the artist gathered twenty-five specimens which he photographed with a large format camera in a studio. Ball was compelled to the visual scrutinisation; ‘everything about them fascinated me, each on representing a life (or death), each one powering a body until its final moments – before the human or the machine gave up’.
In presenting his prints of these devices as clinically as possibly Ball highlights an indexical function or objectivity of photography owing much to the industrial and architectural photographs of contemporary German photography particularly Bernd and Hiller Becher. There is also a more surreal and disturbing element to the series of photographs if one considers the objects in terms of a metamorphose from inert mechanism with only slight variations between units, to part of a living human. Though subsequently removed each pacemaker has in fact been a vital part of an individual human biology and life. - Magdalene Keaney, The National Portrait Gallery