The night photographer shooting Sussex's iconic landmarks after dark

After dark everything looks different - the Eastbourne Lighthouse

After dark everything looks different - the Eastbourne Lighthouse - Credit: Maxine Monaghan

When Sussex is sleeping the nocturnal Eastbourne photographer Maxine Monaghan captures the coastal landscape and skies above in a very different light 

Maxine Monaghan stands in the inky darkness, her camera lens trained on the dramatic sweep of the Milky Way in the sky above Eastbourne. Next to the tripod her Jack Russell Tiffany sits patiently until she gets the perfect shot.

It can happen instantly or take hours, but Maxine doesn't mind. She's been gazing at the iconic landmarks, and heavens above Sussex after dark since she was a child, and now it's all in a night's work for the photographer. 

It can take hours for Maxine Monaghan to get exactly the right shot of Eastbourne Pier after dark 

It can take hours for Maxine Monaghan to get exactly the right shot of Eastbourne Pier after dark - Credit: Maxine Monaghan

‘Going to Birling Gap was a rite of passage,’ Maxine says, recalling how she fell in love with the night skies in East Sussex during visits with her grandfather. ‘I would sit in the car, see all these people watch the sunset and then rush home and I used to think they were missing something.’
 
As a child she was fascinated by illuminations such as flashing car indicators, jewel-like cat’s eyes in the road and the distant glow of city lights as well as the stars - and our galaxy - revealed after dark.

Today, Maxine interprets this entrenched curiosity through photographs of some of the county’s best-known downland scenery when it is cloaked in a completely different mantle at nightfall. ‘When it gets dark most people go home and stay in,’ she explains. ‘But there’s a whole different world out there at night and it’s equally beautiful, really peaceful and often magical.’

Photographer Maxine says you can see more at night and loves capturing Eastbourne Pier 

Photographer Maxine says you can see more at night and loves capturing Eastbourne Pier - Credit: Maxine Monaghan 

Sleepless nights aside, the resulting images belie the painstaking and time-consuming preparation behind Maxine’s work. ‘It took me around three months to train for one shot,’ she laughs. ‘I wanted to take a photo of the Milky Way and the lighthouse and it needed the perfect recipe of no moon, no clouds and a very low tide. My tripod is heavy and I needed to carry it across the rocks with the rest of my equipment to get to the Beachy Head lighthouse. I started practising at low tide and going a bit further every time until I could go the whole way. I wore a hard hat with a head lamp and had a really strong torch so goodness knows what anyone would have thought if they had seen me. 

‘I had to take the tripod as everything has to be completely still and I am often doing exposures of 30 seconds. I've done a lot of pictures of Orion’s Belt, the Orion Nebula and other stars. I work with the Seven Sisters Astronomical Society and they kindly help me out with all the names. 

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'It can be very tiring, but when I go out at night I tend to catch up on my sleep the next afternoon.’ 

Maxine trained for months to be able to take this shot 

Maxine trained for months to be able to take this shot - Credit: Maxine Monaghan

Born in Yorkshire and raised in Liverpool, Maxine, 52, was creative from an early age and her career was originally set to take another direction. ‘For a long time I wanted to be an actress or choreographer,’ she says. ‘I trained in performing arts in Liverpool but I’m a much quieter soul than I thought I was and the industry just wasn’t suited to me.’ This decision also led to her moving to Eastbourne and embarking on her photographic career.

‘My grandad was director of King’s residential park. He came to the town on business and from the age of 10 he often brought me with him,’ she says. ‘I fell in love with the seafront and couldn’t believe how clean and clear the water was. He retired to the town and I moved here when I was 18 and started working in photo processing which included a job at the Kodak factory in Hampden Park where we would develop up to 4,000 rolls of film every Monday night. Psychologically it was interesting and insightful as looking at so many pictures I felt I was getting to see the whole world. I worked there until I was 22 and then got a job with a portrait photographer who taught me the technical side of things.’

At 26 Maxine started her own business, helped by a natural empathy for her subjects that stemmed from a traumatic and formative schoolgirl experience.

‘I was in a convent until I was eight and they had a photograph of me on the wall in the office which they took when I was smaller and where I had no front teeth,’ she explains. ‘Photography is very powerful. I used to feel sick when I looked at it and I couldn’t understand why anybody would put up a horrible picture of someone when they could put up a nice, recent one. It really affected me. 

'We were having dinner one day and the office door was open and I ran out, jumped up, got the picture and tore it into pieces. I felt so relieved afterwards and to this day I would never show anyone a bad picture of themselves. The very first wedding that I did was for a lady who was horrified by the photos a previous photographer had taken. She hated them as she didn’t like her teeth and the way she smiled and I went back with her husband and her daughter to re-shoot her wedding photos. She was delighted with them.’

Nowadays Maxine has a brightly coloured studio in Eastbourne town centre and her ‘day job’ mainly involves working as a freelance commercial photographer, taking photographs of various products for a company that represents a variety of businesses and brands. By night she indulges in her personal passion for low light photography and can often be found heading out with a couple of the family’s three dogs – Jack Russell Tiffany, Bullmastiff Belle and pug Oscar - while her husband and 19-year-old son are asleep.

Birling Gap lit up at night

Birling Gap lit up at night - Credit: Maxine Monaghan

‘I go out all year round and in all weathers, usually with Belle or Tiffany as Oscar doesn’t like the cold,’ she says. ‘Belle loves going down on the beach at Beachy Head and climbing on the rocks and has an adventure of her own. When I am up on the downs the Jack Russell comes and she sits near the tripod next to me. There is no pattern to when I go out and I seem to have developed a sixth sense about when to go. Sometimes I might be out 15 times a month and then another month only once or twice. I can be out for half an hour or three hours depending how far I have to walk.’

As well as charting the changing natural landscape through projects that include a five-year body of work at Birling Gap, Maxine’s work explores the human imprint on the environment and light pollution. ‘I first tried to capture this with film but it didn’t record it very well,’ she says. ‘It was the advent of digital photography that really spurred me on. I have seen the dramatic change from sodium to LED street lighting where the light hits the clouds and then reflects back on the sea. With sodium everything turned orange and now it is a white light.

‘While sodium lights use a lot more energy they were nicer for the environment. LED lights flicker 100 times per second and studies have shown that they can have a detrimental effect. When I see these things I want to record them. We are learning all the time and photos can create a discussion on whether we backtrack or create a better form of technology.’

Maxine has staged an exhibition of her night-time work at the Birling Gap National Trust Visitor Centre but it is rare to see her work on display. ‘I am not a photographer that creates work for exhibitions,’ she explains. ‘The visitor centre exhibition was really relevant to the area and to show people how it had changed. I’m in love with the environment and nature and it’s not about financial reward, that’s not what I do it for. I earn money from photography in other ways so I can carry on doing the things that I love.’

Last year, she partnered with Eastbourne Borough Council to host free low light photography workshops at nightfall at the Beachy Head Story visitor experience that focuses on the ever-changing nature of the surrounding downland. 

‘There is lot of aesthetic photography around because of phones and everyone can take a pretty picture,’ she says. ‘I really enjoyed inspiring people, including children, to take a photo and try to find things in it and draw a narrative out of it, which means you can talk about it. That’s what makes it art and makes it more interesting.

‘You can also see so much more at night. You can see the shipping channels and the boats. You might see them vaguely in the day but at night they are all lit up and you can also see the red lights of the Rampion wind farm which are on top of the turbines to act as a warning for planes and ships. On a clear night up there it’s incredibly stunning and it looks as though you can pick the stars out of the sky. You don’t even need a camera - you can just use your eyes.’ 

Maxine is now focusing her lens along the length of Beachy Head Road. ‘I really love trees and I have started a project to photograph all the trees along that road,’ she says. ‘I am also trying to learn more about the history of Beachy Head such as the archaeology, the people who have lived there and the people who have worked the land, and I will see if that inspires me.’