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How Rachael Talibart Makes Photographic Paintings of Seashells

How Rachael Talibart Makes Photographic Paintings of Seashells

All images by Rachael Talibart. Used with permission. For more stories like this, subscribe to The Phoblographer.

“Some common shells can be found on my closest beaches all year round, like mussels and slipper limpets,” the UK-based photographer Rachael Talibart tells me. “Others show up seasonally, after big storms, or when you least expect them.” For years, she’s been discovering shells on the sandy beaches along the Sussex coast and beyond. Her ongoing project, Ghost in the Shell, is her tribute to the wild and unpredictable tide and countless tiny creatures who have lived and died according to its whims.

This spring, Talibart made the unusual find of many large shells, each left behind by a piddock, a strange clam-like mollusk known for its uncanny ability to glow in the dark. Piddock shells are especially fragile. While Talibart has seen them in smaller sizes, they’re difficult to photograph, and at just a few millimeters long, they’re quickly carried away by the sea. A storm might have explained why the shells washed up, but it also would have broken them to pieces. Yet, these shells were intact.

“I don’t know why they were there,” Talibart admits. “It’s a mystery to me.” She didn’t know whether the appearance of the shells constituted a small miracle or served as a harbinger of ecological crisis. So she spent the evening at the coast, making photos and filling her lungs with salt air. Piddocks are commonly called “angel wings.” In her pictures, they look as if they’re beating. We asked her about her lifelong relationship with the sea and the evolution of Ghost in the Shell. 

The Essential Photo Gear of Rachael Talibart

Angel Wings

Talibart told us:

“My preferred lens for this work is my 24-70mm lens, on a full-frame camera. I use a heavy metal tripod and push the legs into the sand to keep it steady. The camera needs to be as parallel to the sand as possible to keep everything within the plane of focus. Sometimes, it’s a challenge to avoid including the shadow or reflection of the tripod legs. I use neutral density filters to slow the shutter, and a polariser. A cable release allows me to capture the precise moment. I use Canon cameras and lenses and filters by LEE Filters.”

Phoblographer: You spent much of your childhood on your father’s sailboat. What are some of your earliest memories from the sea and of the many creatures that inhabit it?

Rachael Talibart: I have a mixed relationship with the water. I suffer from motion sickness and a lot of my sailing experience was characterized by feeling unwell. However, there were certainly some good times. I remember one occasion, in particular, when we were in rough seas, and it was so wild, the whole family was in the cockpit whooping with excitement. We were in our oilskins and getting drenched by spray, but it was utterly exhilarating, like the best thrill ride ever. 

As for creatures, I think the most interesting creatures we encountered during those years were Basking Sharks. These sharks live on plankton and are completely harmless to us, but they are enormous. Seeing one from the boat was always a highlight of any trip. It was a little more frightening on one occasion, when we were rowing ashore in the dinghy and an enormous fin followed us. Although we knew it was harmless, we’d only recently watched the movie Jaws at the cinema and couldn’t help feeling a little apprehensive. I don’t think I’d ever seen Dad row so fast.

Chalk X

Phoblographer: Do you live near the water now? 

Rachael Talibart: Sadly, I don’t. I live in a suburb of London, but it has good transport links and is convenient for visiting a lot of beaches on the Sussex coast. I grew up in Sussex, and it’s where I make most of my photographs today. Every time I arrive on a Sussex beach, it feels rather like coming home. Most of the Sussex coast is shingle, the sort of beaches where you get big waves.

There are, nonetheless, a few sandy stretches that are good for finding seashells and enjoying the ocean in its quieter moods. Chalk is the dominant rock here, and small pieces are strewn across many beaches. This is important for the Ghost in the Shell collection, as chalk is in fact the calcareous remains of sea creatures, and together with more obvious shells, forms the subject of the project.

Chalk XI

Phoblographer: Readers might be surprised to learn you spent much of your career as a lawyer in the city. What initially inspired you to become an artist?

Rachael Talibart: Photography was always a hobby, even in my years as a lawyer, but I was a happy snapper, someone who mostly just used their camera to record what they saw on holiday. It wasn’t until later in life that I started to go out with the camera purely to make photographs, locally, in my own garden, on the beach. That was a big turning point as I slowly began to understand the creative possibilities of photography. 

Mussel in Blue

Phoblographer: Much of your seascape and coastal fine art work has an epic quality: stormy seas, massive waves. Why did you instead choose to focus here on the smaller details?

Rachael Talibart: Until now, I have been best known for my Sirens portfolio, photographs of monstrous storm waves named after myth and legend. Those photographs are much more instantly impactful and garnered me a lot of attention, competition wins, and publicity, which was nice. Now, however, I am consciously making work that I know will not be as attention-grabbing. 

It’s been interesting to see that these pictures often resonate with a different audience. Apart from Sirens, Ghost in the Shell is probably the body of work with which I have felt most satisfied. It has been lovely to concentrate on the gentler side of the ocean, as a counterpoint to my earlier work. Giant waves only show up occasionally, with storms, but the little dramas captured in Ghost in the Shell can be found every day. We just have to look down.


Phoblographer: Did you walk much along the beach to find these objects or did you wait for them to come to you?

Rachael Talibart: I enjoy a gentle stroll along the tide line, seeing what the sea has offered me. If I find a shell with water curling round it, I will set up my tripod and wait for the perfect moment. Patience is required as often the moment doesn’t happen or the sea picks up the shell and carries it away. 

The uncertainty is all part of the fun; if it were easy, it wouldn’t be as satisfying. While waiting for the moment, I have time to absorb everything else brought to me by my senses: the smell of the ocean, the sound of the waves, the call of sea birds, the breeze on my skin, the taste of salt carried by the wind. It’s quite meditative, and I enjoy it very much.


Phoblographer: How long are these exposures, and why was it important to use slower shutter speeds?

Rachael Talibart: Shutter speed depends on the conditions. The sea doesn’t have a constant speed, and neither do my photographs. I find about half a second to be a good place to start and then adapt it as needed to get the effect I want. Speeds of longer than a second are unusual, except when the foam is moving very slowly. A slow shutter allows me to capture the movement of the water. I wanted to contrast that flow with the static, empty shells, as a ghostly echo of the life that once inhabited them. 

Slipper II

Phoblographer: What do you look for in the objects you photograph? 

Rachael Talibart: I usually prefer intact, or nearly intact, shells, and I look for appealing colors, shapes, or patterns. A dry shell may look washed out and plain but, as soon as it becomes wet, the colors and patterns shine through. 

I find that flat, round shells or nondescript grey shells (oysters often offend on both counts) can be a bit boring in the frame, whereas shells with bold shapes, like razor clams, or shells that look like little boats when upside down, often work better. Tellins seem to come in all sorts of interesting colors. They are some of the smallest shells I photograph and the most prone to being washed away, but they are pretty enough to make them worth the effort.  

Slipper III

Phoblographer: Is there a specific critter you’re especially fond of? 

Rachael Talibart: I’ve already mentioned piddocks. These are also known as angel wings, and I am working on a little side project focused entirely on them. Piddocks are interesting; they use the serrated edges of their shells to grind away at clay, wood, or even soft rock to make burrows. They do this by rotating. These burrows can be surprisingly deep. The piddock stays in its burrow for its whole life (eight years or so), using a siphon to suck in water that it then filters for nutrients. After a piddock dies, other sea creatures then use its burrow.

Phoblographer: Do you ever find shells in the tide with living creatures still inside? If so, do you (gently) help them back into the water, or is that dangerous for such delicate life forms?

Rachael Talibart: I do occasionally find intact creatures, usually after a storm. There’s honestly not much one can do for them, once they have become unstuck from their resting place. However, they provide food for other marine creatures, and so the circle of life carries on. It’s not my place to interfere with that. 


Phoblographer: You’ve worked on this series for years. What is it about this project that keeps you returning to it time and again? 

Rachael Talibart: I think the possibilities are endless. There’s always the chance of a little surprise, discovering a new shell or new interest in a type of shell previously overlooked. Also, the experience of making these photos is so rewarding, so calming. It refreshes me. It also means that I always have something to do because if the sky is boring, usually bad news for a traditional landscape photographer, I can still point my camera down. Finally, projects like this enrich my experience of the world because they make me more observant of the little things that others might walk past, or even on!

Tellin II

Phoblographer: How has your relationship with the sea changed over time?

Rachael Talibart: As a sea-going child, I took the ocean for granted. I have always had a powerful respect for it, its unknowable nature, and its might. It has always made me feel small and insignificant, which I think is good for the soul. As a youngster, I joined my voice to the campaign to end whaling and have supported ocean conservation organizations all my life. 

But, until recent years and the growing urgency of the climate crisis, I can honestly say I never really thought of the ocean as vulnerable. Now I see plastic on the shore all the time, great skeins of fishing net, hooks, and tackle as well as the tiny fragments that might escape the notice of people who aren’t often looking down at the tide line. It’s frightening and it takes a lot of effort to remain positive. After every visit to the shore, I try to carry off some plastic. We could all do that; it would make a difference. 

I eschew single-use plastics and actively seek alternatives to plastic where sustainable. I also avoid eating fish and seafood. That is harder (fish is delicious), but I feel I have no choice. It’s not just that I love the ocean; I want my children to have a future. None of us is bulletproof when it comes to our impact on the environment and I am certainly no exception but there are things we can all do that will make a difference. No matter how small, it’s better than nothing. 


Phoblographer: Did you bring any of these objects home after photographing them?

Rachael Talibart: I bring an object home only very rarely. I prefer to leave nothing behind and take nothing away (apart from other people’s rubbish). After my surprise discovery of piddock shells, I collected a few and have them here now. I have a little rule, however, which is self-imposed but makes life more interesting: each shell gets used only once. After a session photographing a shell, I let the sea take it. This keeps things fresh and challenging. So my collection of piddock shells won’t last long. 

See more of Rachael Talibart’s work on her website, and follow along on Instagram at @rachaeltalibart and on Facebook at RachaelTalibartPhotography. Grab your copy of her most recent book, TIDES AND TEMPESTS, here.