Photo Essay

The Sunday Peninudes at Valens Conservation Area

Given the mid-to-late 20th Century beach culture that was instilled in me, it is hardly surprising that by my mid-teens I had completely eradicated the beach from my life.

By Mark Fenton
Published October 06, 2009

On a Sunday afternoon in September, 2009 I visited the beach at Valens Conservation Area, an easy half-hour drive from Hamilton city centre. My immediate reference for any beach is the familiar Seurat picture that captures a Sunday afternoon in another hemisphere, some 120 years ago.

I think you'll agree that in overall form my photo of Valens is strikingly similar.

This is where I was. Now I have never had much to do with beaches. Being red-haired and pale and growing up in the perpetual tanning salon of Saskatchewan summers, responsible adults wisely inclined my young mind to the horrors of skin cancer, or failing that, disfiguring burns that would limit still further my chances for adult companionship and intimacy.

I was slathered in sunscreen and encouraged to hide under the non-existent trees of the semi-arid topography. I remember that while actually frolicking in the water I was made to wear a white T-shirt, since the sunscreen would "all wash off."

This wasn't a big issue as I didn't really "get" the watersport experience (i.e. getting voluntarily wet in a province that offers every opportunity for staying dry). But on the rare moments I did wander down from the family cottage into the lake, the vision of vigorous boys splashing around exposing their proud bodies to the sun gods who darkened them severed what few threads still connected me to a tolerable body self-image.

The other memorable cultural event of summer holidays at the lake was my exposure to comic books. These were not something I had at home or cared much for, but a boy at a neighbouring cottage with whom I was encouraged to socialize had a cardboard box full of them which he generously let me look at. I don't remember the boy's name, but I do remember that he was the first peer of mine to express an interest in girls, and the first peer to use - to my horror - the word "tits," the more horrifying as he said it with such an unstudied nonchalance that he didn't even look up from the comic book he was flipping idly through. (The concerned parents in the early '50s who lobbied to suppress comic books because they degraded the morals of America's youth were clearly on to something.)

The comic books themselves, most of which predated my birth, were incoherent and unmemorable. They were missing so many pages that I suspect they bear some responsibility for the way I construct picture-narratives. My most vivid memory of them was the Charles Atlas ads that were ubiquitous on the inside of the more durable back page.

Obviously I identified strongly with Mac's "before" picture. (The one good thing about having to always wear a T-shirt on the beach was that it concealed my gangly, colourless torso.) Looking back at the ad from the vantage point of September 2009, it's hard not to read into it the martial philosophy that got America into the mess it's in now.

Admittedly the guy who kicks sand on the couple is in the wrong, but I'll be charitable and assume that the sand he kicks on them is the accidental by-product of his testosterone fueled beach-play. (Today he'd be identified, in early childhood, as ADHD and be taught strategies for adapting to societal norms.)

Sadly, when justifiably confronted about his discourtesy, The Bully's embarrassment manifests itself as masculine aggression. Despite the fact that he doesn't physically assault Mac, Mac chooses to inflate himself into a superpower more than equal to The Bully, and then launches a belated counterattack, before an audience of admiring women, an attack I might add, far in excess of the initial incident.

(From the Iliad to Tarantino it is in the nature of avengers that they exact more in compensation for the crime than is owed.) Given that Mac's muscle-makeover renders him unrecognizable to The Bully, and given that the incident inspiring the payback isn't properly referenced, there isn't even really an opportunity for learning here.

I would like to revise this drama for more 21st century, "culture of peace" qualities that I know many of us are working to instill in our children. We're good up to frame three of the original ad. At this point I would have Mac send away for a DVD tutorial through which he learns to access not Dynamic Tension, but rather Internal Energy through Tai Chi.

He not only finds strength he didn't know he had, he gains self-knowledge, relaxation techniques, and improved digestion. Some months later, going idly to and fro in the world as he meditates on a koan, Mac finds himself back on the beach and face to face with The Bully.

The Bully: ...fuck you looking at?

Mac: You don't remember me?

The Bully: No. But you'll sure as fuck remember me if you don't get out of the way!

[I know The Bully's lines are uninspiring and vulgar and stock. I simply don't know how else to write them. I always find a mind-numbing sameness to bullying, as though it's an assault on the potential of language as much as it's an assault on the potential of personal will. On an immediate and more selfish note, I also now won't be able to see this article in RTH when it drops, because the parental controls on the family computer will keep me off web-pages with such language. It will be a bit like that poker hand where each player draws a card and is required to affix it face outwards against the forehead. So everyone can see my card but me.]

Mac: Some weeks ago we had an altercation in which you encroached my personal space, and then in response to my outrage - incidentally the person I've become wouldn't now acknowledge so small an offence - you threatened me with violence. I don't wish retribution, or even an apology. I simply see this as an opportunity to help you raise your own consciousness about -

The Bully: Out of my way you little New Age sissy.

[The Bully attempts to push past Mac, but finds his force strangely deflected and The Bully falls gently on the sand. Angered, he tries again. Mac is summoning energies deep within himself. This time The Bully is deflected and stumbles even farther. Again he tries. And again. Mac seems barely to move. Eventually The Bully gives up, exhausted, but not really hurt.]

The Bully: Alright. You win. [He starts to walk away, then turns.] How d'you learn to do that stuff anyway?

Mac: It starts by getting control of the ego. When you feel you're in a place that can happen I'd be more than happy to mentor you.

The Bully: Ahhhh. [Starts to walk away again. Turns.] Alright. Gimme your email.

[The Bully takes a card from Mac and walks away again muttering to himself]

The Bully:...Ha!...look out anyone who gets in my way when I can lay this shit on 'em...

[Mac just closes his eyes and shakes his head in serene resignation. After The Bully is out of sight Mac notices his girlfriend is on a knoll some fifty feet away. Mac's ego is still extant enough he gets a mild thrill at the thought that she probably saw him take control of The Bully situation.]

Mac: [Casually.] Oh, Hi Brianne. You probably noticed that I ran into that misguided soul who kicked sand on us -

Brianne: I'm sorry. Could you come back in about half an hour? I'm into a really deep Yoga position.

Given the mid-to-late 20th Century beach culture that was instilled in me, it is hardly surprising that by my mid-teens I had completely eradicated the beach from my life. I never wanted to go back there. Now you may think reading this that I sound particularly vain and self-conscious and body-image obsessed and I'm not.

Might I argue that it is beach culture itself that forces even those people who are supremely self-assured in their physical uniqueness (not that I'm suggesting I'm one of those people either) into this sense of inadequacy. Note how my wild-cam (see below for an explanation of my surreptitious camera technique) captured people forced into body sculpting exercise by the beach. This woman did hours of stomach crunches,

and I saw two people together doing unsynchronized leg lifts

the photo of which I captured in such poor quality that it bears as much relation to the intended subject as pictures in those pop-psychology paperbacks in the 70s that showed you how you could see suggestive body parts in the ice-cubes in liquor ads and how these vaguely grotesque disembodied limbs were seducing you into buying their product.

(This genre is entombed as deeply in the last century as Charles Atlas ads.)

I was puzzled by people exercising on the beach. Isn't the practice of public callisthenics an eleventh hour and frenzied admission that you don't meet the desired body image for the beach? Wouldn't it be better to simply hide under a white sheet?

Then it occurred to me that our society has gone so far in connecting a firm and sculpted body to social status, that we in fact use the act of exercising to demonstrate that we are achieving an ideal body, or better yet, that we are maintaining an already achieved ideal body. It may not be enough any more to have the ideal body, it may be essential to show the process that created it.

The fit gaining dominion over the unfit by forcing them to witness their workout. This fit/unfit class division explains why it is altogether not weird for a person to lie on a couch in a wife-beater and boxer shorts on a weekday afternoon drinking beer and eating potato chips while watching attractive people do aerobics on TV.

It also explains the phenomenon of fitness centres that have windows onto busy streets so that gym-rats-the slim, the righteous, the elect- can be seen sweating on exercise bicycles an arms length from passing slobs-the flabby, the shameful, the damned.

Now that I've got children I have resumed making trips to the beach, of which the weekend at the VCA beach was one of many. To my relief I've discovered that my conception of beaches as places that are populated by fit, beautiful people is purely a cultural construction.

In fact, the majority are not in any way fit, and when they are, having now examined hundreds of people in the peninude I've discovered that even those with supermodel-like bodies don't look really good in the peninude under midday sun (Yes the word "peninude" meaning "almost nude" is my own coining. My model is the word "peninsula" which is a formation of the latin words "peane" and "insula" meaning "almost island" and I like that there is an aquatic connection between the two formations, though the editorial staff at RTH may well chose to dump this word, which will make the following double digression seem a bit random.)

Double digression on the "peninude" formation.

Digression 1

Now that I think of it, the idea for peninude came from the sign I pass daily on the way to work, for the flight company Peninsulair, which name you will probably agree is more linguistically dubious than Peninude. The reason the sign has caught my eye lately is due to its current state of disrepair.

Jokes are too obvious to bother to type up. End of Digression 1.

Digression 2

When I was checking to confirm that I was joining Latin to Latin in the forming "peninude" I consulted I believed that I was immune at this point to being affected by any lewdness the internet could show me, yet I have to confess that I was mildly aghast that the ad you see reproduced below was actually embedded in the definition.

While I'll admit I have probably voluntarily surfed into equally creepy material, usually on the pretext of discovering what the complex system of parental controls on our computer actually keep out, and while I'll also admit that anyone putting "nudity" into a search engine is asking for trouble, this went way beyond the garish and clearly unrelated pop-up ads that seem to be able to infiltrate any website.

It appears in the body of the definition itself along with scholarly pronunciation keys and etymologies. It's like seating someone dressed in stiletto heels and neon lingerie amidst people in black gowns and mortar-boards at a graduation ceremony. It's just wrong.

So there is, even in September of 2009, a case to be made for purchasing a multivolume, printed and bound OED with magnifying glass, if only because these tomes should restrict "Bad Girls in my Area" from their pages. And am I the only person that finds an icky verisimilitude to a number like 2498, a number that is clearly not an estimate but rather a precise figure that some spyware program must be using to delimit a set circumference radiating from the epicentre of my house, which circumference nets - no, not somewhere around 2500 - exactly 2498 girls, who are kept in cages in a rapidly declining state of personal hygiene. Ew. I'm done with it. End of Digression 2.

The reason that all panoramic shots of a beach on a summer's day are so similar, is that all beaches are overpopulated by peninudes who naturally strive to keep equidistant from each other.

this equidistance reminded me first of Breughel,

but these figures are nothing if not fully clad. Imagine an old master passing through a wrinkle in time and space to land at VCA beach, September 2009 and find peninudity normalized and natural. And I thought then of Hieronymus Bosch coming upon this beach and believing he'd found the middle panel of "The Garden of Earthly Delights,"

recoiling at this hedonism as he knows the certain damnation they are in for later. Although the only VCA beach practice that came close to comparing to the rigorous and weird activities undertaken in Bosch's garden (e.g.: I did not see a man kissing a human sized bird) was the following picture of a couple inflating a large air-mattress, with a pump.

And I often wonder what aliens to our culture would think, seeing people change into outfits like this to undertake so utilitarian a task.

I strolled along the beach firing shots more or less at random. I often wish I had Ben Shahn's "periscope" camera, which allowed him to shoot sideways from where he was facing, thus getting close candid shots of strangers who looked intently and unguardedly at the camera as though it were they who were spying on him. The looks of profound inquiry on his subject's faces are probably just general nosiness.

since they never dreamed he was aiming at them.

Wouldn't it be diabolical if this concept fell into the mind of some demonic engineer who created a firearm along these lines. One that appeared to have a long -but false- barrel, with a telescopic sight that appeared to follow the false barrel but actually periscoped at 90 degrees.

The gun would fire 90 degrees to the direction the marksman seemed to be aiming through a discrete stub of a barrel, and through the periscope the crosshairs would pinpoint the sideways target. This deception would encourage the victim to approach as though this were the safest haven from the impending bullet, only to realize too late that he himself is the quarry and unmissable, and then...

I have allowed my subscription of Soldier of Fortune to lapse so for all I know the technology might be orderable to all ages by clicking "buy now" on a web page.

Anyway Ben Shahn just used a camera that shot at 90 degrees from the direction he was facing, not a gun, so he was deceptive rather than deadly, which is something I guess I aspire to. As I have no such camera, my latest tactic for not get noticed is:

a) to walk through a crowd of hundreds of people as I shoot photos (I've learned the hard way that this works better than, say, going into an open field that has only one person other than me in it and expecting the person not to notice he or she is being photographed); and

b) positioning the camera at about waist height and looking intently around as though I were just about to take a photograph, perhaps of a child of mine who I am starting to be worried I have lost, and while I'm affecting this look of parental anxiety coupled with idle camera holding, actually firing off sporadic unplanned shots. I circumnavigated the beach in less than a minute doing just this. People often ask if they can come with me on a photo shoot and I am then in the embarrassing position of having to say that it's probably not worth their while to come and meet me for that because my photo tours last about 45 seconds. In the past I have had photographers who possess real gear (tripods, light metres, multiple big lenses, etc.) join me, and I sometimes let them play with their stuff while I go off and use up my entire memory stick, and they're still setting up for their first shot when I get back.

For every thesis there is an antithesis. In contrast to those who wished only to be seen exercising, there were those so at peace in their peninudity that they were able to fall asleep under the gaze of hundreds of strangers. (Thinking back again to my own childhood I was most likely told that if I ever fell asleep on the beach I'd probably die, or if I was lucky, spend the rest of my life in a special fluid because I no longer had skin.) I envy those with melanin who can sleep in the sun. Here I thought I'd captured a woman exquisitely at peace with her body.

and initially I even had qualms about reproducing the photo, lest it seem invasive and immodest.

On getting the photo up on the screen, however, I saw the shot in full, and saw that it exposed no one but myself. I had gone one better that Ben Shahn's and his trick camera shooting at 90 degrees to his stance. My camera had effectively gone 180. I had shot myself.

(Note the hat. I really haven't ever gotten over my childhood conditioning against the malign sun.) I felt as though everyone on the beach could see the card on my forehead but me, and it wasn't a good card.

I resembled the iconic image of Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang's expressionist film classic "M."

which follows the horrific acts of a child murderer in Germany, circa 1930. It has been said many times but is worth repeating, that the photographer is truly "in" the photos he or she takes, in a way that is true of no other art form. Or to end with a journalistic clich�, that it's impossible to get a story without selling someone out. In my case that person is usually me.

Mark Fenton lives in Hamilton and works in transportation logistics. He is the author Pim, a children's book for all ages. The eponymous Pim tweets daily @PIMSLIM_. A physical copy of Pim will be published soon and in the meantime Pim is available as a Kindle e-book which you can buy. Mark maintains a website at

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By Hamayoon (anonymous) | Posted October 07, 2009 at 04:09:50

Concluded Lines in this Article.
For every thesis there is an antithesis. In contrast to those who wished only to be seen exercising, there were those so at peace in their peninudity that they were able to fall asleep under the gaze of hundreds of strangers.

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