Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Views of the countryside

One well-represented area in Joel Segal Books is English topography, and I was just looking at A Corner of England, North Devon Landscapes and People, by the late James Ravilious. His work can be seen at James Ravilious - photographer of rural life and his scenes of North Devon life and landscape in the 1970s to 1990s show him as a masterly exponent of rural photography. Another photographer whose work I like is Simon McBride, whose The Spirit of England is a very nice collection of rural photos over England in general. The genre is fairly timeless - just focusing on the West Country, I can skim the shelves and find WA Poucher's Westcountry Journey and Photographic Memories of Devon and Cornwall from the Francis Firth Collection, as well as the pre-photography images of The Perfection of England, Artist visitors to Devon c. 1750-1870 (published in association with the 1995 University of Plymouth art exhibition of the same name).

It's all testimony to the long-lasting appeal of a beautiful landscape, both of Devon and of England itself......skreet! (FX: the scratched-record noise that's the TV convention when stopping unreliable narratives prior to debunking). At this point I'll contrast another photographic publication that came in recently: Rural myths was the theme of issue #12 of the now-defunct photographic journal Ten.8. Founded by a group of Birmingham-based photographers and journalists including Derek Bishton, explored an alternative/activist agenda on photography in relation to areas such racism, unemployment and social unrest, along with an general brief of analysing the meaning of photography. Rural Myths makes a strong case for the essentially pernicious nature of many of the conventions of rural photography, arguing that imagery of rural scenes has been shaped, from the start, by the social and political agendas of those making the pictures.

For instance, John Taylor's "The imaginary landscape" looks at how 19th century photography portrayed as "natural" a landscape that was actually radically transformed by agriculture and, especially, how it omitted rural poverty; and Stevie Bezencenet's "Landscape - Image - Property" looks at how photography's view of landscape as a prompt for aesthetic pleasure almost never confronts the reality of the land as property. Terry Morden's "The Pastoral and the Pictorial" and Peter Dormer's "Fantasy Island" both look at how photographic conventions tie into maintaining a certain reactionary status quo about the countryside: as a place that is expected to remain picturesque. This is a controversial topic that I won't go into here, but it deserves consideration because, if Ten.8's thesis is true, it affects not merely photography but many topical debates about land use (consider any debate where the word "eyesore" crops up).

It's interesting to re-read the photographic books in this light, as some are more in recognition of such issues than others. Full marks to Photographic Memories, which notes the focus on beauty and tranquility but makes clear that this is primarily because the Frith photos were picture postcards intended as holiday mementoes. Zero marks to The Spirit of England, which apart from one "powerful" scene of cooling towers treats England as an anachronistic pastoral landscape (for instance, boats are predominantly sail, and roads predominantly empty - a selective view in 1989). The Rural Myths point about lack of social and historical reality definitely applies to its picture of Slapton Ley, whose caption mentions its use for D-Day landing practice but not the most significant event of that time and place, the Operation Tiger disaster. Middling marks to A Corner of England: James Ravilious does portray cars, motorbikes, shops and a school computer alongside consciously archaic aspects of the countryside such as horse-drawn ploughing. Its intro by Robin Ravilious also acknowledges that the North Devon landscape is a man-made one, but nevertheless attempts to strongly evoke stereotypes of regret at the loss of the "old ways", and ascribes a particular character - "gentle melancholy" - to the landscape.

I'm not sure where I stand on this. On the one hand, Ten.8 makes a very strong case, but it has a rather Dave Spart edge to it that doesn't fully acknowledge the genuine beauty of many rural locations and the strong effect they have on people. On the other, a yearning for an unspoilt rural world is an aesthetic that runs deep in the English collective pysche, and if that yearning is based on unrealistic fantasy, it's right to expose it to analysis.


Addendum: in all this, I forgot a book I have at home, Britain from the Air by Jason Hawkes. Hawkes' work has won numerous awards, and genuinely reflects the diversity of British landscape, everything from wilderness, via farmland and ancient towns, to the most intensely urbanised areas.

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