Friday 25 February 2011

"Black Fen they call it"

Oddly enough, after last week's thoughts of Portugal in 1978, I found myself the following day, via an exhibition of new and wonderful photographs, back in the 1970s again. "You have to remember how things were then", said the interviewer of Justin Partyka about his photographs in the new edition of a book written in 1975.  Oh my, I'm old enough to be part of a living history lesson! - as were the women of Isleham, a village in the Cambridgeshire Fens, when Mary Chamberlain talked to them in 1975 for her pioneering oral history book, Fenwomen, which was the first book published by Virago Press.  

The interviewer, looking back to 1975, meant not just the long lives of the older women on the land, already then becoming rare memories, but also the low pay, poor conditions and blatant sex discrimination of the scattered new light industries and service sector becoming the main employers of younger women in this then still quite isolated rural region of few opportunities. 

Full Circle Editions have republished Fenwomen in a fine-quality hardbacked edition - an object of great pleasure for the hands and eyes - which also includes new photos of Isleham commissioned from Norfolk photographer Justin Partyka, known for his much praised East Anglians series - pictures of Norfolk farmers. I'd seen these on the Internet (via Conscientious, I believe. As so often, a voice from far away points me, via the Internet, to something close to home) so the chance to see some of his work for Fenwomen at an exhibition in Ely, a few miles from Isleham, was not to be missed.

It rained, as it can in those parts: a drenching mist that turns everything dim and ghostlike - people, buildings, trees, everything but the black earth of the fens, whose blackness deepens in the rain. Travelling damply from London to Cambridge to Ely, I wondered why I'd come. I could have stayed at home, stayed dry and got some work done. It was worth getting wet for! This small exhibition moved and impressed me as much as any photographs have ever done, and photography has affected me more and more these past few years of my late, blog-born enthusiasm.

Here was a distillation of what I love about the fenland landscape. In the big city, amidst so much, I experience such nothingness. There, in the flat, empty, watery, windy countryside, there is so much, space for so much - such vastness and such smallness, such expanses of monochrome and intensity of colour. On the Internet, I'd loved the subject matter and the composition of Justin Partyka's photographs of rural landscapes and people, a certain compelling ethos. It took the large, high quality prints to help me fully appreciate the deep, touchable texture of the works, their visceral thingness.

So it was a strong experience seeing these few prints hanging in a small room; a strong experience too to hear the photographer speak about them, to learn how from Norfolk he went to study folklore in North America, got to know the work of John Cohen and Cohen's film about Norfolk ballad singer Walter Pardon, and thus came full circle (like the publishing house) back home to Norfolk, to take photographs of the East Anglian countryside and its inhabitants that are full of shadow and colour, knowledge and feeling and questions.

Justin Partyka's photos and Mary Chamberlain's book have in common a patient, serious study and waiting, a certain raw sensibility, and respect for a harsh, particular rural life that has almost disappeared.  They go finely together and are deeply engaging.


Dale said...

Empty country, full heart -- and the rain, of course. Oh, I don't know.

Lucy said...

Terrific post, with a feast of links.I loved seeing Partyka's photos.

The web is wonderful indeed, for giving pointers, sampling, but there's nothing like seeing things in the real space of an exhibition, or even to hold in a book. I have sometimes wondered if this matters as much with photos as with other visual art, but you still can't beat walking amongst it, thingness, as you say.

And going there too; your description of making your way out and far afield to see it - pilgrimage, of sorts.

Thanks Jean.

Dick said...

What a handsome book! I'll buy anything with a gill sans title, but this sounds fascinating. A touch of the 'Akenfields', maybe?