Sunday, 17 April 2011
Notes towards Notes on Photography: Elegy
Photograph by Justin Partyka
East Anglia is a curious part of Britain in that it was once the richest region of the country, the centre of the wool trade, the point of exchange between Flanders and Britain, its great churches, with their magnificent hammerbeam figures, their fantastical sculpture in the form of misericord and boss, its profusion of churches, bearing witness to the wealth once accumulated here. Norwich was Britain’s second city.
Then came the Industrial Revolution and East Anglia withdrew into its own form of the dark backward and abysm of time. The farmers and the great landowners took all-but-sole possession while tin, steel, coal, cotton and ships prospered elsewhere, breeding a new industrial landscape. It was as if the whole region were caught in amber. Although Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield appeared in 1969, the intervening years have seen lives changed in degree but not always in kind. The shops, the post, the work on the land continue. The wartime aerodromes stand like ghosts in the distant fields. It is as if there were three Norfolks: the Norfolk of the professionals, including academics, artists, doctors and lawyers; the Norfolk of tradesmen, insurance offices and new light industries; and the Norfolk of the relatively unchanged engagement with land and sky. But for the small farmers working under that sky there is a sense of things ending.
Endings are sometimes followed by elegies. Elegy is a sophisticated, highly developed artistic mode that offers the past a shape. That shape hints of grace. Knowing we are watching something in its last phase, sensing it is about to die, is an elegiac feeling. It is as if we had seen everything that preceded it, watched its own life cycle and could now, in some way, apprehend the form that such a passage took. We have sometimes to be careful that elegy does not become rhetorical excess. It is not yet time for the eulogy that concentrates on the subject. It does not have quite that sense of occasion. It is a feeling rather than an address.
With photographs we get both evidence and elegy, both record and interpretation, but evidence and record lie at the core. The figure taking the photograph, the elegising presence, is absent for the key instant when light is just light and film is just a surface: the instant is simply what is, not what is said about it. Great photographs, even just good photographs, are far more than evidence and record but would be nothing without assurance of evidence and record.
The people recorded and presented by Justin Partyka are working the land. They are small farmers surviving in a context of larger scale industrial production. They achieve a bare sufficiency, if that. Their produce enters markets beyond their control. All they control is what lies, literally, to hand: soil, creature, seed and crop, and the relatively simple machines required to make the best of these things. They do not control their conditions, whether those be conditions of price or weather or light or time. Partyka’s photographs of them consist of four elements: soil, sky, yard and interior. People, creatures and machines work the soil, are poised against the sky, cross yards and relax or work in interiors.
The soil is the point. The sky matters in so far as it nourishes or starves the soil. It creates conditions for both soil and human life. The soil itself is worked-through history. It is a palimpsest that has been scraped away and written over time and time again, the tilling and sowing like writing: in the case of these small farmers it is the lives of the writers that is being written. Nor are the yards and interiors of a different substance. Whatever is out there is brought in, life dragged over the threshold into a bare room with its minor comforts, which, in the case of the farmers are generally the comforts of the old: a worn settee, an old armchair, table and simple bed. It’s much like Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters had left it, with the addition of a television or a phone, and a reproduction, cheap print or family photograph on the papered wall. It is subsistence country much as it had always been, not just in Norfolk or England, but almost anywhere in Europe.
Tomorrow to Hungary till the end of the week. I may be able to post from there. Internet Cafes beckon.