James Ravilious – exhibition in Barnstaple, North Devon

James Ravilious : Celebrations

Barnstaple and North Devon Museum

Barnstaple and North Devon Museum

A sunny day in June and a drive up through Devon from Somerset to Barnstaple to visit an exhibition at The Barnstaple and North Devon Museum. It is here that an archive of about 200 original black and white photographs of James Ravilious are held and presently about 50 of these are on show under the title “Celebrations”. It has been something of a journey coming here as I first made direct enquires about James Ravilious last year. The Museum said they had no prints at the time (an inexperienced member of staff it seems had spoken to me) and was directed to the Beaford Arts Centre for which James Ravilious worked; finally, I was in contact with Robin Ravilious, James’ widow, who has a website in memory of his work and who sometimes gives talks. Robin confirmed that the museum did have a substantial archive of original works but it was not until the exhibition came about did I decide to visit, encouraged in part by Jesse Alexander, OCA photography curriculum leader.

Arriving at the museum, I soon came across a display of James Ravilious memorabilia. The book “An English Eye” I had studied last year, reading some of the text and taking in the photographs that give a good understanding of what James Ravilious’s work is about. Apart from this book, there is also an award winning video narrated by Alan Bennett and featuring among others, Robin Ravilious. There is also another book, “Down the Deep Lanes” which is book about the west country lavishly illustrated by James Ravilious’s black and white photographs. Ravilious’s photographs are all in black and white, made in the days of film and the chemical or wet darkroom.

Archie Parkhouse by James Ravilious - photograph in entrance to the museum

Archie Parkhouse by James Ravilious – photograph in entrance to the museum

The first photograph of his that catches the eye as it stands at the bottom of the staircase in the museum, is called “Archie Parkhouse sheltering from the snow, Milhams, Devon, 1976” – this is said to be one of the photographer’s favourite if not most prized photos and it shows Archie Parkhouse, an intimate of James Ravilious, holding some kind of sack over his head while standing outside in the rolling Devon landscape. It is the expression on Archie’s face that makes this picture so special – although he is conscious of being photographed, he is not reacting to the camera merely revealing a slightly despondent air as he accepts the adverse weather. There is another image of Archie cerebrating Christmas Dinner with a neighbour in which he is chuckling raucously yet again in a relaxed unpretentious manner. The humour in these images is not funny ha ha, it is merely expressive of a kind of innate rustic joy.

The exhibition itself is upstairs in a single room, the photographs mounted and placed in wooden frames, hung on the walls of the room; there are a few artificially constructed walls in the centre and also a cabinet containing more moment movies from the era of James Ravilious in particular some of his published work.

The making of Black and White prints, from camera to paper, was something of an art and still is as it has not completely died out as a practice; many pursue this kind of image digitally although sensors usually lack the tonal width of black and white film and paper, unable to capture what Ravilious called the “silver watercolour.” Gone are the extremes of black and white so that what emerges is a softer, characteristically English yet candid view. James Ravilious was certainly a master of this “carefully crafted” process and his prints glow with a subtle light that silver halide can give under the right hands. James Ravilious was the son of the artist Eric Ravilious who was well known in his time; James however, did not find his niche in the world of painting but after seeing an exhibition by Henri Cartier-Bresson (with whom he happened to share a birth date along with his subject Archie Parkhouse) he appears to have realised he could pursue his own artistic intentions through the medium of photography which at the time had not really been accepted as an art form in the UK. Black and White in the country was one way of avoiding the problem of green in the English landscape.

In the exhibition, there are views of rural life from the area Archie Parkhouse photographed, some miles south of Barnstaple, between Exmoor and Dartmoor. The rustic community here in the 1960’s and 70’s were using centuries old farming methods and still adhered to a way of life that has largely disappeared as villages become dormitory towns and convenience stores for the wealthy who have taken over the countryside. Farming has become more mechanised and farms much larger. The dwindling fortunes of small holders has been covered by other photographers but Ravilious’ work remains unique.

Exhibition Space

Exhibition Space

One image that captures my eye is of Reverend Bill South seen through the archway of a church at Roborough; the striking thing about this photograph is that the archway which would also appear to be the entrance is blocked by a table with a bowl on top. Like much of Ravilious’s work, there is much to be seen in the incidental detail of the image. Ravilious seems to have been brilliant in capturing the decisive moment, the quality of which is evident in his own images – he has taken this concept formulated by Cartier-Bresson and developed it in subtle and sometimes surprising ways. Ravilious worked in this particular area of Devon sfor over 20 years catching transitory moments of inherent beauty. As I looked at the exhibition, a couple of people walked around looking briefly at the images while chuckling at their messages.

Although an artist, Ravilious did pay attention to his equipment which he often moderated for his own use.He liked to use some of the older Leica lenses which were softer and yet allowed less contrasty images. He also put vignettes over his lenses to help cut out flare.According to his wife, Ravilious was for ever playing with equipment to fine tune his images.

Ravilious had great affection for “delightfully rundown”, the clutter of buildings and farmyards that seemed to hail from a bygone age; he found their character a welcome relief from the clinical feel of modern farming and it’s intensive forms of agriculture.The stoicism of these dwellings and their inhabitants comes out in his work which is easy to enjoy, not demanding too much of the viewer yet not giving into the demands of populism. There are many””chocolate-box” images of the area to be found in countless books referencing the beauty of the area but none seem to extoll it’s virtues quite like the images of Ravilious who not only lived in the area but among it’s people who became his friends.The fact that he came to the area from London might have helped in his taking a detached view of his locality.

The exhibition encompassed a number of subjects. Apart from church going, there were auctions, sports days, playgrounds, fetes, weddings,baby shows, harvest suppers as well as royal celebrations. One image that stands out is entitled “Armistice Day, Chulmleigh, 1976” and is a wonderful study of some 16 different adult male faces. Another photograph that catches my eye is entitled “Line-up for a sack race, Chulmleigh 1988” while a photograph of a country doctor stitching a cricketer’s head shows a wonderful control of light.

After seeing the exhibition, I drive back though the long evening, visiting Beaford where the arts centre that initially supported Ravilious still operates and made a quick visit to Dalston around which Ravilious lived and worked. My love of his work is perhaps influenced its’ proximity to the area I have lived in most of my life just over the border in Somerset and which I am also attempting to record not so much for posterity but as a place that yields secrets as it is focused on and explored with the camera. Yet Ravilious was obviously a remarkable photographer and the increasing interest in his work, there was recently an article about him in Amateur Photographer magazine, seems set to deservedly continue.

Genesis – Sebastian Salgado


The title of this exhibition which is also accompanied by a large book of over 500 photographs published by Taschen, recalls the book “The Creation” by Ernst Haas, which was an early colour monograph produced in the 1970’s while Salgado’s work although contemporary, is in black and white. Salgado is a leading photographer and has already gone down in photographic history. Until recently, he continued to work with film and still prints in a chemical darkroom after digitally producing negatives. I wanted to see his work in original print form since books hardly ever do justice to printed work – it all looks rather contrasty and lacking in tone with the emphasis on the content of the images, their message, rather than their reproduction.

Friends, Palyang and Hans from Belgium who visit the exhibition, give me a book about Sebastian Salgado, a Livre de Poche, which contains an introductory text and well reproduced images. I read this through and look at the images, some of which I know having seen an exhibition of his “Migrations” in New York in 2001. I am most struck by photographs of an open mine in which people the size of ants can be seen scurrying around.

I read an article in the BJP by someone who travels to Paris to interview Sebastian Salgado in his office-studio. This describes Salgado’s office-studio and his background, having grown up on a ranch in Brazil, an area of countryside that became deforested yet is now being restored as a nature park by Salgado and his wife.

When I hear there is a talk about Salgado at the Natural History Museum, I take a train the next day to attend it. The speaker is Parvati Nair, a cultural studies of Hispanics academic, who has written a book about Salgado entitled “A Different Light“, the subject of the talk. Professor Nair works at the UN university in Barcelona and first came into contact with Salgado when his Terra body of work was being shown; she was struck by the quality of the photographs and found she could relate to the subject matter since it reminded her of that part of her childhood between 3 and 6 when she lived in India. Salgado is presenting scenes that are largely foreign to a western audience (and I wonder if this is behind some of the criticism directed at him by Western critics).

She saw Migrations in 2003 at The Barbican in London and found she related to it through her work which was at that time partially concerned with the migration of people. She looked for a book on his work but could find none so decided to write her own. She sees Salgado as a documentarian, a visionary and an artist. She shows a few images on a screen but this is more of a talk than a show; Salgado has given her permission to show these images, one each from Salgado’s major photo-essays. Salgado comes from Brazil where he was born to the son of a cattle rancher in 1944; he studied economics to doctorate level, met his wife while doing so and later became involved in politics against the regime and as a result was forced into exile. It was his wife who first lent him a camera and she continues to support his work being a vital part of the Salgado brand. Salgado is concerned with the land and photographs modernity, modernity being the world that has emerged with the industrialisation of nations that began in the eighteenth century, a world in which man became more important than his environment, anthropocentric. There is a need to look at his work not just as a series of photo-essays but as a corpus; this helps one to understand what he is about.

Salgado is engaged in a project around his home, noted also by the journalist who interviewed him and obviously something Salgado wants to promote. In his photographic work, he will often stay in a locality for months as was the case in the Galapagos; this gives him a chance to engage with the subject he is covering and in particular the people. Salgado has the kind of natural charisma that puts his subjects at ease and hence is able to make photographs with mutual consent; he finds connecting with children a useful way to make contact with a community. Although photographs are made in the field, much also happens back in his Parisian studio where his wife plays an actively important part in the editing process so much so that she is now credited for it. Salgado himself is a very focused man, multi-lingual, generous and welcoming so people don’t feel threatened by him. Although nowadays very much part of a team, it is Salgado who makes the photographs; for the first part of his career, he worked for agencies such as Magnum and was very much his own man. To read what makes Salgado Salgado, one really needs to read Parvati Nair’s book it seems but she stresses the way Salgado has made images with which many people can connect. It is surely significant that his current exhibition is not being shown in an art context but in a major international museum such as The Natural History Museum where the emphasis is not on photography but where photography plays an important part.

A good website to see is www.amazoniasimages.com which showcases and promotes Salgado’s work.

After the talk, I take some refreshment and then go to see the exhibition; I am expecting a mammoth space since there are over 500 images in the catalogue but fortunately they are not all on show and the exhibition is a digestible whole. On entry, I am struck by the quality of the printing – this is not an aspect of Salgado’s work I am accustomed to and for me, it establishes him as a great photographer rather than just an image maker that might be the impression from looking at books of his photos. Some of these images presented in books look a bit treacly but here there is wonderful use of light, evident in a more balanced contrast. Anyone who has tried to make black and white photographs look good will know that this is not an easy matter rather a skill. There is something epic too about the compositions rather like those great works of art from the past that show biblical scenes. Salgado shows the awesome side to nature as well as it’s majesty and uniqueness. Looking at them close up, some detail looks a bit vague and one is aware of grain yet when one takes a few steps back to see the whole image, these elements do not detract from aesthetics of the photographs which take on a life of their own being more than the sum of their parts. These black and white images are not black and shite images, but are luminous and convey a sense of space.

One can buy the catalogue of the exhibition, a large book about A3+ size, yet in one of the rooms of this exhibition there is a cabinet containing an even bigger book about A1 size of which there is a limited edition of 3,000, each one coming with it’s own reading stand. It is a two volume work, signed and numbered by Salgado.

There is some helpful blurb facing one on entry, written by his wife Lellia, that explains the exhibition as being about the world that existed before man, a world that started millions if not billions of years ago .. a world that existed before modern life accelerated.

The first print that one sees on entering caught my eye immediately and I found myself wanting to look at it for sometime. It is titled “Antarctic Peninsula, 2005” and captioned “Iceberg between Paulet Island and the South Shetland Islands on the Weddell Sea” revealing a complex variety of forms made by a large iceberg; there is an archway through which a richly toned dark sea flows while part of the iceberg looks as though it might be the corner of a giant castle with straight and regular walls although it is in fact another bit of this transitory object.

Another image to the right of the entry, one of a number of penguin colonies, is entitled “Antarctic Peninsula, 2005” contains a wide range of tones as well as a sweeping landscape much of it populated by penguins. The caption is “A colony of chinstrap penguins (Pygoscelis antartica) at Bailey Head on Deception Island” and the image reveals a snaking ridge on which the penguins stand, overlooked by cloud-topped mountains in the background.

An image entitled “South Georgia, 2009” of Southern Elephant Seal (Mirunga leonina) calves looks slightly different from other photographs evident with a rather surreal looking seal in the foreground. The world does not look like this even in black and white! The lack of grain suggests that this is a digital photograph, digital being a relatively new venture for Salgado who otherwise uses black and white film, his favourite being Kodak Tri-X which has now been discontinued.

“South Sandwich Islands, 2009” (Saunders Island is inhabited by penguins of several different species, notably the chinstrap (Pygocelus antartica) which number more than 150,000 couples”) is a large vertical landscape photograph in which a group of penguins can be seen roosting on a flat outcrop of rock, dwarfed by the rugged terrain around it.

“Valdes Peninsula, Argentina, 2004” is a close up of the huge tail of a Southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) from which water pours, shortly before it dives.

“Falkland Islands, 2009” shows a large albatross flying directly towards the viewer across  a coastline landscape covered by albatrosses.

“Punta Cormorant, Floreana Island, Galapagos, Ecudor (2004)” reveals greater flamingos in a salty lagoon; there is a good range of tones with the dark water highlighting the “white” of the flamingos.

“Madagascar, 2010” is an aerial view of the “Bemaraha National Park” that shows a band of trees that runs diagonally though a multitude of stony peaks among which single trees can be seen growing in places.

“Sibert Island, West Sumatra, Indonesia, 2008” shows a leader of the Mentawi clan, a brilliant study of sidelight falling on a largely dark scene. This is one of a number of portraits of extraordinary looking characters.

One section is called Africa. There is a photograph of a leopard drinking from a pool presumably at night since much of the image is dead black. The title is “Damaraland, Namibia, 2005” and it is captioned, “A leopard (Panthera pardus) in the Barab River Valley”

Salgado’s photographs seem to transcend genre – landscape, portrait, black and white, natural history, travel photography etc are all part of his work; one can call him a photo-journalist but this term does not describe him very well since he is not working for journals or any particular market.

The day after seeing the exhibition, I meet with OCA tutor Robert Enoch and we later shared a beverage at The Photographer’s Gallery and discussed Salgado’s work. He mentions the antagonism contained in the approach of making aesthetically pleasing images of truly horrible subjects such as starvation; Salgado’s work might be considered too visually effective! His images do operate on a documentary level yet can fit into a fashion magazine like Vogue. For instance, is said that someone who he had photographed wanted to obtain a copy of the book it was in and was shocked to realise it would cost her about a year’s wages. Such questions around the exploitive nature of photo-journalism are not only raised about Salgado’s work but that of other photo-journalists yet Slagado stands out for his almost classical approach enhanced by a romantic flavour.

I also hear that the OCA will not be arranging a study day for this exhibition on the assumption that most people will go to see it anyway; it appears that OCA days are to draw attention to work that one would otherwise overlook. This is understandable and yet there is so much to learn from Salgado; he ticks all the boxes when it comes down to matters such as composition and I personally gained an insight into a method of not just titling images but adding informative captions too, which is part of my field of study at present. I approach Robert Enoch and also Gareth Dent of the OCA and eventually a study day is agreed. My argument that as student we need to learn to consider rather than consume what we see has been listened to. A good review can be found here.