I have been broadening my net looking for photographers who have produced notable studies of farmers. My tutor suggested looking at Denis Thorpe’s 1979 book The Shepherd’s Year (1) on which he collaborated with the journalist Alan Dunn. I was luckily able to find a second hand copy of this compact but interesting book.
The Shepherd’s Year was commissioned by The Guardian as journalism with Thorpe and Dunn assigned to follow a hill shepherd, Ray Dent, and his family for the full cycle of a farming year. I have found no record of whether the project was conceptualised by the editors or the two journalists but the very existence of such an extensive series on a single subject is historically relevant. Ross Collins, a photojournalist who became an educator, believes that 1975 was the end of the golden age of photojournalism, a time in which not just picture magazines but daily newspapers would run “many photo-pages with minimal copy, stories told through photographs” (2); by the mid-1980’s newspapers began to use a single photograph to illustrate a story.
The Shepherd’s Year therefore comes right at the end of an era in which the photojournalist was story teller, reporter and documentarist, set into the field with the license to study a single subject over an extended period of time. As someone who grew up when the great picture magazines were in their heyday and who remembers the launch of the Sunday Times Colour Supplement my instinct is to be nostalgic for this, so called, golden age of photojournalism but there is something very soft about Denis’ series.
In trying to understand why this was my initial reaction I turned to David Hurn’s Wales Land of my Fathers (3), a series of around one hundred photographs of which about half were taken in the seventies. Even ignoring the industrial landscapes Hurn presents rural Wales as a hard land, often beautiful, but an unforgiving environment whose inhabitants look worn down by life. Both Hurn and Thorpe are faithfully documenting an inhabited landscape away from the “soft south” of England but the photographers have chosen to frame a quite different perspective of rural life.
In Perspectives on Place Jesse Alexander discusses the term “pastoral” in the context of visual culture.
“Pastoral imagery is essentially a performance of the “countryside” a generally idealised representation of uncomplicated rural life.” (4: p.143)
A description that fits well with A Shepherd’s Year; there can be no doubt that to be a hill farmer in North Yorkshire was and is a hard life but despite the inclusion of snow covered hills and photographs of physical labour overall it presents as a perpetuation of what Alexander calls the “myth of a countryside idyll” (4: p.143). Hurn has a self declared emotional relationship with Wales, his choice of title makes this clear, and his photographs express this deep-rooted bond. When discussing Brandt’s landscapes Liz Wells talks of pictures that “crystallise the emotional dimension of our relation with land” (5: p.166) and I feel that Thorpe’s work falls short of this.
This is not intended as a judgement on Thorpe’s work, it is merely a comment that his instincts appear to lean more towards pictorialism than the depiction of, what one assumes are, the harsh realities of hill farming. Thorpe’s work is not readily available on-line and I am at risk of appearing to judge his work on one series of about fifty photographs and that is not my intent.
In fact I like many of the individual photographs included in the series, particularly his quite abstract pictures of sheep which combine movement and pattern. The series does document a family at work and at rest and is effective in doing this, there is a sense of the year unfolding and the agricultural milestones of mating, birthing, shearing and showing that punctuate the seasons. As a historical document it has real worth.
Each time I look through the book I return to the portrait of Ray Dent holding a lamb, in the same way that Mohr’s final portrait of Marcel the herdsman (5: p.39 & discussed here) seems to summarise his whole persona, this single image captures more of Dent’s nature, or at least my reading of it, than all the pictures of him walking or working with his sheep. It includes perfect details like his shepherd’s crook hanging on the fence, his well worn hat that seems personal and carefully chosen in the land and era of the flat cap and his shirt and tie which reminds me of my Yorkshire born father whose only concession to the weekend was to dig the garden in a soft shirt and tie as opposed to the pressed white shirts he wore during the week. But, more than any detail it is the look in his eye, the critical stare that suggests a mind analysing livestock despite the distracting presence of two reporters from London.
(1) Thorpe, Denis and Dunn, Alan (1979) The Shepherd’s Year. Newton Abbot: David and Charles
(3) Hurn, David (2000) Wales Land of My Fathers. London: Thames and Hudson
(4) Alexander, J.A.P. (2015) Perspectives on Place: Theory and Practice in Landscape Photography. London: Bloomsbury
(5) Berger, John & Mohr, Jean (1982) Another Way of Telling: A Possible Theory of Photography. London: Bloomsbury
(2) Collins, Ross (ND) A Brief History of Photography and Photojournalism (accessed at North Dakota State University 22.8.16) – https://www.ndsu.edu/pubweb/~rcollins/242photojournalism/historyofphotography.html
() Archives Hub (ND) Denis Thorpe Photographic Collection (accessed at Archives Hub 22.8.16) – http://archiveshub.ac.uk/data/gb2726-dth