A5 Research: Farmwork – Colin Shaw

A Relief Worker at a Dairy Unit - Colin Shaw 1985

A Relief Worker at a Dairy Unit – Colin Shaw 1985 (https://www.colinshaw.co.uk)

I first came across Colin Shaw’s Farmwork in one of Café Royal Books’ (1 & 2) excellent little pamphlet publications that are fast creating a remarkable archive of 1970s and 80s British documentary photography. After researching the photographer and recognising that, like John Darwell, his work sympathetically expressed a deep understanding of the realities of rural life I managed to track down a copy of his 1988 book by the same name (4).

Shaw grew up in a farming community in Warwickshire, his father had been a farm labourer before the young Shaw was born, and those early experiences and his continued close association with rural villages have enabled him to represent the countryside, not as a rural idyll, but as landscape moulded and exploited by human hand as an industrial resource.

Moulded, exploited, and industrial, are not words used to subvert the myth of a green and pleasant land, indeed most of Britain is green and pleasant, but to highlight a fundamental mis-understanding of our landscape. When we look out upon Britain from the train or motorway we are seeing a manufactured landscape, every field has been carved from ancient forest; woodland preserved and modified to produce building materials, firewood, charcoal or pit props and as hunting parks for the ruling classes; streams dammed to form ponds for fish farms; rivers narrowed and channelled, deepened and rerouted to feed water meadows or mills; great pits, some now recycled as recreational lakes, where once we quarried stone, sand, clay, lime and gravel to build everything from castles to council houses. There are no great wildernesses here, even the flora and fauna of our moors and highlands have been modified by man and their livestock. (i)

Three quarters of the total landmass of Britain is farmed and every acre speaks of historical or contemporary industrial or commercial processes, our oldest industries were based on exploiting the land; the countryside has always been a place of work but the great change is that by the beginning of the twenty first century only a small fraction of the population are engaged in those activities (ii) and the inhabitants of our towns and cities have long forgotten their agrarian heritage. Colin Shaw argues that the farm worker has become invisible (4: p.10) and that the apparent emptiness of the countryside continues to promote the myth of the British countryside as a sparsely populated rural idyll where people, divorced from the economic and social challenges of the cities, pursue a simpler and, by inference, easier life.

This year whilst researching the photography of British farming I have been surprised by the comparative lack of strong documentary work that attempts either to debunk the myth of the rural idyll or to project farming as a modern industry. (see here). I have previously discussed John Darwell (here), Dennis Thorpe (here) and James Ravilious (here) who have all completed important bodies of work documenting farming but, perhaps because I am unfairly comparing different eras of photography, only Darwell consistently speaks to me of the economic and emotional challenges of the industry as opposed to projecting farming as a tough job in “beautiful surroundings”. There are some other interesting projects that I will look at over the next few weeks including Sophie Gerrard’s Drawn To the Land which “takes an intimate look at the contemporary Scottish landscape through the eyes of the women who are working, farming and shaping it.” (6)

That long introduction brings me back to Colin Shaw whose series is focussed on people engaged in agricultural work from Orkney to Devon. Most of the photographs were taken in 1985 which positions this work six years after Denis Thorpe’s The Shepherd’s Year (here) and twenty years before John Darwell’s Dark Days (here). His workers range from young adults to women in their seventies, casual labourers to farm owners, full time farm workers and casual labourers, men and women working indoors as well as in the sun, rain and snow. This diversity is the first impression; there are stereotypes included, two elderly farmers in trilbies at a cattle market, a flat capped Leicestershire herdsman or Mr Pugh the Welsh sheep farmer but these are the minority; there is no particular commonality of dress, gender or age.

Unlike the pictorialists Shaw leaves us in no doubt that the workers are his subject, they are often positioned centre frame and usually dominate the composition. I commented on Ravilious’ work that the viewer required a level of understanding to read his work, to see past the picturesque and recognise the backbreaking work in which his subjects were engaged; in this sense there is an ambiguity in Ravilious’ work that is less present in Farmwork. Nearly without exception the subjects are actively working, engaged in their labours and it is often the small details that provide insights to their environments and potentially their philosophy.

The farms are dirty places, workers are often covered in dust and small pieces of the crop they are working with, clothes are chosen for their practicality, comfort and familiarity, torn trousers, frayed collars and cuffs, straw-hung pullovers snagged and holed, herdsman’s long heavy aprons splattered with mud and worse and teeshirts once purchased for days of leisure now deeply stained after long use as work clothes; no one here dresses for attention during their working day.

Trimming the hoof of a pedigree bull, taking great care not to cut the blood vessels just below the surface of the  hoof. From the series Farmwork - Colin Shaw 1985

Trimming the hoof of a pedigree bull, taking great care not to cut the blood vessels just below the surface of the hoof. From the series Farmwork – Colin Shaw 1985

Heavy gloves protect hands from chaffing and the cold; the heavy boots of previous generations have been replaced by trainers for dry land and wellingtons for the wet. Shaw often includes the workers’ hands, these are after all photographs of people engaged in manual labour, and they are strong hands, grimy with mud or grease, skinned and scared from mishaps, firmly grasping tools and animals, fixing, carrying, birthing, shearing, feeding, dehorning, plucking, repairing, building or just rolling a cigarette; these are hands that get a heavy job done or gently test a cow’s teats for signs of mastitis or feed a new born calf.

Shaw set out to “challenge the obscurity” of farm workers, to put “people back into the agricultural landscape” (4: p.11) and because he wanted “to document the everyday life of people who are employed on farms” (4: p.8). He achieves these objectives and has created a valuable record of farming in the 1980s so it is good to see that Reading University have “600 sets of black and white negatives and contact prints, prints and mounted exhibition prints for the ‘Farmwork’ series” (7) in the archive of their Museum of English Rural Life; this is a valuable resource.

Whereas the viewer needs to work hard to read the work of Ravilious or at least to get beyond the picturesque, Shaw’s work is significantly less ambiguous, there is a strong sense of hard physical labour being carried out in inhospitable environments. In his more recent work documenting the Peak District he shows a acute sense of line, form and colour but in Farmwork he has, probably very intentionally, avoided the picturesque; many of his compositions are formal usually including the minimum of contextual background. His approach focuses our attention on the farm workers and brings us close enough to the action to read their facial expressions and to sense the physicality of their work.

In the thirty years since Shaw completed this series farm workers have probably become even more invisible and isolated, there is now just one full time farm worker for ever seven hundred acres or farmland (ii and iii). Fully enclosed cabs on tractors and combines are vital for the health and safety of their operators but on passing a field being worked we see faceless machines and few if any humans. The population continues to drift from the countryside into the towns and most of us have no contact with anyone engaged in food production. Now more than ever the 1% of the population who produce our food need to be recognised as a vital workforce who not only help to fill the shelves of our local supermarket but who maintain, manage and nurture 75% of the landmass of these islands.

In 1985 Colin Shaw gave some of these people a face, recorded a way of life far removed from the rural idyll and revealed some of the realities of farming; a followup series is long overdue.

Notes on Text

(i) Francis Pryor tells us that “if you want to understand the landscape you cannot ignore the past” (5: p.4). Traditionally we learn that the landscape was purely natural until the first Neolithic farmers began to clear land for farming but Mesolithic hunter gatherers are now thought to have created seasonal camps on the same sites over an extended period of time so it is only logical to assume that they would have created clearings, prepared crossing places over streams, perhaps cleared the woodland from places where animals would come to drink but realistically they played a limited role in shaping the landscape we see today. The Neolithic farmers on the other hand indisputably started a process that continued until the 19th century of clearing the land of trees and rocks to plant arable crops or to enclose land for pasture. We started shaping the landscape 6,500 years ago and there is no doubt that some of Neolithic field boundaries made by clearing stones and rocks still mark modern field lines.

(ii) In the twentieth century the number of people working on the land sharply declined; in 1850 22% of the population was engaged in farming, in 2014 this had fallen to less than 1%. There is also a significant decline in employed staff, as opposed to farm owners; In 1923 there were 892,000 employed farm workers, by 2014 this had fallen to 170,000 of which only 60,000 were full time staff. To put this in perspective in the 1920s there was a farm labourer for every 50 acres, in 2014 there was one full time farm worker for every 709 acres.

(iii) This excludes farm owners and directors and casual labourers.


(1) Shaw, Colin (2016) Farmwork. UK: Café Royal Books

(4) Shaw, Colin (1988) Farmwork: Men and Women on the Land. London: Chatto & Windus Ltd


(2) Café Royal Books – http://www.caferoyalbooks.com/about/

(3) Shaw, Colin – Colin Shaw – https://www.colinshaw.co.uk

(5) Shaw, Colin (2016) What we Cannot See (accessed at the photographer’s blog 10.9.16) –   https://www.colinshaw.co.uk/what-we-cannot-see/

(6) Gerrard, Sophie (ND) Drawn To the Land (accessed at the photographer’s website 10.9.16) – https://sophiegerrard.com/work/drawn-to-the-land/

(7) Shaw, Colin (ND) The Colin Shaw Collection (accessed at Reading University 10.9.16) – https://www.reading.ac.uk/merl/collections/Archives_A_to_Z/merl-P_SHA.aspx

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