Photography and Art

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

James Ravilious

Thanks to Mike Johnston over at, I've just been introduced to the photographs of James Ravilious, an English photographer who died in 1999. Ravilious lived in a very rural part of Devon and was employed for nearly two decades by the local art centre to take pictures of the vanishing life of the traditional farmer. He spent his days chatting up the local farmers and watching them doing their chores in ways that had been handed down by generations. He captured it all on film and left a large heritage of black and white photos taken with his beaten-up Leica M3 camera. The photos make up a large portion of the Beaton archive.

Fortunately, there is a BBC documentary on Ravilious here. It's a lovely documentary and it fits quite neatly into a lunch break. Give yourself a treat this week and watch it.

One of the things that struck me about hearing Ravilious speak about his work is that I'm by no means the first person to be struck by the difficulty of photographing or painting English countryside (Duh!). Turns out that everyone who captures the English (or Welsh or Irish) landscape is challenged by all the greenery. You don't need many colours in your pallette to capture the fields and hedgerows! Green will just about do it. Of course, Ravilious got around all that by photographing in black and white. Suddenly the problem of all that green goes away and you're left with the subject matter, the composition and the light.

When I look at Ravilious' work (see online gallery here), I'm struck by the variety of life on the farm and in the town. These are not dull landscapes of sheep and hedges - they capture the busy essence of a farmer's life before machinery. The images are full of wonderful visual treats - the shadow of a tree juxtaposed with men playing a game on the street or a dog captured inside a frame made by the sides of a shed being moved by a farmer. The images are also full of people, captured with obvious fondness that is echoed back by the subjects.

My only regret is that four of his five books are out of print and quite scarce. A search on Amazon turned up a couple of books priced at $107, so they ain't cheap. Maybe someone will re-publish these lovely books one day.

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