Photography and Art

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Book Review: An English Eye

I recently ordered An English Eye, The Photographs of James Ravilious by Peter Hamilton from Amazon UK. I've always admired the photography of James Ravilious, but had not been able to find one of his books in print until recently. The book came the day before yesterday and I haven't been able to keep my eyes off it. It is simply sublime if you like this sort of photography -- beautifully rendered black and white images of peaceful English countryside, replete with cows and sheep as well as characters from the farms, towns and villages.

As you can see from the image on the left, Ravilious liked to take photographs facing into the sun, with his subject nicely illuminated around the edges. According to Peter Hamilton, who wrote the excellent text that accompanies the photos, Ravilious had to master the film development and print making processes in order to expose the shadows without blowing out the highlights. He shot with a Leica M3 camera and found that the modern coated lenses of the same vintage took photos that had too much contrast. The solution was to haunt the used equipment stores looking for older lenses made from non-coated lenses. The results speak for themselves. The images have a lovely, gradual transition from shadows to highlights with all sorts of middle tone variations. Using non-coated lenses made the whole set-up prone to glare, so Ravilious concocted his own lens hoods with lots of black tape to shield the lens from glare.

The book is organized into two main sections. Peter Hamilton has written about 40 pages of text outlining Ravilous' life as a photographer. There is a chapter on his life and influences, a large chapter on art, photography and Englishness and a chapter on techniques and working methods. The second main part consists of over 60 wonderful plates of Ravilious' images, each slightly larger than 5x7. The reproduction is quite beautiful, printed in Italy by Editoriale Bortolazzi Stei.

To someone like me who works in today's crazy world of long hours and urban commuting, where you're glued to your Blackberry and your laptop and send and receive hundreds of messages a day at full tilt, Ravilious' life seems like a dream world. He actually made is living taking photographs of farms and daily life in small villages. He was paid to be the artist in residence by the Beaford Art Centre, working on a long-term project to document the North Devon people. Sometimes when I survey the trail of red lights up the Don Valley Parkway at night, I think of Ravilious and what his life must have been like. Sigh!

Here's a quote that will give you a taste of Hamilton's writing: "Anecdotes about James Ravilious recount his almost boyish delight in his photography, his ability to devote himself so completely to his work that for him at least time stands still, the contrasts between a person whose mercurial personality renders him extremely 'jumpy and agitated' yet is able to wait patiently for three hours in the same spot to make a picture. Such characteristics allow us to understand why his wife, Robin, describes him as 'very pleasantly mad'."

In my next life, I'm coming back as a photographer of rural England (if it still exists).

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