Notebook, Photography, Reviews

Review: The Rural Gaze

Early in 2020 GRAIN Projects commissioned 11 projects from photographic artists to create work within communities across the rural English midlands. 

From the flatness of the Wash in the east to the Shropshire and Herefordshire hills bordering Wales in the west, and the in-between counties of Warwickshire, Leicestershire, Staffordshire, Northamptonshire and West Midlands, amidst the the depths of the COVID-19 crisis, GRAIN’s selected artists strove to capture something of what it means to be “rural” in the contemporary English midlands.

Their work is presented in GRAIN’s recently published book The Rural Gaze, alongside essays by Camilla Brown and Mark Durden teasing out overarching themes from amongst the body of work as a whole.

If there is one strand that unites the projects it is a commitment to the traditions of social documentary photography. However, from this shared commitment to engaging with individuals and their communities to understand and represent contemporary life, the commissioned photographers adopt a wide array of different approaches.

This includes fairly “straight” documentary photography, as exemplified by Murray Ballard’s “Around the Stump” project, and Marco Kessler’s “Harvest”. These two projects document the people, customs and environs of Boston in Lincolnshire, and migrant agricultural workers and their workplaces in the Wye Valley and around the Malvern Hill Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, respectively.   

In a similar documentary vein Polly Braden’s “Holding the Baby”, Navi Kaur’s “The Light is Different Here” and Emily Graham’s “Drift” draw heavily upon social engaged approaches to image making, with the photographers embedding themselves in small communities (two families in Braden’s case, a single Indian restaurant in the Peak District in Kaur’s project, and a group of teenagers who hang out on a patch of land in Rugby’s greenbelt, with Graham’s). The images and stories created by these projects emerge as part of a process of dialogue and exchange with the small groups of people being photographed. 

Other commissions such as Leah Gordon’s collaboration with the writer Annabel Edwards on “Monument to the Vanquished [after Albrecht Dürer] Enclosure Acts” and Matthew Broadhead’s “Charnwood” use long considered outmoded photographic techniques as creative means to tell their stories. This serves to give their work an artistic quality which conveys the message of remoteness and tradition amidst modernity, that their work with communities of common land rights holders in Shropshire, and the (equally ancient) Forest of Charnwood seek to tease out. 

Another substrand amongst the 11 – perhaps responding to the extraordinary circumstances – of the lockdowns and other restrictions imposed from mid-March 2020 onwards to combat the spread of COVID-19, draws upon traditions of nature photography and the documentation of urban and other environments. This includes the work of Sam Laughlin, whose “Growing Things” captures “wild” borders between fields, “wildflower patches” and nature conservation zones” across the western half of the midlands region. It also includes that of Oliver Udy and Colin Robins who photographed mostly peopleless vistas and situations in the West Midlands greenbelt area known as the Meridian Gap between Solihull and Coventry. A potent reminder of the isolation and solitude endured over the last couple of years as society fought to get through one of the worst pandemics to afflict the global north in a century. Guy Martin’s “County Lines” also adopts these eerie techniques. However, his project captures locations connected to – often violent – crime perpetrated by inner city gangs struggling to take control of the supply of prohibited drugs in small town and rural locations, giving his images a grim, edgy quality that serves to highlight the mundane suburban backdrops they typically capture.

By contrast Alannah Cooper “And If the Day Had Other Things to Show, They Are Forgotten Now” also directly confronts the COVID-19 pandemic. Her original project to document the well dressing ceremonies common in village and small town communities across the White Peak in Derbyshire and Staffordshire was scuppered by the onset of measures to control the spread of the virus. Which encouraged her to create and photograph the colourful props associated with the ceremony in her home, keeping something of these hopeful festivals which express community, solidarity and good wishes for the wider world, alive even during the bleakest and most isolated moments of the pandemic.

Taken together the projects provide a dizzying array of entry points into comprehending something of rural England at the start of the third decade of the 21st Century. Key amongst this is the sense that there are actually no clear cut boundaries and everything flows into everything else. The Rural Gaze suggested in the title of the book, can be read as referring to the ways in which people do try and create neat divisions, between rural and urban, between wilderness and cultivation, between native and foreign.

It has long been correctly recognised that feeling able to voyage out of major population centres into small towns, villages and the open countryside can be a sign of privilege, both racial and in terms of access to economic resources, and also potentially with regards to perceived gender or sexual orientation. Our dominant culture however, contains and reproduces often vague feelings of warmth towards the countryside, small towns, villages and the rural. They are vague warm feelings because most of us, including those of us who do not face structural barriers to accessing the countryside, hardly ever go there.

Speaking from a personal standpoint my connection to the countryside or anything rural is incredibly tenenous. After being cooped up for days last summer with a bought of COVID-19 I embarked on a personal project which for the first time ever saw me frequently venturing outside of a major urban area. As part of this a few weeks back I went for the first time to the village in southern Northamptonshire where my paternal grandmother was born and brought up. To get there I hiked 10 miles from central Northampton along the valley of the River Nene. 

My grandmother’s family had lived in the village for generations, I only knew its name, had a vague memory of some photos and a few handed down stories. This made walking there and strolling up the road to the village green an interesting experience. The other strands of my family are as urban as I am, traceable back generations in the urban hinterlands of Liverpool, Manchester and London. Despite having strong ties in some ways to south Birmingham, the idea of having a connection to a particular patch of land, a vista worked by your ancestors for centuries, is rather strange to me. Though I think for my grandmother it was just a part of growing up. Despite having not lived there for three quarters of a century from conversations over the years I think that she still does rather feel a connection to the hills, fields and little settlements of yellow limestone buildings dotting the landscape along the winding River Nene, due east of Northampton.

What thinking through the work presented in The Rural Gaze made me feel about this experience, is that all of the divides between rural and urban, the soil and the asphalt that structures my thinking, are as artificial and constructed as the countryside itself.

This is made especially apparent in those projects within the book which document the greenbelt or highlight the artificiality of the countryside. The work of Emily Graham created in the edgelands of Rugby showing them as being a liminal space, close to home but far from adult society and supervision, where teenagers can go and be with their friends highlights some of this. As does the work of Oliver Udy and Colin Robins whose documentation of Meridan captures a place where semi-detached houses and bowls clubs readily giveaway to green lanes and agricultural barns. In this way the firm divide that we draw between the town and the country begins to seem rather porous. The same is true – albeit in a different fashion – in the work of Sam Laughlin which captures something of the forced and constrained way in which countryside policy encourages farmers to set aside regimented squares of land for wildflowers and scrubby trees and bushes. Here we can see people drawing borders, much as the greenbelt draws a border, between the human world of agriculture and the supposedly natural world represented by the small squares that we set aside for “conservation” purposes.

Other projects highlight even grimmer ways in which our ideas about the urban and the rural being opposed to each other are wrong. This comes through in Guy Martin’s work exploring locations associated with county lines. It is clear that when it comes to matters of addiction and the desire to exploit the fact that the supply and consumption of certain narcotics is outside the law, there is no polite distinction between town and country.

Likewise, Polly Braden’s work which focuses upon two households, one in Shropshire, one in Warwickshire, headed by single mothers teases out the universal nature of the challenges they face and their hopes for the future. Braden’s images document aspects of life such as wild swimming in a river, which a family living in a large town or a city would be unlikely to replicate. However, in most other respects the family’s lives mirror those of people living anywhere.

Political divisions also hang over the work presented in the book. The midlands as a whole was one of the most strongly pro-Brexit areas of the UK, however, this average – as ever – hides strong variations. In Warwick District 60% of the voters rejected the UK’s decision to leave the EU, whilst in the Peak District voters were more or less tied, while in Boston where  Murray Ballard worked more than three quarters of those who voted opted to quit the block. Ballard’s work extensively documents this town close to the southern reaches of the midland’s only coastline, one which so vehemently objected to aspects of the UK’s integration with its European neighbours that they overwhelmingly voted to tear the whole thing down. 

In this way his work like that of Marco Kessler on the opposite side of the midlands, serves to illuminate another divide which is not as clear cut as it seems to be. That between foreign and UK labour. Migrant workforces have always picked crops in the UK. Some years ago Birmingham artist duo General Public explored this through “The Hops Project” which reclaimed and worked with the largely forgotten history of families from the Black Country and elsewhere in the West Midlands conurbation temporarily decamping to Herefordshire and Worcestershire to pick hops. This practice died away in the decades immediately after the Second World War, however, as Kessler and Ballard’s work illuminates, agriculture in the midlands remains dependent upon the labour of people who migrate to work in it. Without these workers the UK would be unable to even partially feed itself – as at present – and without significant economic change, labour intensive forms of agriculture would not be financially viable.

The importance of migration to rural communities, often incorrectly assumed to be ethnically and culturally monolithic, is also apparent in the work of Navi Kaur who documented an Indian restaurant located in a Staffordshire Moorlands District village. This area, situated on the south western flank of the Peak District National Park is one of the most remote and isolated in the midlands region. It is often associated with the rich culture of well dressings and other folk costumes explored and celebrated in The Rural Gaze by Alannah Cooper, but most people who do not live there would generally assume it to be a monolithic place lacking in diversity. What Kaur’s project shows is that the presence and popularity of the Indian restaurant indicates that remote rural areas can be open to and appreciate tastes and experiences more commonly associated with urban places.

Of course, there are also several strands to The Rural Gaze project which illustrate things which urban dwellers might benefit from adopting over on their side of the blurry rural/urban divide. Alannah Cooper’s celebration of the Peak District’s well dressing and other community traditions, vividly shows the benefits of collective creativity and celebration, in terms of both individual and collective wellbeing, progress and flourishing. Whilst the work Matthew Broadhead produced in Charnwood Forest, highlights this interesting and overlooked area of woods, hills and craggy outcrops just north of Leicester, and the interesting and meditative lives that some of its residents like the monks of Mount St. Bernard’s Abbey live.

In a similar vein, drawing on ancient custom, practice and belief clinging on and adapting itself to contemporary life, Leah Gordon’s work tracks down and documents users of some of surviving scraps of common land in the far west of the midlands region. The continuation of this communitarian form of land holding, which persists and continues to be appreciated by the communities that access it, even as it has become rare, potentially has much to teach and inspire regardless of where we live.

Rural Gaze is a superb, artistically diverse, photographic celebration of the complicated, messy and frequently brilliant ways of life carved out by people in the midlands countryside. People, places and communities which are not so different, nor so far away, from the interlocking patches of towns and cities where most of us make our homes. Where possible more of us should go and get to know it.

The Rural Gaze was edited and produced by GRAIN Project Director Nicola Shipley and GRAIN Projects Producer Stephen Burke. The Rural Gaze Book was designed by Mark Murphy. You can purchase a copy here via the GRAIN Projects website (£30 + £5 p&p) 168 pp. hardback