The Norfolk photographer, Justin Partyka, spent ten years of his life photographing the farmers, land and agrarian communities of East Anglia. He has captured the images of a landscape and the people who live and depend on it to create two books, “Field Work: Photographs from East Anglia” and “Fenwomen”, producing works that compel the reader and viewer to think deeply about the changes that have occurred in British farming. We interviewed Justin to ask him how these two great works were produced and how and why he created them.
Question: You originally trained as a folklorist in Newfoundland. What did that entail, and how did your studies influence your decision to photograph the agrarian communities of East Anglia?
Answer: There has been a steady and natural progression from my academic studies (which were not in photography) to becoming a photographer. Before I was in Newfoundland, I had studied American Studies at Brunel University. It was there that I really developed my interest in American folk music, especially the early folk and country music of the South. I think it was the authenticity of this music that appealed to me: it was raw and honest and to my ears the sound clearly reflected the geographic place from which it came. My BA honors thesis was on the subject of the bluegrass music of Bill Monroe who is considered the founder of this genre. During my research I had read the scholarship of and been in touch with Neil V. Rosenberg, the foremost scholar of bluegrass music who just happened to be one of the professors in the folklore department at Memorial University of Newfoundland.
But it was not just the music itself that interested me. It was also the documentary approach to how it was presented and had often been recorded. I had discovered the “Southern Journey” series of recordings issued on CD by Rounder Records of field recordings that the great folk song collector Alan Lomax had made in the Southern states, and Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. These all came with detailed accompanying written notes that provided contextual and historical information about the songs and the musicians. Even more important was my discovery of the work of John Cohen and his collection of field recordings Mountain Music of Kentucky. This had originally been released in 1959 and the record included Cohen’s detailed field notes about the music and the small rural communities he visited in the mountains, but also a series of photographs that were presented as a portfolio rather than just as supplementary images. Cohen was the first person to do this, and his photographs shouted out with their own powerful aesthetic that perfectly complimented the music they documented. It is no exaggeration to say that Mountain Music of Kentucky had a profound impact on me and continues to do so.
I wanted to have adventures like Lomax and Cohen had done and to produce those kinds of documents. At this point I didn’t know what I wanted to document or really how to do it. Neil Rosenberg had suggested that I apply to do an MA in the folklore department in Newfoundland; I did and received a scholarship and off I went. Newfoundland was an interesting place. I arrived in September 1999, I remembering it being damp and foggy, grey and bleak. But I didn’t mind that at all, it was like the Norfolk winters I had grown up with. I went there to specialize in folk music with Neil, but I also discovered the great diversity in the subjects that folklorists study and that really opened my eyes to the potential of what I could do. It is ironic that I had to go to Newfoundland to discover the oral history that George Ewart Evans had collected in Suffolk, and the 19th century photographs from the Norfolk Broads made by P. H. Emerson. I even found out that John Cohen had been to Norfolk and made a film about the ballad singer Walter Pardon. Once I was looking back across the Atlantic to East Anglia, I realized that the place I came from was as interesting as the mountains of Kentucky. One of my MA courses was on the subject of “occupational folklife” and this led me to writing my MA dissertation about a Norfolk rabbit catcher. As part of my field work I photographed him catching rabbits in the traditional way using nets, ferrets and lurcher dogs. One of the photographs stood out: a rabbit hangs in a tree in the centre of the frame and the rabbit catcher glances up in the bottom left hand corner. There is a mystery to this image – it reaches back into the past but is also very much in the present, and it forces the viewer to ask questions: where is this, what is happening here, why is the rabbit in the tree, and what is the man doing? Graphically this photograph is not a typical “documentary” photograph, it is pushing the boundaries of the genre beyond being just a document into a work of art, just as John Cohen’s photographs do. This photograph of the rabbit catcher made me want to know more about the traditional rural culture of East Anglia – the place I was from but which I realized I really didn’t know. So I made a few visits back to Norfolk to photograph and the project that become Field Work just organically developed and eventually I moved back to Norfolk specifically to photograph in October 2003. The funny thing is that when I left Norfolk to move to Newfoundland I thought I would never return.
Question: When you started the work, had you already decided in your head upon the creation of the books “Field Work” and “Fenwomen” or did the idea of publication come after the photographs were taken, when publishers approached you?
Answer: The project which became Field Work was always intended to be a book. It had become clear to me photography was the most natural method for me to explore my interests and communicate the experience – or to put it more simply, to tell a story – and I was discovering all the great photo books, such as Robert Frank’s The Americans, William Eggleston’s Guide, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment, the books of Alex Webb amongst others. A book is really the best way to present a series of photographs. But I was really not sure how to do this and I certainly didn’t know how long it would take me. The rabbit catcher photograph was made in 2001 and the final book was published in 2011. I pretty much worked on the project continuously during those ten years and a lot happened in that time and it was a very important learning experience which continues to this day. I’ve been exhibiting the photographs since 2004, including a large group show of British landscape art, A Picture of Britain, at Tate Britain in 2005, and a major solo exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich in 2009; and since that the photographs have been pretty much on show continuously for the last two years. The book went through a number of guises in the form of book dummies as I worked on the sequence, constantly refining the edit of images, how to use text and the shape and size of book. I had originally envisioned there being a lot more text but the more I photographed the more I became convinced that photographs should speak for themselves and do not require a lot of text to support them. I don’t even use captions, just the county and year are enough. Although for my last exhibition in Suffolk and the current one about to launch on 19th January at the Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading, I’m experimenting with adding written commentary to the photographs. But the book of Field Work – which I consider to be the definitive presentation of these photographs so far – includes just a one page introduction. Incidentally, Field Work is the first publication produced by Backroad Books, the independent publishing house that I’ve set up with my partner Bee Farrell who is a freelance arts educator and curator based in Suffolk. The idea is that Backroad Books will produce limited editions publications of my work and some other photographers. We’ve also got some other ideas such as a newspaper type publication. It’s all early days yet as Field Work only came out in October 2011, but it’s selling steadily.
The Fenwomen book is a different story because I was commissioned in 2010 to produce a series of photographs for the new edition published by Full Circle Editions in 2011. I had been photographing on and off in the Cambridgeshire fens during my work on Field Work but I eventually decided not to include photographs from Cambridgeshire in the book. I was asked to do this commission after the publishers saw my exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre. Making this new series of photographs has allowed me to reconsider my previous work from the Cambridgeshire fens and I now see this as being its own project that will probably end up including photographs from the Lincolnshire and Norfolk fens as well.
Question: How did you make a living during the years when you were working on the East Anglian projects? Did you undertake other commercial work as well?
Answer: All of these things – having exhibitions, publishing books, photographing, editing photographs and all the administration that goes along with all of this – take a lot of time. It certainly is a way of life rather than a job and that’s what I thrive on. Along with working on my own projects and getting them published, I undertake commissions when the right one comes along, I also sell limited edition fine art prints of my photographs, do public talks and slide show presentations of my work, and I also teach workshops, which is something I’m planning on developing further – right now I’m exploring the idea of holding a workshop where the participants can photograph on a farm; there’s a lot of logistics involved to make something like this work out, but it could be very exciting. So money comes in from all these different things, and then I get some additional income working part time in the office of my father’s plumbing and heating business, and the beauty of this is that I can be flexible with my hours as long as I get the work done throughout the week. So if the light is great and I need to be out photographing, or I’ve got an exhibition to help install, I can do that. I’m very fortunate that I’m in this position.
Question: How did you get access to the farms, people and communities in your work, in areas that are seen as somewhat “closed” to outsiders?
Answer: Remember that the Field Work project went on for ten years – that is if it is really finished, which is something I wonder sometimes – so I’ve spent a lot of time with these people. Whenever possible I feel it is very important to build relationships with people you want to photograph. They have to trust you and equally you have to respect them. The process is very much dependent on a mutual understanding. And I’m genuinely interested, if not fascinated with the people I photograph – I want to learn from them and understand their way of life. I certainly have no hidden agendas. I’m there to photograph them but this has often completely surpassed that into a wonderful friendship. Some of the farmers I just met by chance and have photographed for a number of years, I now count as my closest friends. But there is that crucial beginning when you meet them and want access to their lives and you wonder what will happen. But I think I’m pretty unassuming and have the ability to slip into the background and not be obtrusive. There is often the perception that these rural worlds are “closed” to outsiders, but that is typically a misunderstanding; if you are honest and genuine the people are very welcoming.
One thing I do struggle with though is that the more my work develops with exhibitions and other projects, the more it takes me away from the farms. When I was photographing for Field Work I was visiting some of these farms every week, and then eventually the visits become less frequent because I’m required to be other places. I accept that this is how it has to be, but I feel guilty about it at times. As a photographer you certainly don’t want people to think you’ve just used them to get a photograph and then you don’t want to be in contact any longer. I think even when you have the best intentions it can happen sometimes. Unfortunately there is only so much time available.
Question: Your work is hard to look at, in the sense that we confront poverty, hardship, struggle and old age when we look inside it. These are challenging issues to face. How did you face them, up close and personal during the shooting days?
Answer: When I’m out photographing I don’t have any preconceived ideas of what I am going to find. I head out with an open mind and a strong sense of discovery. Often you are awarded with very nice surprises that you could never imagine beforehand. Everyday life is a strange, complex and beautiful phenomenom. You are not the first person to see hardship and struggle in my work, but I’m honestly not sure if it is actually there. I think when the photographs are read that way it comes from the influence of what people expect to see, or what they see is in contrast to how they think things should be and how people should live. I just photograph what I see without any judgement. But at the same time the photographs very much reflect my own aesthetic. I can’t really describe that aesthetic in words so I communicate it with the photographs. But one of the things I am very interested in is how the past is still very much living in the present. There’s an often quoted line in William Faulkner’s book Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” I think what people mistake as poverty in my photographs they are really just seeing the continuation of the past. Spending time on these farms has been a very uplifting, inspiring and exciting experience, but not a challenging one.
Question: The face of food and farming in Britain has changed beyond recognition since the second World War. What stories did you glean from the farm workers who had lived in the same area all their lives and had witnessed the changes?
Answer: One of the major changes has been the decline of the small family owned agrarian farms that used to dominate the East Anglian landscape. Photographing for Field Work I had the opportunity to attend a number of farm sale auctions and some of these photographs are included in the book. But I’ve noticed in the last two or three years that the sales are very infrequent now. When I’ve discussed this with farmers they tell me how at one time there would be lots of these sales every year after harvest time, and it was like this for about 50 years if not longer. But gradually the small farms have gone and now there are hardly any left. Field Work is a response to this, but I’m not trying to be political with my work. It’s a complex process how the agricultural industry has ended up. It’s shaped by extreme legislation and bureaucracy; and it’s driven by consumer demands and therefore has become a very cutthroat business to be in. The increasing costs of production are only making matters worse. But the wheels of progress were put in motion many years ago and now we are seeing the impact of them. I’m sure it is inevitable that the remaining agrarian cultures of Europe such as in the Maramures region of Romania will also eventually disappear.
When I speak to the older farmers about change there is a consensus that it is a different time now. One farmer recalled how when he was a young boy he would go out with his friends in the evening with a gas lamp and catapult and they would kill blackbirds in the hedgerows and take them home and they would be eaten. When you speak with these old farmers and they recall the first time they used a tractor having previously worked with horses, you realise how far farming has progressed. To quote Denzil Mayes, a farmer from the Norfolk fens: “Now it’s just one big tractor and a thousand acres, there’s nobody on the land today.” Denzil remembers when gangs of women would ride through the village on their bicycles to work on the land. Even the smallest farms would have had one or two farm labourers to help with the work. Before the introduction of the mono-germ seed, sugar beet was very labour intensive crop and it was typically women who would do the work. Having spent a considerable amount of time photographing some of East Anglia’s remaining agrarian farmers who still work using the older methods, it has become clear to me the physical, psychological and emotional relationship that these people have with the land has become lost in the age of agribusiness.
Question: Is there hope in the flatlands, are any of the young generation staying on to work the land or set up any new initiatives? Your work is in direct contrast with other things we are seeing in the media: a revival of Suffolk and Norfolk food producers, cookery schools, chefs, gastro pubs and food festivals. There are two sides to every story.
Answer: Again, it is a complex process of how we rethink and reimagine what “local” food and farming is. It appears to be very much influenced by the media and the advocacy for a “green lifestyle.” I was discussing this with somebody recently and they had come across the term “vanity farming” being used to describe the current interest in local artisan food production. But what the people are doing within the local food revival is very good. As someone who is very interested in and passionate about food, I use the farm shops and the delicatessens that have appeared in Norfolk and Suffolk in recent years. For one it’s encouraging that people are making great cheeses in this part of the world. And then there is all the locally grown fruit and vegetables, but they have always been around. I suppose we can now easily eat high quality locally produced food in the UK just as people have been doing in rural communities in Europe for many years before us. The difference though is that it is the culturally aware section of society who tend to consume and support these products. Unfortunately it appears to me that there is still a socio-economic divide in the UK when it comes to food.
With my photographs I’m certainly not trying to be critical of this food revival. I’m just showing a parallel story that is also taking place in the East Anglian landscape. I think the major difference though is that the people I have photographed working the land have not made the conscious decision to do so as part of any kind of cultural movement, they do it simply because it is the only way of life that they know. It is a deeply rooted tradition and legacy that now finds itself on the margins. You noted that old age is prevalent in my photographs. It is interesting that typically there are not young people on these small farms, and there are not many women either. Once again it is complex why that is, but I think it comes down to the way of life that is required – young people and many women don’t want to live like that these days. The French photographer and filmmaker Raymond Depardon made a film a few years ago, Modern Life (2008), which basically is about the French equivalent to the farmers I have photographed. There is a revealing scene when he is interviewing two brothers who are in their eighties and asks them about their younger nephew who farms with them, and coincidently has recently married a women from outside of their region and modernized his farm house as a result, and one of the old brothers says that the nephew “doesn’t have the soul of a farmer.” I find that a very thought provoking comment.
Question: How did producing “Field Work” and “Fenwomen” affect you personally, in your mind and heart? Now that the project has come to an end and it is being featured across various publications do you feel proud that you have contributed to raising awareness of a part of the country that is often ignored or bypassed?
Answer: I take my work very seriously and when you work on one thing for ten years like I have Field Work, the resulting work becomes you and you become it. I have no doubt that this project has shaped who I am today and in a strange way just as the project was getting close to being finished I realised that it contains a strong autobiographical element, which I refer to in the book’s introduction. When I started the project I didn’t really know East Anglia as a place, even though I was born and had grown up there. Now that I’ve finished I feel that I’m starting to know it, but this knowledge is nowhere near as deep as I would like it to be – there is a lot of ground to cover and in many ways I feel like I’m just getting started. I’ve been working on four other East Anglian projects exploring different landscapes, and these have been inspired by this great desire to try and understand the region’s sense of place.
At the same time the endless hours spent working on Field Work has instilled in me a very strong work ethic and the patience to steadily see projects through to completion. Of course after all this work I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished. But it is important to remain humble about ones achievements: in the grand scheme of things my photographs are merely a minor blip in their historical and global significance. It’s just nice to know that now and again somebody sees the work and is really touched by it and understands it. When that happens you feel like you’ve done a good job. Right now my main focus is just to keep working: continuing my new projects, promoting the Field Work book and exhibition, and hopefully being offered unexpected opportunities that result from people seeing the photographs.
Justin Partyka: www.justinpartyka.com
You can follow Justin on Twitter: @Justin_Partyka
Field Work: Photographs from East Angliaby Justin Partyka is on show at the Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading 21 January – 22 April 2012.
Further information about Justin Partyka’s new book Field Work: Photographs from East Anglia, which is limited to 100 signed and numbered copies, is available on his website.
The new edition of the book Fenwomen: a Portrait of Women in an English Village, by Mary Chamberlain with photographs by Justin Partyka is available on the publishers website.