|SIMON DENISON IMAGE & TEXT|
JUSTIN PARTYKA: THE EAST ANGLIANS
Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich
The East Anglians describes a world of small-scale East Anglian farmers, most of them grey-haired, living on ramshackle farms, and plying an increasingly unviable business within today’s globalised food economy. They are squeezed by cheap imports and vanishing local markets, and burdened with ever-heavier bureaucratic regulations. Meanwhile, traditional rural skills such as reed-cutting and rabbit warrening are being lost.
This is the context for Justin Partyka’s reflections on the demise of a rural way of life. But his work is both something less and something more than a detached study of the people affected by these new economic conditions. Suffused with melancholy, this highly subjective series speaks as much of its author as of its subjects, broadening into a universal lamentation for the passing of time, mortality and disappearance. ‘It is under the melancholy monochrome light of a still winter’s day that the agrarian landscape of East Anglia best reveals its timeless quality,’ Partyka writes, and he goes on:
This is when I prefer to walk the small fields of the farms … As if I was entering a secret door I push myself backwards through the boundary hedgerow of ash, willow and hawthorn. Emerging on the other side I find myself standing on the remains of an old drove that at one time accessed an isolated farmstead long since vanished. In the distance, windbreaks of poplar and oak stand like skeletal ghosts – their silhouettes serving as reminders of the past men and women who once worked these soils.
Partyka’s pictures mix dank winter landscapes, the interiors of people’s homes and images of people working, or walking, or simply standing in fields and farmyards. Many of his photographs are made at dusk; and he is not the first Romantic artist, of course, to make pictures at this time of day. For Steichen and Whistler this was the enchanted hour when the transparent film, like surface tension, that separates the material from the immaterial world seems thinnest, and most likely to rupture. In Partyka’s treatment dusk seems less enchanted than sombre, the time of a day’s ending, when light and warmth are withdrawn; for the coming of night is of course a metaphor as much as a literal reality. His dusk photographs are technically brave, well handled and deeply involving, particularly his interiors. He is unafraid of deep shadows, and we are taken straight into the austerely neat, age-worn homes of the elderly rural poor where lights are kept off at dusk to save money and, in one remarkable picture, the only glow comes from the fire in the next room. As evocations of place these photographs stand head and shoulders above Walker Evans’s famous, and in some ways similar, but far more emotionally detached Alabama farmstead images made three quarters of a century ago.
All the pictures are made with a small camera and Partyka seems to make a virtue of hand-holding in low light, often producing pictures in which nothing is quite sharp and moving subjects blur; there is grain and low definition and shallow depth of field – the effect of all this being to suggest direct encounters, where the exposure is more or less simultaneous with the thought or feeling that inspired it, in a way that pictures with greater polish, that appear more crafted, might perhaps fail to do. The title of the exhibition, as well as the photographic technique, recall The Americans of Robert Frank, who ‘sucked a sad poem right out of America, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world’, in Jack Kerouac’s famous words, yet the tragedy in Partyka’s work is introspective and universal, not rooted, like Frank’s, in horror at the rich but empty world in which his Americans were forced to live. Partyka’s East Anglians are not defeated and sorrowful but recall, rather, their great-grandparents as seen in Peter Henry Emerson’s photographs of around 1900 – as quietly dignified and as inscrutable, for Partyka’s farmers are depicted without expressions, their faces typically averted or hidden in shadow, and they invite empathy, perhaps, as human beings, but not especially as individuals.
I myself am a child of East Anglia and remember well the aching melancholy of damp ploughed fields in winter; and it is a pleasure to see work like this that is so deeply felt. Even so, the concept of a vanishing rural way of life is as much a conventional trope of Romantic art and literature as it is rooted in any historical reality. All cultures at all times are in the process of change; and in all fields of work older practices undergo replacement by the new. Farming has seen more changes than most. Captain Swing’s rick-burners of 1830 thought they were witnessing the end of ‘traditional’ farming as mechanisation spread alongside enclosure. Yet from the vantage point of the steam-powered, highly capitalised farming of 1900, for writers like Hardy the early 19th century seemed like a golden age. The pace of change has only increased since then. Partyka’s farmers with their agri-chemicals and JCBs, their Massey-Fergusons and combine harvesters, would hardly seem ‘traditional’ to farmers of 50 years ago, let alone 100.
Globalised food distribution may be taking new forms today but it is not a new phenomenon. In 1914, after 70 years of international free trade, Britain produced only 30 per cent of its food. Our agricultural economy slumped in the 1920s and was only revived to something approaching self-sufficiency by the siege economy of wartime and by the post-war system of agricultural subsidies. Partyka cites the view of some environmentalists that the best hope for sustainable agriculture lies in a return to ‘traditional farming practices’, apparently exemplified by the East Anglians of this exhibition. Taking a longer historical view, one might point to the artificiality of idealising the just-passing generation, and argue that new problems will be solved only by new solutions rather than by a return to the mythical golden age of our childhoods.
Partyka, a contributor to this magazine, has trained as a folklorist and is a talented writer as well as a photographer. In that light it seems curious that The East Anglians includes no transcribed recollections and precious little detailed information about the subjects of the photographs. There is an opportunity here to create a kind of updated Akenfield – something that could perhaps still be achieved in the book that deserves to be made of this impressive work.