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Gallery: Justin Partyka

The East Anglians




People are joined to the land by work.
— Wendell Berry, People, Land, and Community, 1983

It is now ten years since I began photographing in rural East Anglia, and during that time I have made thousands of photographs. It started in 1999 when I moved to St. John’s, Newfoundland, to train as a folklorist. I became immersed in the academic thinking about traditional culture and learned the skills of ethnographic fieldwork. I was inspired by the work of John Cohen — a photographer, sound recordist, filmmaker, folklorist, musician and a champion of vernacular culture. I was excited to discover Cohen’s groundbreaking work, Mountain Music of Kentucky, an LP released by Folkways in 1960, which combined sound recordings, photography and text to produce a fascinating assemblage of art and document, its contents haunting and intriguing. Cohen used music, images and words to tell the story of the coal miners' communities of eastern Kentucky. His work became for me a model of how to explore a sense of place. I began looking for my own story to tell.


PLAY SLIDESHOW Play


I didn’t find that story in Newfoundland, but instead back home in East Anglia. My master's dissertation was a study of a Norfolk rabbit catcher named Pete Carter. In 2001 I interviewed him extensively about his life and work, and spent time with him in the field, catching rabbits. His grandfather and great grandfather had been professional warreners — rabbit catchers for hire — who traveled the countryside by horse and cart, setting up camp in the region’s great rabbit warrens. Those days are long gone, but Pete has continued with the traditional methods of catching rabbits, using lurcher dogs, ferrets and nets. From my many photographs of Pete, one stood out. A dead rabbit hanging in a tree dominates the scene; in the bottom left, Pete glances towards the camera. It is, I think, a mysterious photograph, asking many questions but providing few answers. In the weeks following the completion of my dissertation, I kept returning to this photograph, trying to make sense of it. It was, I realized, a window into East Anglia’s rural past, its deep-rooted traditional culture that comes from the peoples’ intimate relationship to the land.


Pete Carter, 2001.

This was the beginning of my journey into what remains of East Anglia’s agrarian community. I began to meet traditional farmers, searching them out in the fields, seeking introductions and hoping for chance encounters at farm sales. The farmers invited me to visit their small family farms scattered throughout the region, and generously welcomed me into their lives. The photographs I made began to create a picture of this forgotten rural world: a place where traditional methods and knowledge still matter, and where identity is shaped by the landscape.


Eric Wortley, 2010.

In 2003 the real importance of The East Anglians became clear to me when I met the farmer Eric Wortley. His family has farmed on the edge of the Norfolk fens for over a hundred years, first as tenant farmers, eventually as owners of their land. Today Eric runs the farm with his twin sons, Peter and Stephen. Eric was a sprightly 93 when I met him, and he jumped out of his tractor with such ease it seemed he would live forever. But one day, two years later, that all changed. Eric was in the woodshed, chopping kindling. He gathered up an armful of sticks, tripped on a stray log and tumbled to the dirt-covered floor. One of the sticks pierced Eric’s right eye. The sight never returned and the pupil has opened up to the size of a penny. From that day on Eric’s health began gradually to deteriorate and he has never worked on the land again. Shortly after his fall, the roof timbers in Eric’s grain barn began to crack and split. Like Eric, the barn had looked like it would stand forever. But now the pan-tiled roof sags in the middle. “There’d be a service in the barn every year in my young time” Eric told me one day. "The Preacher would be up high on a platform and all us children would look up at him; but not anymore."


Eric Wortley's grain barn.

Eric is now 100. When he began farming, little had changed since the 17th century. Things are different now, but when Eric looks at the fields and the farmyard, he sees things as they were way back; he looks back to a past most of us can never know. He is one of the last of East Anglia’s true agrarians, who farm because it is a way of life, and who work the land because doing so is in the blood. This traditional rural existence, which is rooted in place, might seem of little relevance in our age of industrial agribusiness. My photographs tell the story of the small-time farmers who are reluctant to disappear.

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Comments (25)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

Dear readers,

The East Anglians is the first in a series of features presenting my work on Places - Design Observer.

The editors and I are hoping for a continuing dialogue to develop around these features. So please do contribute with any questions or thoughts you have.

I will be returning to the website regularly to contribute and answer questions.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Justin Partyka - photographer, Norfolk, UK.
Justin Partyka
08.11.10 at 03:42

Hi Justin,

Thanks for a rich and insightful introduction to your work and a fascinating elucidation of the driving forces behind your striking images.

I am interested in the romanticism within your narrative. You have a clear yearning for the past. I would be interested to know if you have a sense of where this comes from. Does it stem from a disillusionment with modernity or is it indicative of somethign else.

As you are informed by social science you will know that the idea of salvage has underpinned the work of successive folklorists, ethnographers, and historians. What I wonder is to what extent you see your photography as a way of championing bucolic and traditional ideals in the present or as forming a record of these practices for future generations?

Best wishes,
Ollie Douglas, Curator, Museum of English Rural Life, UK
Ollie Douglas
08.11.10 at 11:24

As an East Anglian from an agricultural background your photographs are very evocative for me. You are documenting a small but durable farming subculture outside the mainstream of large, capital-intensive agribusiness. Is it predominantly a male subculture? I notice that your photographs are almost all focused on male subjects. Do you have anything to say about the women you have encountered? I note the mysterious painting ‘Tina’ by JH Lynch (1961) in the background of Image 21.
- Tim
(Working in the field of landscape and heritage interpretation; Suffolk, England)
Tim Holt-Wilson
08.11.10 at 11:33

Justins' Picture of me with the rabbit in a tree,is an example of my habit of putting rabbits in trees and hedges to keep them safe from scavengers. That way I could continue the hunt without having to carry them with me and pick them up at the end of hunting when returning to my vehicle. Justins' work,to me, has an uncanny knack of capturing the soul of the people and activities in his pictures bringing a deeper reality to the work, far trancending a mere pictorial record. Pete Carter.
Pete Carter
08.11.10 at 02:49

The photos are lovely.

The essay opens with a quote that seems to define the purpose of the photos. Viewing the slide-show with the quote in mind, only images 21 and 23 show "People...joined to the land by work" - to my eye and heart, at least. The other slideshow photos communicate enough about the photographer that the subjects seem incomplete or intruded-upon.

It's difficult to diminish artistic self-consciousness, while maintaining a high level of artistic skill and fluency. It's a balancing act, an exercise in humility that, by allowing subjects to fully occupy the art, best expresses the photographer's organic relationship to subjects and the art of photography.
heathquinn
08.11.10 at 03:23

I've loved this series. What I've loved best about the work, as some referred to above, is that Justin has removed himself from the pictures in order to allow the farmers and the land to speak through his work. That is a remarkably humble and loving way in which to make documentary work.

Forgive me for re-posting a long comment, but for now, I simply wish to write what I had written previously when some of this work was published elsewhere. Justin's humility and commitment to the story of land and how the land is both worked by the farmers and how the land works upon the farmers is rendered with exacting focus, concern and imagination. We must learn first to listen before we can learn to see, and it is clear that Justin Partyka has learned to listen to the stories of both the farmers and the stories given up by the land.
For those interested, here is the link for Justin’s show at the Sainsbury Centre:
http://www.scva.org.uk/exhibitions/current/?exhibition=106

No matter how much I look at this story…. I never tire of it….

Rooted and all…

Hugs
Bob

Bob Black
08.11.10 at 06:02

Ollie,

You ask some very interesting questions.

I feel that these are complex issues, and are hard for me to articulate, but I'll try....

You're right, I do look towards the past; I think it's to do with having a respect for tradition and feeling it is important to acknowledge that. Essentially this probably all comes from my deep interest in American vernacular / folk music of the South. When I listen to, let's say, the bluegrass music of Bill Monroe or Ralph Stanley, there is an aesthetic authenticity and purity to the actual aural sound (to my ears anyway), and you can hear the lineage in this sound of what came before them. But it's not just the music that came before them, but everything that is wrapped up in history - the landscape, the experiences of the people, etc.

Roscoe Holcomb who John Cohen recorded in the Kentucky mountains, his singing and banjo playing is really the sound of the landscape in which he lived, and the harsh life of working in the coal mines.

If you are open to finding them, you don't have to chip away very far to find that under the surface of the present are the ghosts of the past. And I feel to embrace them can be a very rewarding experience for an artist, if one is inclined that way. William Faulkner's literature is a fine example of this, so is Thomas Hardy's.

I think it is oversimplifying things to see this a romanticism though. Is this a disillusionment with modernity? I'm not sure. I do feel that things are moving forward at a pace that is hard to comprehend, for me at least. And in that process people are often inclined to forget the past. But I feel that it is important to acknowledge the influence of the past and show how it can be so reluctant to be forgotten. The past lives within us and all around us, and as I've discovered from my many hours standing in the fields, it oozes from the earth beneath our feet. This is what I hope my photographs show.

As for the idea of salvage, yes, and within the academic world of folklore studies, when I was studying it certainly was not fashionable to be interested in the kind of issues that my work explores. My photographs are certainly showing a rural world that is often forgotten or believed to no longer exist. I'm not sure I am championing this, I'm certainly not making the work to try and preserve this way of life. But I am making a record of what remains of this agrarian culture right now, so I guess the photographs may become an important historical document in the future.

These are fascinating and complex ideas, and are very much tied to a sense of place, as I see it, so let's continue this and discuss further.

Justin

Justin Partyka
08.11.10 at 06:34

Tim Holt-Wilson,

Again, an important and good question.

As I've worked on this project, I've struggled with the lack of women on the majority of the farms that I have visited.

I think it is important here to emphasise that these traditional agrarian farms featured in The East Anglians, I consider to be very different from the new wave of "back to the land" small-holdings and organic producers that have emerged in recent years, which I guess are all tied up with the being green. That is farming with an agenda.

The farmers I photograph farm simply because it is a way of life and that is all they know.

So where are the women? They have died, or left, but this is often a world of bachelors - think of Bruce Chatwin's novel On the Black Hill, then look at photograph 19 in the slide show.

On some of the farms I go to there are women there but typically they are removed from this intimate connection with the land. Why? I don't know. When I have photographed them, they seem out of place in the underlying aesthetic of the sense of place that I'm trying to create with my photographs. I'm not trying to produce an objective vision of these places; it's very much a subjective one so I photograph and edit to tell the story I want to tell as an artist. It's always frustrating for me when I hear stories of how women once worked equally alongside the men on these small farms, chopping-out sugar beet etc. But occasionally I still find a woman working the land. Do you know of any?

As for "Tina" - I agree that it is very mysterious to see that painting in a farm workshop. I have no idea why it is there - it is just one of those special unexpected discoveries you hope for as a photographer.

Perhaps she is an earth goddess watching over the farmers.
Justin Partyka
08.11.10 at 07:12

Justin is a fine example of an anthropologist/folklorist who takes wonderful pictures. In fact, I have come to find that many of the best photographers in the world working in a tradition of "reportage" or "documentary" photography have varying backgrounds, ie. literature, music, etc. that some how melt together and re-appear in the photographer's imagery.

I love Pete Carter's remark, "Justins' work,to me, has an uncanny knack of capturing the soul of the people and activities in his pictures bringing a deeper reality to the work, far transcending a mere pictorial record." I think this truly sums up his work in East Anglia, and his work in general. His photos bring you into the life of these people and allow the viewer to feel that he or she is actually there.

I love this quote by Justin, "I've discovered from my many hours standing in the fields, it oozes from the earth beneath our feet." You're right that the past seems to ooze from the ground and I think one thing that makes your work so strong is that the photos go beyond pure "documentary, tell it like it is" photojournalism. I keep going back to photos like #4 in the slide show where the farmer seems anchored in his field like an old tree that has weathered away with the passage of time. One can think of many metaphors, symbols, and draw several questions when looking at the photos.

Wonderful Justin! Bravo

David

David Bacher
08.12.10 at 06:20

David Bacher,

Yes, some of the most interesting photographers have backgrounds in, or seek their inspiration from other art forms outside of photography - often music or literature as you note. For me it has always been music.

I'm going to quote the photographer Frank Gohlke (who was featured on Design Observer a few months back) who articulates his thoughts on this more eloquently than I can:

"Of all the arts, music is the most important to me. I go to music not only for spiritual sustenance and renewal, but for instruction as well. I'm sure I've learned as much about structure -- how a piece of work fits together -- from the string quartets of Mozart and Beethoven as from photographs; I know there is a connection between what I hear and what I am able to see, but I have no idea how it operates. I mention this only because of the remarkable number of photographers I know personally or am aware of who share that same dual affinity. There is an important linkage there that should be explored, but I don't think anyone has an adequate language for it yet."
[Frank Gohlke (1976), reprinted in Thoughts on Landscape: Collected Writings and Interviews, Hol Art Books, 2009, pg. 5]

I'm sure it is not just photographers who seek inspiration or are guided by the other arts.

You also say that one can "draw several questions" from the photographs. Can you present some of those questions here?

Thanks,

Justin
Justin Partyka
08.12.10 at 09:04

How wonderful to come across these images again. I saw the exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts in Norwich about a year ago and was struck by the beauty of them, especially the ethereal lighting that some of the images have -one of the wonders of East Anglia.
markcotter
08.12.10 at 02:23

One of the first questions that comes to mind when looking at these photos as a series is the concept of time. If you had not explained when you took these pictures, the viewer is often left to ponder. A photo like the one of the two beds and the small picture on the wall, #19, is one example. It's probably a picture that could have been taken over a time span of 150 years.

The idea of time also leads to the idea of space. Again, some of the pictures seem deconstructed as if the viewer must decide the setting for him or herself. I'm thinking about the picture of the kitchen with the boots lined up against the wall. Of course other pictures define both time and space, as you can tell by the kinds of clothes people are wearing for example. One perhaps rotates between antiquity and the modern world?

What is the relationship between humans, animals, and the land? The photos of the rabbits make us wonder as they are draped over the barbed-wire fences.

What about the relationship between earth, human life, and sky? The photos of the fields, old barns with the beautiful skies are perhaps symbolic of this.

Just a few thoughts...

good night
David
David Bacher
08.12.10 at 04:12

A lovely article with moving and insightful pictures, thank you.

Tim Holt-Wilson - are you one of the Redgrave Holt-Wilsons? I am from Wortham, and remember many Holt-Wilson stones in the Redgrave churchyard.
Adam Lawrence
08.13.10 at 03:53

Hey Justin: Nice work. As a folklorist struggling with some of the same issues---fingers of past technique and community stretching from the past to the future---I have admired your work since I first read your dissertation about lurchers. With regard to the romanticism mentioned in an earlier comment, I too have had to come to terms with that accusation made by me to other folklorists. As a brash young fieldworker full of the ol p and v, I knew that the revivalists and the folklife material culturalists had it all wrong. A type of community bond is formed in the crucible of work that I thought needed no accompaniment, either by music or by generational imagery. I was wrong. Members of any group who define themselves by common labor weave webs of meaning that grow more eclectic as they age: the music of the day; the upturned cuff; and the hip phrasing of their coming of age, continue throughout life. I was a single-minded thinker about this for a long time. Happily Justin and a few of his contemporaries actually embraced the wider notion of expressive culture and include the smells, tastes, sounds and texture as they should be included. Archie Green knew what he was talking about.

Secondly, there is some irony in the media. Spin on Ned Ludd, but if my teenager is out of the house, my pc stays frozen. I teach undergrads and they gleefully leave me and my generation in a blinding rooster-tail of oblivion when it comes to toys. Yet the presentation of ethnography (as we see in Justin's work) holds the promise of much more than titilation and romance. The promise of ethnography is real and effective cross-cultural insight. Just think what our foreign policy of global bullying might be if we had similar inside views of Afhgani or Iraqi families? I think Justin's photographs, along with his text (particularly when spoken by insiders themselves), reveals how this media can and should be used. At the same time, my own students are becoming increasingly illiterate with regard to both appreciating and articulating narrative, oral and written discourse, and (here he jumps into the rabbit hole) politeness.

So much for that. Justin, this is fine work. I wish I could take pictures like you do. Keep on doing what you are doing. Listen to the people who have invited you into their homes and then let the work speak for itself. Best, Bob
Robert McCarl
08.15.10 at 09:04

One thing I most admire about Justin's photographs is that he still finds them mysterious. He does not pretend to know all that they mean, or to know all there is to know about rural life in East Anglia. He avoids the trap of what Susan Ritchie called "ventriloguist folklore," in which the folklorist assumes the role of spokesperson for the "mute" subject. His pictures make me think of George Sturt ('George Bourne') writing about Fred Grover, the old labouring man ('Bettesworth'), at work in Sturt's garden: "I might admire the landscape, and practice my aesthetics; but he was becking in amongst the potatoes, and it is his point of view, not mine, that has survived and given its tinge to these talks" (Memoirs of a Surrey Labourer, 1907; 1939, p.181). Sturt was always capable of being surprised by Grover's remarks, he really listened, setting his own assumptions in abeyance. Justin does the same in these photographs. The people in them are not his 'subjects,' they look away, out of the frame, intent on their own lives to which we are peripheral. The photographs hint at stories (how was that fox killed?), they show sociability (the farmers at the stock fair). I don't find them romanticized or sentimental: the corrugated iron sheds, the medieval-looking turkey executioner, the water and mud. . . . all very real. The folklorist Dorothy Noyes has called folklore's theory humble and close to the ground; Justin's work embodies this.
As one of his teachers at Memorial University of Newfoundland I am very pleased to see his continuing progress as an ethnographic photographer. He joins a line of close observers of East Anglian folklife: the pioneer photographer P. H. Emerson, the biographer Lilias Rider Haggard, and the oral historian George Ewart Evans. Inspiring work!
Martin
Martin Lovelace
08.16.10 at 01:48

David Bacher,

Your point about time has made me think carefully about how I present this work. As you suggest, the timeless nature of the photographs is important and central to how I see the world of the East Anglians. Perhaps I am making a mistake by explaining when I made these photographs? Leaving the viewer to ponder over what time span they are looking at is possibly a more interesting proposition.

Again with space, not knowing everything is better, is it not? Something I find so interesting is how visually for me, the aesthetics of the interior spaces and the external landscapes merge and become one. What I feel standing in the fields, is also what I feel sitting in Eric Wortley's kitchen. And this similarity is something I don't really understand, but I try and capture that feeling in my photographs of these spaces. Again, about time, it is hard, if not impossible to look at a photograph of a field and place it in a specific moment in time. I hope my interiors and many of the other photographs are also equally ambiguous.

I seek abstraction in my work - both in time and space -something that is hard to find and produce, and I want the viewer to ask these questions: "what exactly am I seeing, and when?" I want my work to show them a world that is unfamiliar, even if it is a world that is on their doorstep.

"What is the relationship between the humans, the animals, and the land?" I don't know for sure. Perhaps it is that the people are as much part of the landscape as the animals: Peter Carter is at home in the woods and fields equal to the rabbits. The farmer in his field belongs to that landscape like the hare that darts from the furrow. I think really you answered this question yourself in your previous comment when you described the photograph of the farmer "anchored in his field like an old tree." That phrase says it all.

East Anglia - especially the county of Norfolk - is known for its huge skies. Perhaps to the point of a cliché. I don't try and really emphasise that in a photograph: infact I was one criticised for not doing so, and hence considered to be not presenting "East Anglia as it is", but as a photographer who works in colour, the sky can be a beautiful thing to see, so why not show that.

Justin
Justin Partyka
08.16.10 at 04:58

Robert McCarl,

Many thanks for your kind words and encouragement. As you can see, I've got a lot of mileage out of that dissertation and it's still going strong!

Although the skills and knowledge learned during my time in grad school studying folklore have been crucial in shaping my photography, I don't know where my work (if at all) fits into the current folkloristic dialogue? But you seem to suggest it has a place, which is nice to know.

This is not a criticism, but having the freedom to present my work beyond the constraints of an academic audience / setting has been a very rewarding experience. It seems to move freely between the larger art museum, smaller regional gallery, print publication, and online presentation. Each venue brings something new and reminds me how far reaching this kind of work can be.

If I had any of "the ol p and v," it was simply that I wanted to reach these multiple audiences that remaining in academia would have not allowed so easily. What has been interesting is thinking about how I present myself: at times I'm an artist, others a documentarian or ethnographer, always a photographer, but never a photojournalist, but most telling here in the UK is that when I say "I'm a folklorist" the most common response is that, "you mean you are a story teller." Well, yes I am, but not in the way people expect.

Your idea of "the canon of work technique" has a lot to answer for!

Thinking about that idea now, I guess my work has been an attempt to push the boundaries of exploring non verbal - non aural communication. Can a cultural scene visually break into performance? I would argue yes. Even an empty field or a solitary barn, as I've attempted to show in my photographs.

We are suddenly seeing "new" and multi-media take over the prominence of print at a rapid pace. As you note, it brings the potential for cross-cultural insight in a way never seen before. This very website and my attempt to form a continuing dialogue around my work is a perfect example.

But I think the impact that any ethnography / photography can have on policy making - whatever form it is presented, be it, the printed page or online - is very limited. There are many photographers working hard in Iraq and Afghanistan who are risking their lives to do what you suggest. But they know that a photograph cannot change the world. At best, it might make somebody think and ask questions. It's a start....

I was very interested to read your remark that with this new media your students are "becoming increasingly illiterate" when it comes to discourse and narrative. I think the danger is that it is so easy for this generation to believe that this all bells and whistles new media is enough in itself. Right now many photographers are coming to terms with these very issues: multi media is the new thing and it is what people want. But to make it work well great care and thought has to be put into its presentation. It is so important not to lose sight of the narrative and discourse in the process: the story must remain at the centre, not the media.

Thanks again.

Justin



Justin Partyka
08.16.10 at 07:25

Martin Lovelace,

Many thanks for contributing here.

I quickly discovered that to commit myself to this kind of work for the long term, it is important not to know too much about what I am seeing and experiencing - both to stimulate my own curiosity and that of the audience who sees my photographs.

As you know, when undertaking fieldwork (whatever the medium or discipline in which you are working), you encounter things, hear and see things, that are part of private worlds: moments that are buried deep in the esoteric (insider) culture. Oftentimes these are moments not intended to be witnessed by the outsider. But as a photographer I've learnt that I do not need to understand these moments; for me simply to respond to them on an emotional level and in-turn make a visual record is enough.

I do not recall coming across Susan Ritchie's term "ventriloquist folklore", but I like that idea very much. She's spot on. I'm certainly not trying to give voice to my "subjects" - I show Eric Wortley how I see him, not how he wants to be seen. And the more I photograph, the more it is so evident to me that the story I am really telling through my work is my own story - my photographs are about who I am.

Dorothy Noyes, another folklorist I had forgotten about - again her ideas are so true. I think it is so important that folklorists are constantly reminded to remain "humble and close to the ground." It's where they need to be, amongst the mud, dust and dirt to really do the work.

You mention Emerson, Haggard, and Ewart Evans. It was you who introduced me to these names and made me see East Anglia in a new way - not the place I wanted to escape from after all. Thank you. I feel very close to the tradition these people shaped, sometimes literally: I sometimes walk nearby the house Haggard lived in, recently attending a book launch of a republication of Ewart Evans' "Ask The Fellows Who Cut the Hay", and encountering a field that could easily have been the subject of an Emerson photograph.

Their work continues to live in this rural landscape. And I am constantly reminded of it.

Cheers,

Justin
Justin Partyka
08.17.10 at 03:33

Thanks to Jillian Gould for posting this link on Publore. Your photographs are haunting and as a gifted photographer/ethnographer you have captured and allowed me the the viewer to experience the emotional life of these people. The rural agrarian life shares similarities across cultures. Your photographs reminded me of scenes of rural Calabria Italy where I have worked since 1991. I have enjoyed reading the thread of comments and your reponses. I don't find your photographs romantic/sentimental either. Yes, as was noted many of us have had that accusation hurled at us. I believe in part it is a throwback to an earlier era when the scholar's voice was not supposed to enter the work but was to be an "unbiased" voice. We have long known that that is an impossibility. I look forward to seeing more of your work.
Joan Saverino
08.20.10 at 01:28

Joan Saverino, Thanks for your comment.

The cross cultural similarities of this rural agrarian life, is something that I consider to be of great relevance to this project. The East Anglians tells an intimate regional story, but at the same time it is telling the story of men like Eric Wortley in many other places, including Calabria Italy as you note. Right now I am in a small village in the Loire Valley, France, and just this evening I was walking around and was reminded as I photographed the village small holdings and farm buildings that there is a common global aesthetic language in how things look and feel within the agrarian way of life.

This is something that I want to emphasise through The East Anglians, but I sometimes feel that this point is lost. It often is seen as a specifically regional / local story being told that has little relevance outside of East Anglia. It is frustrating! Do you have any thoughts on how I can address this problem?

More of my work will be featured on Design Observer in the coming months. I hope you will continue to contribute to the continuing dialogue.

08.24.10 at 04:19

Good evening Justin P

The Wendell Berry quote is interesting because it determinedly states that being in the landscape shapes the landscape and also subjectivizes the actors in it. At the same time there is your work within it.

When out in the field there is the concreteness, the materiality of the situation, which is hard to translate, whether into words or photographs. In traditional ‘field’ disciplines – anthropology, archaeology, architecture, geography and performance studies I think that there is a need to capture the being there which is not simply a report back.

Justin seems to have explored how these particular spaces ‘resonate’, how they obtain their particular ‘atmosphere’, so that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. So they are not simply a reporting back. Maybe this is what is meant when we say that these are poetic photographs. Or how they start to have an affect comparable, though it should not be a model, to music?

This mood is instrumental in creating an identity for the place. Evidently this mood is also extremely powerful: the work is ‘moving’, ‘beautiful’, ‘lovely’. These are theoretically unpresumptuous words for work that is equally unpresumptuous.

From what I understand your detractors have mainly been from within the photography institution: you take ‘technically flawed’ photographs; your work is ‘too regional’; otherwise, it doesn’t fit easily into a canonical history of ‘art’ photography. Interestingly though, I don’t think this work could exist within the folklore institution without the overbearance of writing. So your work is in-between. Probably its value is that it does not confirm the prevailing views within either of these institutions. Do you agree with this Justin?

I am also interested to know Justin whether you conceive of photography as a ‘field’ discipline? I don’t recall many photographers talking about being out in the field. I take it to mean the landscape, or the environment, with an attendant ecological sense of its relational dynamics.

Best regards,

Jonathan p w
Jonathan P Watts
08.30.10 at 01:41

Jonathan Watts, it is good to read your thoughts here.

Wendell Berry’s writing repeatedly emphasises the importance of our relationship to the landscape, and the crucial relevance of the local. He writes and he farms. The quote used here is simple and humble, but at the same time I consider it to be profound. When I selected the quote I was referring to the farmers that I photograph. But of course it also equally refers to my own “work” on the land too. For some reason I didn’t see that relationship at first. After many hours in the fields photographing, I too am joined to the land and I have developed a great affinity to it. And I believe that this is helping my work and continually improving how I see the land and my understanding of what is in front of my camera.

In the so-called “field disciplines” that you list (I’m not sure architecture is part of this list), it is important to remember that historically these disciplines aimed for objectivity. To “capture the being there” – the subjective response to place – was typically avoided. But of course, that has changed somewhat now. But I expect that there are still anthropologists, archaeologists, and geographers out there who seek the objective truth. Although I highly value the written word, the more I work, the more I am becoming less dependent upon text. I have to disagree with you, as I feel that photographs for me are able to “translate” the experience of being in the field – the mood – in a way that text is not able to. I guess it comes down to selecting the best language for the job, and a visual one is able to convey and articulate what I want to express in a way that I cannot with text. Or at least could not express with the same emotion.

As I re-read your comment, were you referring to the above idea in your third paragraph?

The Gohlke quote I used in the previous comment above reiterates the connection between music and photography. Many photographers love music and somehow this is absorbed into their photography. It is easy to separate the arts, but I feel that ones aesthetics and creativity are far more complex and all these things become merged together, so that essentially it is not too farfetched to say that music goes in and in response out comes a photograph. I’ve heard more than one photographer talk about the influence of music on editing a series of photographs, or how the rhythm of a book of photographs is comparable to a piece of music. Perhaps there is no need for this to be emphasised, and it simply is what it is, but the connection is clearly there.

I would not say I have “detractors” but you are right to say that the work is often considered to be “in-between.” And that makes some people uncomfortable. I have not had a formal photographic education, so therefore was not forced to decided what my work is: fine art or documentary? To label is restrictive and myopic. I have been told on the photojournalism / documentary side that my work is “too poetic.” And on the fine art side, that it is “too pictorial.” I do not make work to cater to the needs of either side, I just photograph in the way that I do and the result seems to be that I make ambiguous work. I think this has its positive and negative aspects. Obviously the aim is to find and collaborate with people who are positive about this.

Again, neither am I making these photographs to cater to the requirements of the folklore institution, but it is nice to see individuals from that world writing here in support of my work. I think you are probably right to say that many folklorists – within the academy at least – would require a substantial written text to support the photographs. The “a picture is worth a thousand words” argument just does not cut it in most cases. But I certainly do not see this as something to criticise, it is simply one of the expectations of how ones work is typically measured by a certain discipline / group of people.

I would not describe photography as a “field discipline” as I would those listed above – it is an “art.” But essentially I ended up as a photographer because of the influence of individuals who went out collecting folksongs such as Alan Lomax, and John Cohen (who obviously also photographed) and during my time of studying folklore, what they did was described as fieldwork. How I saw it was that they just went out exploring and having adventures and met very interesting people along the way. I wanted to do the same and discovered that photography was the natural way for me to have this experience.

Justin

Justin Partyka
08.31.10 at 07:11

Regarding the inspirational link between Justins work and music. I feel that language is an inadequate medium with which to explain the way that we are affected by many kinds of art. Musical sound reaches deeper than the spoken word and hits the spot in the gut where we feel the effects of any art worthy of the title . People struggle to describe the qualities of a fine wine, but it cannot be done. One must look directly into the heart and music can help us do this ,either alone or as a catalyst to unlocking the essence of other art forms. Words are not enough. Pete Carter
Pete Carter
09.06.10 at 05:08

I love the journalistic approach you take toward your subject, i feel like you were really intimate with them, taking your time to get to know them and consequently really showing who they are. I too liked Pete Carter's photo and how he thinks peoples souls come through the photos.
I also agree with the idea that you shouldn't give a time frame in which the photos were taken, i think i would have enjoyed wondering more about the age in which they were taken. It would have been a lovely mystery.
Also i was wondering even more about your subjects and how you choose them. I know it was mentioned already that your images are dominated almost entirely by males but i also noticed they were all a very similar age as well. It gave me a lot to think about, why this was, and was just curious as to the reason. They all have a very similar feel as to their age, manner of dress and so on, seems like they all might have been friends or from some same group. The lack of children women made me wonder why you photographed a strictly older mans point of view, and what connection you had with them.
Nicole Howe
10.12.10 at 12:23

Nicole,

I feel that it is more accurate to say that the subjects chose me. By that, I mean that I came across the various people in the photographs simply by chance really, from poking around in the landscape and visiting farms and farm sales and talking to the people I encountered and seeing where this would take me.

These photographs do explore the agrarian culture of East Anglia - the small time traditional farmers. It just so happens that most of them are older in years, most likely because younger farmers look towards a more profitable, modern way of farming.

I have not encountered that many women on these farms, perhaps because of the way of life many of these farmers have. And because they are older, there are not children around either.

It really is a way of life that is gradually passing by. If you go back and read my text, Eric Wortley represents the end of this agrarian way of life.

I had no connection with these people until I met them and started photographing them. Now some of them have become very good friends.

One or two of the people in the photographs do know each other, but they are mostly from different places in Norfolk and Suffolk and have never encountered one another.
Justin Partyka
12.02.10 at 07:26



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ABOUT THE SLIDESHOW

A series of photographs by Justin Partyka, documenting a deep-rooted agrarian culture in East Anglia.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Justin Partyka is a photographer from the county of Norfolk in the United Kingdom and author of the forthcoming book Field Work.

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