What we cannot see

I went to the People’s History Museum in Manchester yesterday to see a photographic exhibition – “Industrial society in image and word”. There were images from the beginnings of photography as well as many from the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

The exhibition included portraits of urban industrial workers together with urban landscapes. I have seen other exhibitions like this over the years and I always come away thinking about the lack of documentation of rural work. I know about the work of Emerson and others but it seems rural work is depicted in a more pictorial way and I am left with the feeling that it is seen as a the opposite of the worst of industrial squalor. This makes rural work less important and less visible.

Kate, 75 years, picking heads off tulips, Lincolnshire. Farmwork.

Kate, 75 years, picking heads off tulips, Lincolnshire. Farmwork. © Colin Shaw

The depiction of rural work is bound up with the rural myth, the idea that all was perfect in the countryside as opposed to the poverty and deprivation of the city. This incomplete view of rural life persisted through the twentieth century with little documentary photography of the realities of rural work.

Perhaps the most notable project was that of James Ravilious, 1939-99, who photographed rural life in the west of England. I have no problem with what he did and it certainly showed what living in the countryside was like. Maybe it is the way that the work has been interpreted in later years that is the problem. It seems to have slipped into some mythicised view of the rural where everything is perfect. Any hint of hardship is overshadowed by the pictorial and I am left with the feeling that living in beautiful surroundings somehow compensates for the daily grind of near subsistence farming.

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Last milking on a Warwickshire farm before the M40 was built through the middle of the farm. © Colin Shaw.

The lack of knowledge and subsequent misunderstanding of what really happens in the countryside is still as strong today. The separation of the rural and the urban is made worse by the redefinition of the rural as a place of leisure rather than work. The fact that modern farms have become industrialised, by the necessity to compete in ‘the market’, means that a drive, or train ride, though the countryside shows little evidence of anybody doing any work. This leads to the mistaken assumption that the countryside is a deserted playground for urban visitors.

How can photography represent rural work in a different way? There will always be the feeling that however harsh country life is it is never as bad as life in the city. But people do still work in the countryside producing food and many other things essential for modern life. It is just that they are less visible and making them more visible would mean accepting a different view of the land.

See also the Farmwork project and M40 Warwickshire.

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