Oliver Udy tells us about his latest project, documenting contemporary rural life in Cornwall.
Words by Oliver Udy,
Photgraphy by Oliver Udy & Colin Robins.
Originally published in Nom de Strip, Issue 2 / Right Here, Right Now.
’Cornwall to me is a mixture of different experiences for different people. Whilst there are exciting elements to the country-side, there are also people out there living very tough lives, trying to get by without jobs or services.’
Throughout the summer, myself and fellow photographer Colin Robins will be creating a visual record of aspects of Cornwall’s contemporary social and cultural life. The aim of the project is to take a fresh look at some of the people, practices and pastimes that make up life in the far South West.
Colin and I both live in Cornwall. ARL was spawned from a shared interest in contemporary rural life and the people who participate in it. Most people have a rose-tinted view of life in the countryside. It is often seen as a playground for the rich, eccentric and alternative, but Cornwall to me is a mixture of different experiences for different people. Whilst there are exciting elements to the countryside, there are also people out there living very tough lives, trying to get by without jobs or services. We wanted to cover all of that in a way that was visually interesting.
I have a practice that sits somewhere between documentary and landscape photography, while Colin has a background and interest in social documentary. For the project, we were looking for people still involved in the land but in less traditional ways, with interesting occupations and hobbies or with radical or unusual lifestyles.
The first phase of the project saw us take over the former Council Chambers in St Austell’s Market House, a former dance hall with a sprung Canadian maple floor and massive windows. It also used to be a hardware store for pots and pans and camping gear but they went under a couple of years ago and it has been empty since then. It’s a remarkable space, and perfect for a studio.
In the coming months, sustainable design company Leap Media will develop the space into a creative hub. This exciting initiative will transform the Market House into a workspace for makers, artists and designers, as well as being the new home for Leap.
These initial sessions, held over four days, saw almost 60 people from a wide range of exciting and unexpected backgrounds visit the studio.
We contacted people directly who were doing things that we were interested in: breeders, growers, those working on the land in traditional ways. Then we branched out into contemporary trades and other forms of life. We also found people through a call out in the local paper and through LEAP’s huge networks.
With almost 180 sheets of film exposed there are some very exciting images. Those that came made up a diverse picture of contemporary life in Cornwall, with significant aspects of rural life represented.
The images are made with a 5 x 4 inch plate camera, black and white film and a tarpaulin background. We chose to produce the work in this way for two reasons. Firstly, working with such a large camera brings about a sense of occasion with the picture-making process that’s missing in an age of quick digitalised snapping: it’s slow to use and produces a very formal attitude which gives a sense of dignity to the sitters. Secondly, the methodology for making the work to some extent echoes the subject itself. This use of a large format camera, like many of the traditional countryside activities, has largely moved from a central part of working life to an activity for the amateur or enthusiast. Activities that were once a vital part of the wider rural networks are now kept alive as hobbies (breeding, growing, etc.). There are still those that work the land and the sea however, and these too are represented in the study.
Everyone we met was amazing. We met a guy on the board of The National Dowsing Society. He came all the way from Penwith, Cornwall to take part. We also contacted The Cornish Beekeepers Association, as we were looking for a beekeeper. Rose was the closest. She, her husband and her five-year-old son are beekeeping enthusiasts. They came in with bags of gear and boxes, got dressed, lit up the smoker and went for it. We took a few pictures of them – a few family shots and some individuals.
We also managed to document some more contemporary aspects of life in the county, including those with lifestyles not usually associated with the countryside, such as punk musician, Selwyn, who plays in a far-right SKA band, but who was also lovely.
We met Vini, the war-gamer in the market house. He left school at 16 to set up his shop selling fantasy war-games. One Saturday we discovered Vini playing war-games with 40 to 50 other guys. I think he’s 25 now, and one of the most successful traders on the market.
There was also Pierre, the French rockabilly, who runs a clothing shop in St Austell. He moved from Brittany to London in the 1980s, and then moved to Cornwall because it’s a bit like Brittany.
Then there are those that represent a growing shift in the role of the countryside, from a place of work, to a place of leisure, represented by people such as a radio-controlled plane enthusiast, Paul, a kayaker, and various cyclists. We met lots of German tourists. Cornwall is a big destination for German tourism, because of the coast – Germany doesn’t have a great coast line.
The project is made in connection with the Cornish Studies Library in Redruth, where the final images will sit as part of their archive. The collection is a valuable resource for anyone interested in aspects of the county’s history, and these images will hopefully sit in the collection for generations to come.
Over the summer the camera leaves the studio, and the tarpaulin backdrop will make the trip out to visit people. This will offer the opportunity to see many more interesting people in the county, as well as some of those who are less mobile, like the breeders of large cattle!
Once the photography has been completed, and the negatives developed and printed, the work will be exhibited, both in the Cornish Studies Library and in other contexts. We’ll finish shooting at the end of the year and there will be a book out in summer 2013.
We are interested in hearing from anyone who feels that they would like to take part in the project and have something to add to the study.
Leap Media: leapmedia.co.uk
Oliver Udy: oliverudy.co.uk