In conversation with Curator Vanessa Cardui

Over the past three years Beaford has been digitising and revealing thousands of never-before-seen images through a project funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. This exhibition is a celebration of interviews with people connected to the photographs, projects with primary school children and public workshops and events. The Beaford Archive is an extraordinary collection of material about North Devon dating back to 1890. Best known for its photographs by James Ravilious, where the Archive formed his life’s work, and it was one of the first commissions taken on by Roger Deakins, now an Oscar-winning cinematographer. In an attempt to explore thousands of unseen photographs by James Ravilious and Roger Deakins which will be displayed for the first time. We interview curator Vanessa Cardui’s perspectives about the stories then and now from people in North Devon. 

Documentary Photograph by James Ravilious for the Beaford Archive

How did the idea for the exhibition originate?

It grew out of a three-year project to digitise 10,000 previously unseen images from the Beaford Archive, and share them online. Naturally, that opened up a lot of new perspectives and opinions; so we wanted the exhibition to reflect that. We believe that everyone who looks at the Archive, and engages with it, thereby has a bit of ownership of it, and can be part of deciding what it means. To reflect this idea, we wanted to have multiple curatorial voices in the gallery, not just one official “voice of authority”. So we invited 13 people from Beaford’s wider network to each select material for a section of the show, giving 13 “windows” into how different people experience the Archive. And then I pulled all those perspectives together visually and conceptually.

How did you select the images? Did you employ specific criteria?

Different people made their selections in different ways. Some flicked through hundreds of images, and picked out the ones that immediately resonated with them on a gut level. Others searched in a more focused way for images on a specific subject, or images that demonstrated a particular idea they wanted to raise. Overall, I encouraged people to give a personal response, one that could only have come from them and nobody else. I think that’s one of the loveliest things about the show. Often we assume that archives are a bit dull and dry, but HERE gives a real insight into people’s personal and quite emotional responses to the Beaford Archive.

The only specific criterion I used was that the images were not already well known and widely published. For this exhibition, I wanted to showcase the lesser-known photos that this project has digitised. This means that much of the show consists of images that the photographers did not particularly rate artistically, and that they might never have chosen to exhibit. We’re inviting exhibition visitors to look at the whole of the Archive as a collection, rather than at individual art images – which I think provokes a different type of engagement and critical response from the viewer.

Can you tell us a bit more about the Beaford Archive?

The Beaford Archive began in 1972, when John Lane, the founding director of Beaford, came up with the idea of employing a photographer to document North Devon. The photographer he engaged was 22-year-old Roger Deakins, for a short-ish contract of less than a year. Then a few months after Roger left to go to film school, John Lane took on James Ravilious, who really made the Archive what it is today – it was his life’s work for nearly 20 years. The Archive contains around 80,000 images by Ravilious and 6,500 by Deakins; plus the Beaford Old Archive, which is around 8,000 photos owned by local people which Ravilious borrowed, copied, and catalogued. Some of these go back to the 1860s.

The Archive also contains oral history interviews – there are a handful from the 70s, but the majority were done in the last three years as part of this project. One crucial thing to say is that the Archive is still “open”- Beaford plans to create new commissions to allow contemporary photographers to add to it.   

How have the oral histories been combined with the photographs?

The oral history interviewers used photos from the Archive as prompts, to give topics and starting points for discussion. Sometimes, an interviewee talks about a photo that they, or a member of their family, actually appear in. In the exhibition itself, several of the curators have included quotes from interviews as text on the wall. And one section, Claire Kelly’s, in the central booth, has specifically focused on audio from the interviews.

What are the main differences between James Ravilious and Roger Deakins?

This is a hard question to answer! Both of them, especially James, took so many photos that almost anything you say about them, it’s possible to find a photo somewhere in the Archive that will contradict it.

One obvious factual difference is their ages – when Roger worked on the Archive he was 22, whereas James was in his mid-30s when he started. It’s hard to be sure what effect that really had, though, and it would be too easy to make tired assumptions about youth, risk-taking, experimentation and so on. But I think I do sense their ages when they focus on particular subjects. For example, when Roger photographs young people in a coffee bar, or a rock band practicing, or a young farm worker, those images feel to me like they’ve been taken by someone who is conscious of being a young person photographing other young people. Similarly when James, in the 70s, photographs a young family at a village event, I get the same sense of the photographer identifying with his subject.

Documentary Photograph by James Ravilious for the Beaford Archive

I also notice that they each capture men and maleness in quite different ways. The difference is subtle, and hard to describe in words, but I think it’s there. It might be connected to their ages, too; in the 70s, ideas of what it was to be male were shifting rapidly, and even a few years’ age difference gave people different sensibilities.

There are also differences in their approach to contrast. Roger often uses a fashionably (in the 70s) high-contrast style, with the blacks very black and almost smudgy; whereas James’s work often has a more delicate silvery tone.

Some people say Roger’s work has a harder edge; I’m not sure that’s true, but I guess of the two of them, Roger is the one who will be more likely to photograph the kill at a hunt, or focus on a dead sheep, or home in on a funny-looking stranger in a very direct way so that his camera almost confronts them.

There’s also the related question of how embedded they each were in North Devon. Roger is from Devon, of course, but not this part of Devon; and he knew he would only be working here for less than a year. James, by contrast, had settled here and was making his life here. Arguably, this gives his work a different flavour – where Roger is more consciously an “outsider looking in”, James is more consciously part of the community he is recording.

But despite all of that, you can still find images of classic North Devon subjects – for –example, Hatherleigh Carnival – taken by both photographers, that are almost identical. Sometimes a subject is so much itself, so North Devon-y, that it overrides the differences between photographers and just asserts itself, whole, on the negative!

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