My Favourite books: The English by Ian Berry
I have an emotional attachment to the Yorkshire town of Whitby. It's a place which I've visited many times, and the excitement of walking up the 199 steps to St Mary's Church and looking across the harbour never diminishes. At one stage we even considered moving there, but its popularity with summer day-trippers made the quieter Lancashire coast a more viable option.
If I could find one photograph to express how I feel about Whitby, it would be Ian Berry's famous image of people on a hillside overlooking the harbour. I would go as far as to say this is probably my favourite photograph of all time.
The photograph is from his seminal book, The English. An out-of-print book which I've coveted for twenty-five years but only recently acquired thanks to the generosity of a good friend.
My example shows the scars of over four decades of handling. I can only imagine how many pairs of eyes have looked through it. Books are designed to be handled and read, and I've never been too precious over the condition. The 100 black-and-white images are very simply arranged over the pages and represent Berry's two-and-a-half-year, Arts Council funded project. His pictures cover the length and breadth of England in the mid-1970s. From church fetes and racecourses to beaches and city streets, from hospital wards to department stores and everything in between. During the small introduction at the beginning of the book, the photographer talks about the project and what he used to shoot it. The most interesting thing for me, as it relates to my professional career, is the release he felt in being able to photograph in black-and-white without clients, agents, or directors influencing the photography. When allowed to do whatever I want, I always feel my photographs are better, and represent more of who I am as a photographer. I always try and make this point to my clients.
“It was a great release to photograph in black and white without the usual professional restrictions on time or subject matter.
Cartier-Bresson defined the term 'the decisive moment' but Ian Berry's images, for me, encapsulate the concept even better than Bresson. In particular, the pictures from Whitby and the street photographs from London are masterpieces of timing and composition. The lady playing cricket on the beach at Whitby is such an extraordinary photograph in the way that it brings so many parts of a scene together geometrically. Move any of the elements or take them out altogether, and the picture wouldn't work.
Throughout the book, we see a humorous side to Berry's photography. Whether it is with the photographs of the people innocently mimicking objects they are standing next to, or the amusing expressions which have been captured in everyday situations, his eye for the offbeat is evident. The fruit seller in Whitechapel is a photograph which always makes me smile, no matter how many times I see it. The pineapples, the man in the window, his face and collar, and the position of the woman's body below him, all come together to create something magical.
As a photographer, I've always been drawn toward photographs which have mood and atmosphere. While I can appreciate the cleverness of composition, a humorous eye and great storytelling, a moody, atmospheric image is what visually excites me.
When I first got the book, Berry's image of the small figure and the line of sheets hanging up to dry made me stop in my tracks. What an incredible photograph. So simple but wonderfully executed. Extraordinarily beautiful. Then there are the three guys in cloth caps. Wow. Light and shadow. A perfect example of the mood and atmosphere Berry creates within his images.
The English is an exceptional book. The simplicity of design and lack of text forces the viewer to concentrate on one thing - the photographs. I've spent many hours adding to the patina of my copy, and I will spend many more. It's a masterclass in observational photography.
Unfortunately, due to the rarity of the book, it's not an easy or cheap book to find, but if you can get a copy for a reasonable price, then I wouldn't hesitate in recommending it. They show up on eBay from time-to-time.
If you have this book, let me know what you think of it and which are your favourite pictures. I'd love to know.