Collective Observations: Folklore and Photography – from Benjamin Stone to Flickr at the Towner

By Jenni Davidson | 26 November 2012
A photo of people sitting in chairs at a hairdresser's preparing for a wedding ceremony
Doc Rowe, Hocktide Tutti Men (1992). Hungerford, Berkshire© Doc Rowe

Exhibition Review: Collective Observations: Folklore and Photography – from Benjamin Stone to Flickr, Towner, Eastbourne, until January 13 2013

From Shetland’s Up Helly Aa, Orkney’s Ba’ and South Queensferry’s Burry Man to Lewes Bonfire Night, Hastings’ Jack in the Green and Padstow’s Obby Oss, Britain is rich in quirky festivals and traditions celebrating the passing of the seasons, events of bygone times or aspects of folk belief.

There are more than 700 folk events across the UK each year, and many more traditions that are no longer practised.

Since the invention of photography during the 19th century, many of these rituals have been documented by photographers.

Collective Observations features the work of Benjamin Stone, Faye Claridge, Matthew Cowan, Doc Rowe, Homer Sykes, Brian Shuel, Sara Hannant, Tom Chick, David Ellison and Henry Bourne.

A photo of a young man standing up wearing a sleeveless white vest outdoors
Paul Murray, Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestler (2008)© David Ellison
The exhibition has been put together by the Museum of British Folklore, a nomadic collection responsible for exhibitions of folk culture in museums and galleries around the country.

The images here demonstrate the huge contrast between past and future in folklore photography, but all capture something that is special in British culture.

One of the earliest folklorists to take photographs of British festivals was Benjamin Stone, who founded the National Photographic Record Association in 1897.

His aim was to document ancient buildings, folk customs and anything else of historical interest that would contribute to a sense of national pride.

Stone’s work has been an inspiration to generations of photographers since then, but each has followed his or her own personal style.

Taken at a time when having a photograph taken was a special event and standing still for the camera a necessity, Stone’s pictures look oddly staged – static tableaux from events that, in reality, would been full of movement.

Sara Hannant’s photographs, on the other hand, are the complete opposite: impressionistic and blurred images capturing the movement of live action, people dancing and fireworks exploding.

Henry Bourne’s pictures are carefully staged, but in a more deliberate way than Stone’s. Bourne’s portraits of people in folk costume against white backgrounds remove the context of the festival and allow the viewer to focus only on the person and their outfit.

Video and installation were not available in Stone’s day, but films such as Tom Chick’s Fisherman’s Daughter and Matthew Cowan’s Nine Sussex Triangulation Points, as well as Cowan’s odd morris dance-related sculptures, contribute an interesting modern take on the surreal and uncanny in folk tradition.

In a good year for British idiosyncrasies, the exhibition provides more cause for pride and a chance to wallow in our national trait of downright eccentricity.

  • Open 10am-5pm (closed Monday except Bank Holiday). Admission free. Follow the gallery on Twitter @Townergallery.

  • Follow Jenni Davidson on Twitter @jenni_davidson.

More pictures:

A photo of people standing with their backs to the camera looking out to sea on a beach
Death in a Nut© Tom Chick
A photo of a pair of hands holding up a camera in front of a bright red fireworks show
Hands taking a Photo, Lewes Bonfire parade, Sussex© Sara Hannant
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