Northern Exposures - Chris Steele-Perkins At Northumbria University Gallery

By 24 Hour Museum Staff | 07 June 2007
black and white photo of a boy thrown in the air by a bull with crowds watching

Haswell Plough Fair © the artist

The world of lamping for rabbits, ferreting, whippet racing, grouse shooting, pigeon fancying and rearing of birds of prey is put into focus in the current exhibition at the Northumbria University Gallery. Northern Exposures, a photographic portrait of the Durham coalfield, runs until July 20 2007.

Magnum photographer Chris Steele-Perkins made his study of the region in 2001, capturing a peculiarly north-eastern rural culture once described by DH Lawrence as “a curious cross between industrialism and the old agricultural England of Shakespeare and Milton.”

Steele-Perkins first encountered the former heart of the British coal industry when he moved from the idyllic rolling hills and sunshine of north Somerset to study at Newcastle University. With a taste for the freedom of the countryside, he would have found a rather different landscape outside the city in the north east, dotted with former pit villages. In the villages, he points out, “nearly everyone kept animals, dogs, horses, ferrets, birds of prey or farm animals.”

black and white photo of a boy with an owl on his arm

Pet Owl © the artist

In the exhibition Northern Exposures, the photographer, famed for his reportage throughout the world from Afghanistan to Belfast, has recorded scenes filled with visual wit and a constant eye for the extraordinary.

A fox streaking across the landscape turns out to be a mascot on the bonnet of a car in one shot, while a dog on its owner’s knee looks as if it’s wearing the owner’s hat and wax jacket. A young boy offers up a ferret to the viewer in another frame, while another shows off his pet owl.

The images are not sentimental, though, including the harsh realities of blood-stained slaughterhouses, vandalism and fly-tipping in the countryside.

Steele-Perkins continued to visit the region long after the project ended, recording the rituals of life lived in villages backing onto open countryside. In effect, he is documenting Durham for posterity, as this way of life, with so much in common with eras past, is dying out. He describes his photographs as “a partial record and a personal exploration which serve as both eulogy and elegy.”

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