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Photographer Pauline Rook has the perfect eye for West Country's rural ways

By West Country Life  |  Posted: January 18, 2014

  • Somerset photographer Pauline Rook

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Her hallway is a tunnel lined with rich black and white prints of the vanishing present. Pauline Rook has an astute eye for the workings of rural life.

As a photographer she has focused on the people, the buildings, the landscape that have a resonance with her own farming background.

Her introduction to photography came through her artist father, who gave her her first camera, a Brownie 127, at the age of ten.

"My dad just thought it was something that I would like," she says, and with amusement in her voice she adds: "and the next year I got a printing and developing outfit because he was getting fed up with going to the chemist to get my films developed."

At this stage a family friend comes into the frame. "He happened to be staying with us, was a good darkroom worker and showed me how things worked.

"The enlarger was a rectangular metal box, like a petrol can, with a light bulb at the top, it got hot I remember.

"The negative carrier must have been in the middle and the paper below. You could only do a 6x4 inch print."

When she took a picture of a shepherd at the age of 11, she could not have realised how such images would recur in later life.

Pauline studied food technology at Reading University, married and was thrust into a busy life farming, and bringing up four children.

Her husband, Jeremy, from a London family, had studied agriculture at university and had long wanted to become a farmer. The opportunity to get their feet on the first rung came with an offer to become share farmers in South Somerset.

The passion for photography had to remain latent.

But while immersed in farming and family Jeremy took Pauline to an exhibition at the Royal Photographic Society's then headquarters in Milsom Street, Bath. "It was to see James Ravilious's first exhibition, The Heart of the Country," she recalls.

It had an indelible impact.

"I was living and working in this lovely rural world and I began to see all these beautiful pictures that I couldn't take because I knew I wasn't clever enough. Then I happened upon Ron Frampton and he gave me the skills, and set me off. He changed my life."

Ron, who was for many years a tutor at Dillington House Adult Education Centre, near Ilminster, imparts perfection and the highest of ideals to his students.

"When I happened on Ron I had never seen such beautiful photographs. I thought that's what I want to do, but we had four children and other responsibilities, but once the children had grown a little bit I saw a weekend portrait course at Dillington advertised.

Pauline smiles as she recalls: "I didn't even have a camera. In the morning he showed us large and beautiful black and white prints, and in the afternoon he had a young lad come in and we went around Dillington taking portraits of him. I had never considered backgrounds or light or composition. I was transfixed.

"On the Monday morning I was in Safeway in Yeovil, pushing my trolley. I was very disturbed by all these pictures and bumped into a woman whose pictures were amongst those shown, and she said you ought to do a course with Ron, and put his telephone number on my shopping list."

Pauline decided to raise a flock of sheep – Mid-Kent half-breeds – in addition to the existing farm business, to fund her photographic education.

Since then her work has included collaborations with author James Crowden on Working Women and Bridgwater, books which recorded working lives with verbatim accounts and pictures, and other documentary projects.

People are not always the subject. A year-long commission to photograph the rural buildings – farmhouses and barns – of the Blackdown Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty led to a fascination with the area and its distinctive churt stone buildings.

The result is a stunning book, Built On Earth, a thorough record of the vernacular buildings of the area, many of which are sheltered by rusty corrugated iron roofs.

"It's a complete record. That's why I wanted to do it," she says.

"Many of the buildings are small, and no good in modern agriculture. I fear for them – people can't afford to keep them. I felt they should be recorded before they inevitably change.

"Some people absolutely love them and say: 'change will come over my dead body', others want to be rid of them, and planners can be inconsistent.

"I went down lots of tracks and lanes, you have to leave the car to find these places. Often one family would tell me I must see a cousin or another relative, which added to the list."

Inevitably her portfolio of country characters also grew.

On a wall in her farmhouse home hangs an offshoot from the Blackdown Hills project, a cidermaker in such a dark barn that it was impossible to see and focus her camera. But with her Canon 6D modern digital camera with exceptionally high ISO rating, compared with Ilford HP5 film of her past, Pauline says she is getting images that she just would not have been able to capture on film.

Originally photographing on silver-based film, mastering the printing process in a dark room, Pauline is now a master of the computer editing suite The LightRoom.

Ever the perfectionist she is now striving for her Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society, of which she is already an associate. She is also a licentiate of the Master Photographers Association and of the British Institute of Professional Photography.

Pauline has an exhibition in November at the John Leach Gallery in Muchelney, near Langport, and her work will feature in Somerset Art Weeks next September. Her pictures are on sale at the Somerset Guild of Craftsmen Gallery in Somerton.

Walking across a steep winter tree-lined hillside photographing sheep she reflects on her farming past, and its place in her present. "I know how to deliver lambs and milk cows," she says. "That's important when I am taking portraits. People understand I have the connection with their world. Photography brings all threads of life together."

Built on Earth can be found at www.blurb.co.uk For more of Pauline's work, visit www.rookphoto.co.uk

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