The Keartons: Inventing nature photography

John Bevis on how he came to write his book ‘The Keartons: Inventing nature photography’.

In the early 1980s, I was working on two projects with Colin Sackett: as part of Simon Cutts’s Coracle Press, and our own imprint Chocolate News, a small press banner for a magazine and artists’ publications. The discovery at this time of the work of Richard and Cherry Kearton, through the fortuitous purchase at a jumble sale of their 1903 book, Wild Nature’s Ways, was a happy one. The Keartons are remembered as the forefathers of nature photography, but for us their books and photographs melded too with contemporary concerns, including landscape and environment art practices; conceptualism; and source material for found art.

picture2A couple of classic Kearton images were borrowed for Chocolate News postcards: The Stuffed Ox, one of the Keartons’ magnificent photography hides, and Daisies Asleep, Daisies Awake, a timeless archetype of nature’s patterning. There was a tiny book, too, How to Photograph Aeroplanes, three vignettes of the Keartons at work, with re-imagined captions.

An essay on some classics of the Keartons’ oeuvre, including not only the Daisies and The Stuffed Ox, but also their photograph of a clump of primroses celebrating The Opening Moments of the Twentieth Century, appeared in 1991 in Coracle’s Little Critic Pamphlet series under the title Direct from Nature. An expanded edition of the same work, with an extensive photographic section and biographical commentary, was published in 2007 by Colin Sackett.

kearton-coverSo I think there was an inevitability that when Colin invited me to contribute a title to his excellent Uniformbooks imprint around 2012 or 2013, the first thought was to tie up all those loose ends in a Kearton monograph. The art and nature hinterland, theory-into-practice context of the Uniformbooks backlist – a family of titles that all speak to each other – was perfect. The Keartons: Inventing nature photography was described by Richard Smyth in the TLS as an “inquisitive, discursive and comprehensive study”, while the work of both Colin and Bethan Sackett-Thomas in design, editing and picture editing was recognised in Smyth’s appraisal of the book as “handsome, solid and intelligently illustrated”.

John Bevis, November 2016

John Bevis will give an illustrated talk at the Small Publishers Fair 2016 on Saturday 5 November at 1.30pm. ‘The Keartons’ will be on sale from the Uniformbooks table.

 

Notes on the Constructed Book

In 2008 artist and poet Simon Cutts curated the exhibition Certain Trees: The Constructed Book, Poem and Object 1964 – 2008 for Centre des Livres d’Artistes,
St Yrieix La Perche. The exhibition also came to the V&A, where Elizabeth James, Senior Librarian at the National Art Library Collections wrote the gallery guide.

This short excerpt from James’ guide sets out ideas that are relevant to the work of many Small Publishers Fair participants. 

“…they (the artists and poets) act as the editors, and often printers too, for their own short-run, self-funded small presses. Self-publishing is considered ‘not a vanity but a freedom’, a ‘critical alternative’ to the commercial mainstream. In the absence of wealth or patronage, economic constraints are embraced as creative conditions.

Here, the material nature of the book becomes central to its content. Size, colour, the fold of paper, the page and its turn are consciously deployed. The same approach applied to a pamphlet, broadside, postcard or standing card, or other kind of object. The aim is to find the right form for the idea.”