Direct from Nature: The Photographic Work of Richard & Cherry Kearton
an edit of the introduction, written by John Bevis and published by Uniformbooks of Axminster.
The brothers Richard and Cherry Kearton were the first popular heroes of British nature photography, whose books and slide lectures inspired countless naturalists. Bird photography, the principal object of their collaboration, presented at first a singular problem: how to get close enough to obtain a good image without alarming the subject. Their most memorable solution was the Stuffed Ox, a cow-hide rigged on a wooden frame to make a photographer’s hide. This latter-day ‘spirit of the meadows’, a go-between for man and nature, provoked an evolutionary development of hides for particular habitats: stuffed sheep for upland; artificial rock for ghyll; sod house for peat-moor. Ultimately, on the North Downs of Surrey, a mock-Tudor detached house served Cherry Kearton as both a hide to study garden birds, and his family home.
The Keartons’ eye for the curiosities of wild nature ranged from the acoustic properties of a tree-trunk to ankle deformity among the St Kildans. But they were equally evangelical of photographic curiosity. One of the first successes with the Stuffed Ox, a photograph of a song thrush sitting on a flint in a shallow pond, shows the bird, her shadow and her reflection. An epiphany, not only of the trinity of images begotten, as it were, by the divinity of light, but also one might contend of the Keartons’ sudden knowing of their art. Similarly, it was abstract symmetry more than botany that beguiled audiences of their magic lantern pairing of ‘Daisies Awake, Daisies Asleep.’
More enchanting still: “Wishing to celebrate the commencement of the new century by some photographic exploit, we got a root of these flowers [primroses] under focus during the last evening of the old one, put a plate into the camera, charged our magnesium flash-lamp with powder, and waited for the last stroke of midnight to boom from a neighbouring church steeple. Directly that happened, we fired, and secured a record during the first moment of the twentieth century.”
In that stroke, the onus of veracity is thrown from the camera, which famously ‘never lies,’ back on to its audience — it is a remarkable picture if we choose to believe it. We are forced to acknowledge the documentary photograph as a condition of the photographer’s integrity. Either this is nineteenth-century primroses exposed on a photographic plate, a split second later, in the twentieth-century; or else it is nothing much.
Thanks to Brian David Stevens for introducing us to the genius of the Kearton brothers and the beauty contained in this book.