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The Natural is Unnatural




Frank Sutcliffe photographs Whitby Fishermen



It's quite a famous photograph, I gather.  But I hadn't seen it before.
Perhaps you know it?  I can't show it here as it's copyright, but I'll try to describe it.

So there they are, those nine sea-booted, variously-hatted traditional fishermen, naturally disposed on the quay.

By which I mean, well, they're just there - as if they'd arrived a moment ago.

There's a central group, close together, another smaller group to the right, two of them looking across the picture, and on the left, a chap leaning against the railing and peering over the edge.  For a backdrop there's a fishing boat, all sails set, and on the far right, a statuesque figure with a basket hoisted over his shoulder.

It looks for all the world as though they'd just returned.
Or, on second thoughts, perhaps they're waiting to go out?

Once the question's been raised, you find yourself looking more carefully.

That basket's empty, and why's he holding it aloft?
No one's wet - these can't be fishermen who've just come home from the North Sea.
Nor is there a stack of baskets ready to be filled, so they're not waiting to leave. All we find here is two empty baskets, deliberately placed and artfully grasped, the arrangement making a picturesque tableau.

Yes, that's what's happened: the whole construction - the heights of the individual men producing a pleasing arc, that backdrop, the placing of legs, the skilful lighting and the battlements of the old Abbey on the skyline crowning the scene - has of course been scrupulously designed, if not choreographed 

But it works.

Here's the lie that tells the truth: to take an entirely natural looking photograph of Victorian fishermen, Sutcliffe must have spent a lot of time thinking about it, then setting it all up and no doubt he took the photograph many times.

Nothing wrong with that, of course.

Natural/unnatural
Spontaneous/rehearsed
Reality/pretence
Truth (whatever that means)/artifice...

Well, whatever similarities there may be between poetry and photography, I leave to you - along with nine (I think real) Whitby fishermen, two empty fish baskets and a beautiful sepia image.

Some catch, Frank.

(The picture's well worth googling).



Frank Sutcliffe photographs Whitby Fishermen

Now let’s have you in a line,
come on lads, lean on the rail
as if you’ve just come home.
Don’t look at me – I’m not here
they won’t see me, it’s you we want
to catch before you go again.

Harry – put on your bowler
yes, that’s right – and Billy
pick up a basket.  Thank you.
Now we’re nearly there.  Tom,
Tom, come in a bit, and turn –
now don’t anyone move.


With that he vanished,
leaving the fishermen stilled in their line.
His hand took the picture.
They remained for a moment,
aware they’d been caught
flat in a row in that box.

Harry took off his bowler
and Billy put down the basket.
Tom turned – each went his way.
Frank carried his catch on the glass
up the hill home, to preserve it with care
turning it sepia, as if smoked.



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