Skip to main content

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.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A plague on all these houses

It's a great poem, Lowell's For the Union Dead. I only recently came across it - at least, that's what I thought - but it's been grunting (I choose the word advisedly) away in my head ever since, especially that fourth verse. Behind their cage, yellow dinosaur steam shovels were grunting as they cropped up tone of mush and grass to gouge their underworld garage. It took a little while for me to realise why. Before (I thought) I'd read it, I wrote a poem about the new housing estates springing up round our little town. I was thinking about the various creatures that had lived on the field that was to be covered with houses - sheep primarily - and then those that were to follow. The first were, well, a sort of dinosaur. Here's my second verse: At first it was the one-armed monsters, set free within their caged arena to trundle round, and gently paw the ground, then pile up mounds of earth accompanied by Lego men. I was pleased

My blog this month isn't a poem – nor even several...

  My blog this month isn't a poem – nor even several. No, this time it's a set of little films of poems. After sharing them with several of you, I apologise straight away if you've already seen them, but you might be interested to hear some thoughts on the matter. And if you don't want to hear me thinking about making films of poems, just ignore what follows and go straight to the YouTube link.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qbwJYkDeGIs&list=PLbC1BOoALpN-xyuGJCIAqJjImAi1aAfrY   I hope you enjoy the films. And please tell me what you think! You may remember a couple of the poems appearing in past blogs, with me writing about the possible presentation of poetry in this way. Time was when poetry existed solely as the spoken or sung word – it took some time for it to be written down.  Now, for the most part, it exists and flourishes in both these forms. Recently, and refreshingly, it seems to have been recovering more of its original orality. Now we liv

The Signpost

Here’s a signpost – originally distinctive, being unique and handmade, and now even more so, with the evidence of ageing.   … numbers, distances, which way? While all signposts are interesting in their duty to inform, their presentation of choices and their simple declarative presence, I find this one special. It’s not just that it has much to say in terms of where you actually are, in which direction you might choose to go, how far your destination is (down to quarter mile accuracy) and even if your chosen method of transport is suitable. It’s also special in the simple elegance of its design, with the arms’ supports and the bevelled edges of the main post rising to that unexpected point. But the specialness goes further.  My friend James Ravilious took me there just at this time of year, over twenty years ago.  It was then upright and brilliant white, with crisp black letters. He certainly thought it was special, photographing it lovingly, in May 1988 ( Chawleigh Week Cross –