Robert Hesketh meets Pauline Rook rural photographer whose intimate understanding of her subjects

PUBLISHED: 13:14 26 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:06 20 February 2013

John Randall, ram trimmer in East Coker

John Randall, ram trimmer in East Coker

Pauline Rook is a rural photographer whose intimate understanding of her subjects allows her to create moving and powerful images, says Robert Hesketh.

Pauline Rook is a rural photographer whose intimate understanding of her subjects allows her to create moving and powerful images, says Robert Hesketh.

Working life and people in the Somerset countryside are photographer Pauline Rook's main inspirations. Having farmed for many years in South Somerset with her husband, Jeremy, Pauline knows her county and subject from the inside; her understanding and affection for both shows in every picture.

"It's such a privilege to have done what I've done," said Pauline. "The places I've been, the people I've met and the experiences I've had - wonderful! It brings together all the threads of my life: raising four children, farming, taking my science degree.

"The power of the still image never ceases to amaze me. No movie can match it. Photography is a marriage of art, science and magic. Using a scientific skill with an artistic eye, you aim to produce something that really moves people."

Pauline's fascination with photography began when she was ten and her father gave her a Brownie 127. Seeing her enthusiasm, he gave her a printing and developing kit.
"A family friend, a keen photographer, really set me on track and I've never looked back. I got my first SLR, a Praktica, in my early teens; then I progressed to a Nikon. One of my first photographs was of an old shepherd with two lambs. Having grown up in the countryside I've always had a great interest in farming. When I married Jeremy and we took on a dairy farm at Haselbury it was like a dream come true.

"Some real old characters lived around us. I loved to talk to them. When I saw a wonderful series of portraits of country people by local photographer Ron Frampton I knew these were the sort of photographs I wanted to take. His photography course was a revelation. I was amazed. I'd never seen anyone set up a portrait photograph before and hadn't thought about composition or direction of light."

Over the following five years, Pauline continued her studies with Ron Frampton, who still teaches regular courses at Dillington House near Ilminster. It proved to be a watershed in her artistic development. "I was so lucky to happen upon him at the right time of my life. He's the only teacher I know who will take you out and show you how to take and print photographs. One of the beauties of working in black and white is that you can print to such a high level of quality. You can do far more with a monochrome negative than with colour.

"The first stage is making a test strip, which gives you a rough idea of the exposure, followed by a print, which you assess to see where it can be adjusted. So, you print again and reassess. The process is repeated as many times as needed - but you're unlikely to get a perfect picture in fewer than four tries. Very often it took a whole day for one print and was a labour of love."

When she and Jeremy left their Haselbury farm, Pauline was able to concentrate more fully on her photography, which thrived. Whilst developing profitable lines in wedding pictures and commercial portraiture, especially children's portraits, she participated in Somerset Arts Weeks and began exhibiting at the Somerset Guild of Craftsmen. She also published two books with poet and author James Crowden, Working Women of Somerset and Bridgwater: the Parrett's Mouth. The Countryside Agency appointed her to take photographs for the Blackdown Hills Rural Partnership and she exhibited jointly with colour photographer Jenny Graham in Working the Land.

Pauline captures her subjects in their own environment where they are relaxed and confident, much as James Ravilious - whose work she greatly admires - did with working people in the North Devon countryside.

"The most important thing with portrait photography is communicating with people, building a relationship with them. To take portraits you need to be very well acquainted with your subjects and their world. This is where I have a great advantage in photographing farmers.

"I don't know whether I could have done what I do now when I was younger. I go to anything from shitty old farmyards to glamorous weddings. You have to be happy in your own skin to do it, to build the necessary technical and social experience and confidence. Taking pictures is very hard work; you have to be passionate about the subject."

The digital revolution came, but Pauline stuck to film for several years. She started by working from scans of her negatives and then going to full digital capture.

"For a time I was in limbo between digital and film, where I had been top of the tree. Computers are essentially alien to me, but I've had some great help in mastering them from Phil Flowers, local Chairman of the Master Photographers' Association, who said he was born with a computer chip in his head. Steve Payter, of Image Art based in Milton on Stour, has worked with me over the last five years. With my encouragement and the improving technology, he can now produce black and white inkjet prints on art papers that are very close to traditional darkroom prints - occasionally better.

"However, the advantages are not all with digital. Taking a good digital photograph is much harder than taking one on film because there is less latitude. You have to be very precise about metering - almost as precise as with transparencies. It's a lot easier to rescue a bad negative than to rescue a poor digital file. An overexposed digital photograph is irredeemable. All the same, I feel no urge to return to film, though I've kept my favourite film cameras and my love of hand prints."

Pauline is now on her third digital camera, a Canon 5D. Three Canon lenses - a 24-70mm f2.8 for general work, a 17-40mm for wide-angle shots and a 70-200mm telephoto with an image stabiliser - complete the essentials of her camera bag.

"It's very much easier having just one camera for work. I used to have 11 and it was a nightmare deciding which one to take. The 5D is very, very good. I love it and the freedom it gives to experiment. For instance, I no longer have to choose between colour and monochrome - I can have both from the same exposure."

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