Bridport & West Dorset News, Views, Videos & Curiosities

Great US photos launch new Dorset art project

Walker Evans, Roadside Stand, Vicinity Birmingham, Alabama, 1936. Gelatin silver print from negative in the collection of the Library of Congress, Washington, LC-USF342-8253A

SO, WEST DORSET has a new artistic venue: Axen Farm outside Symondsbury.

Probably just two miles from Bridport town centre, but it feels startlingly like another world, as you suddenly rock up towards the end of a narrow track and find yourself faced with the northern side of Colmers Hill, with just a fleck of Bridport visible eastwards.

Dragonflies dart around the improvised car park and the shadows of clouds scud over the landscape.

Axen Farm was built almost exactly 100 years ago for the gamekeeper on the Colfox estate. The view through the big windows of the first room you go into is something you really should go to see for yourself. That’s all I’m going to say about it.

Axen Farm is the clustering-point of Burr Projects.

Burr as in the seeds or dry fruits of plants with little hooks (though burr is one of those words that also has many other appealing meanings – circle of light around moon or star, dialectal pronunciation, hard sandy Dorset limestone, etc).

The woman with the un-shake-offable liking for the word burr is Nancy Clemance, who moved to West Dorset last year and is a leading member of Bridport’s new Gig Rowing Club.

She’s also a freelance arts curator and she’s been mulling over Burr Projects for eight or nine years.

She said: “It’s about sticking to things, picking up things, that end up stuck to your jumper and won’t go away.

“It’s about picking different things up and putting them together.”

Ideas include Hutliving (about shepherds’ huts) and Carnie (about outdoor festivals).

Walker Evans, Graveyard, Houses, and Steel Mill, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, November 1935. Gelatin silver print from negative in the collection of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington DC, LC-USF342-1167A

But the first venture, now open until September 5, is an exhibition of around 40 black and white photographs taken by Walker Evans in the Deep South of the USA in 1935-36, during the Great Depression.

Evans was employed as an Information Specialist in President Franklin D Roosevelt’s Resettlement (later Farm Security) Administration. His job was to record the work of the FSA and document the lives of farmers and flood victims.

Evans travelled to Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina photographing sharecroppers’ homes, churches, graveyards, busy streets, shops, cafes, signs and billboards. He also took portraits.

Walker Evans, Allie Mae Burroughs, Wife of a Cotton Sharecropper, Hale County, Alabama, Summer 1936. Gelatin silver print from negative in the collection of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington DC, LC-USF342-8139A

The show is on tour from London’s Hayward Gallery. It’s accompanied by an exhibition book, with examples of Evans’ writing, interview excerpts and articles written by James Agee and Lincoln Kirstein. Ms Clemance also prepared material for the Axen Farm display with pupils from the Woodroffe School in Lyme Regis, Symondsbury teenagers, a professional photographer and a professional painter.

There’s an obvious interest in seeing how Deep South Depression Era communities speak to West Dorset in 2010; a few of the images might almost have been taken in the spartan rooms of Axen Farm itself.

There’s also a subtler reason why Evans could be a brilliant starter for a new series of projects intended to be sticky.

There’s a superb account of Evans’ photographs in Geoff Dyer’s book The Ongoing Moment (Little, Brown 2005), concerning in particular the idea that places “have their own inbuilt capacity for memory”.

Dyer writes: “Connie, in D.H.Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, senses this on a walk through her husband’s ancestral home. ‘The place remembered,’ she exclaims, ‘still remembered’.

“This does not feel like a psychological projection on the part of the viewer but of a receptiveness to something abiding in the place itself.”    

“Evans believed these memories could be coaxed out and distilled by the camera.

“He could show memory in the process of formation and, by so doing, make it part of our memory.

“In this way we get a sense not just of the chronological passage of years but of psychological time.

Receptiveness to something abiding in the place itself is a quality that West Dorset can never get too much of…

Editor’s Note: Updated August 8 to reflect the start of the exhibition. For  details of opening times, and a useful map, click here for the Burr Projects blog.

NB Looking at the map before you set off is highly recommended.

Use of the car park costs £2. But as you’ll have gathered, I’d say it’s well worth it.