a photographer's notebook issue 18
following in footsteps

Photography budgets may not be what they used to be ... not quite so many planes, trains and automobiles; 
but as I criss-cross the country, whether by road or rail, my listening habits have changed. In simpler times some sports commentary, interspersed with a dash of music, but now my journeys are punctuated with podcasts ... photography of course, but also politics and the environment. 


And so as I observed the traditional wheat harvest in deepest mid-Devon, climate change undeniably loomed large in the discourse, with harvest arriving earlier and earlier each year.
In other ways very little has changed. Much of the equipment used is several decades old and some of the teams of binderers have been returning to these fields for many years too.


A binderer team in action... a Ford 3000 tractor and driver towing a binder and a binderer who is in the act of manually ejecting a sheaf of wheat reed. The original binders used wire to tie the sheaves, but this proved problematic 
when the pressure was on at harvest time, and so the binder was modified to use a twine knotter not dissimilar to the sewing machine! This knotter mechanism revolutionised agriculture and the same system is still in use today.


As with traditional combine harvesting the reel and sickle bar lays the wheat reed on a canvas bed which carries the cut stems into the binding mechanism.

This team of binderers have also modified their Massey-Harris combination to include a sunshade.


Unfortunately the knotter mechanism still occasionally jams up and requires manual intervention.


Stitching a stook: a stook consists of 8 to 10 sheaves, but they blow over very easily in stronger winds so setting sound foundations is crucial. Here two stookers start a stook, keeping the grain heads at the top, each supporting a pair of sheaves to create an A frame for structural stability.


Moisture levels are monitored throughout. 
There is a strong risk of combustion if the grain heads are allowed to ‘sweat’ before they are brought into the barn. 

Raising the sheaf off the ground allows air to circulate amongst the grain heads at the top of the stook, keeping them well ventilated.


It’s very nearly time to bring the wheat reed into the barns for threshing so now the stookers are dismantling the stooks. As darker clouds roll in, lines of around forty sheaves are laid down alternately in a ‘butts and ears’ arrangement to allow the baler to create evenly distributed bales.


Fortunately the rain has held off, but the pressure is on. The balers are now following closely on the heels of the stookers as they stamp down the sheaves. And in turn the drayers queue in the fields waiting for the tractors to load the bales onto their trailers.


As I watched the final bales of the wheat harvest disappearing over the horizon heading to be threshed in the dry safety of the barns, I chatted to some of those binderers, balers and drayers who have been returning over many years to these fields with their unique skills and equipment. In a quiet momnent a drayer asked me if I was familiar with the photographic work of James Ravilious who had documented rural life in Devon back in the 1970s, possibly walking in these very fields.
Discovering his pictures, I immediately thought of the words of Bertrand Meunier in a recent episode of the excellent Ben Smith photography podcast, “A Small Voice”. Bertrand spoke in humble terms of the importance of preserving memories for posterity, comparing images to words, and by extension, groups of images to sentences, and listening to his own passionate observations on documentary photography I was struck by the realisation that as photographers we are merely following in the footsteps of those that have come before us.


In my next newsletter I will follow in more footsteps, this time of Peter Henry Emerson, whose work I first discovered at art college. Again documenting country life, working with a plate camera, he is best known for his work in the 1880s and 1890s, documenting the Norfolk Broads in what was controversially described at the time as a ‘naturalistic’ style.


Under the open skies of the salt marshes in Norfolk I embarked on the final leg of my exploration of thatch materials, documenting the harvesting of water reeds. Here too little has changed beyond the replacement of a hand scythe with a reciprocating mower.


And back in Devon we find the bales safely under cover back in the barn and see the wheat separated from the chaff.
to see more of Charlie’s photographs, visit the website at e m 07802 820408
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