British Photographs from the Hyman Collection
This well-timed exhibition, drawn from the collection of Claire and James Hyman, looks at our impulse to seek out pockets of nature even in the greyest corners of Britain, says Tracy Calder
Our current relationship with the natural world is complex: for the first time in history, more of us are living in urban environments than in the countryside, and yet our need to connect with nature has never been greater. We may not be required to forage for food, protect ourselves from predators or build shelters like our ancestors did, but threats to our physical and mental wellbeing remain. This time, however, they come in the form of rising stress levels and increased cases of depression and anxiety. Our reliance on high-tech gadgets such as smartphones, for example, can disrupt our sleep, prevent us from being mindful of our surroundings, and encourage us to make unhealthy comparisons between ourselves and others via social media. When we reconnect with nature, stress levels fall, our senses become heightened, and our attention span improves. We know that spending time in nature is good for us, and when we are denied access to the wild we suffer, and yet a study conducted in 2017 on behalf of cereal manufacturer Jordans found that 13% of respondents had not ventured into the countryside for more than two years, 33% could not identify a barn owl, and one in three did not recognise an English oak. We are losing touch with nature just when we need it the most.
This well-timed exhibition, drawn from the collection of Claire and James Hyman, looks at our impulse to seek out pockets of nature, even in the greyest, most cement- clad corners of Britain. It features around 60 images created by leading British photographers including Tony Ray-Jones, Shirley Baker, Martin Parr, Jo Spence, Bill Brandt, Anna Fox and Simon Roberts. When viewed together, the images explore our evolving relationship with the natural world, and how this need to rewild shapes individuals and, frequently, whole communities. Looking at Daniel Meadows’ photograph ‘National Portrait (Three Boys and a Pigeon),’ 1974, (left) for example, we are reminded of the natural curiosity children have for the wild, and how this can influence imaginative play. The central character presents the pigeon to the camera as though it were a gift, and the sense of pride at having discovered such a creature can be read in the boys’ faces.
Meanwhile, Jo Spence’s picture of a swing framing two horses (far right) is taken from her series ‘Gypsies and Travellers 1970s’, and represents the idea of ‘edgelands’ – those curious in-between spaces where life thrives: abandoned railway lines, empty buildings or, in this case, a patch of land beneath a motorway. Other themes in the exhibition include ‘Romantic detachment’ (illustrated by Bill Brandt’s image ‘ Top Withens, West Riding, Yorkshire’, 1945), ‘Modern ruins’ (personified by Shirley Baker’s image ‘Abandoned Car’, 1961), and ‘Into the wild’ (perfectly encapsulated by Paul Hill’s shot ‘Legs Over High Tor, Matlock’, 1975).
The title of the exhibition, Modern Nature, comes from Derek Jarman’s 1986 journal, created after he discovered he was HIV positive and decided to create a garden at the front of his cottage in Dungeness, Kent. In the deep shadow of a nuclear power station, Jarman created a pocket of wildness that radiates unexpected beauty. His garden is playful and free, ignoring boundaries and embracing happenstance. Jarman knew that nature had the power to provide solace and respite from the pressures of modern life. He reclaimed a patch of unloved ground and turned it into a haven where nature could regain a small foothold. Rather fittingly, the Hepworth Wakefield is in the process of creating one of the UK’s largest free public gardens, softening the space between the imposing
‘The images explore our evolving relationship with the natural world, and how this need to rewild shapes individuals’
yet beautiful grey structure of the museum and its nearest neighbours, a group of Victorian mill buildings. Finding a balance between industry and nature is always going to be tricky, but the management of spaces where urban and rural life meet needs to be tackled sensitively and with an eye to the future.
‘Modern Nature: British Photographs from the Hyman Collection’ runs at The Hepworth Wakefield in Yorkshire until 22 April 2019. For details visit National Portrait (Three Boys and a Pigeon) 1974
On the Waterfront, Wirral, 2013
Gypsies (27) 1974
Scarecrow 2016 Scarecrow, 2016
Red Road Flats, Balornock, Glasgow, 2014