All the world's a picture: Bruce Chatwin took a camera on his travels as well as a pen. Jane Richards takes a view

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The Independent Culture
When Bruce Chatwin died in 1989 at the age of 48, leaving a legacy of brilliantly original travel books and novels, he was not likely to be remembered for his photographic work. Few of his friends had even seen him wield a camera. But it is now known that he always travelled with one and had hoped one day to exhibit his efforts. Bruce Chatwin: Photographs and Notebooks - a lavish coffee-table book - has now been published and an exhibition opens at the South Bank on 24 November.

The pictures, many in colour, are surprisingly good - simple, direct and graphically striking - and together with the extracts from his travel notebooks, provide, in the words of Francis Wyndham, the book's editor, 'a luminous glimpse of how he saw the world'. Tempting though it is to see this latest Chatwin discovery as yet another media hype (are these really any better than the average holiday snap?), Chatwin had, in fact, acquired a reputation for his 'infallible eye' whilst working as Head of Antiquities and then Impressionist Paintings at Sotheby's in the 1960s. When he gave it all up to travel, he put his 'eye' to good use, firing not only delightfully eccentric descriptive prose, but an undoubtedly imaginative (if not technically brilliant) use of photography.

The least interesting images, if informative, are the standard panoramas - an abandoned fort in the Sahel, dwellings in West Africa - but they are also the least characteristic. He naturally leant towards an abstract form of expression, much in the style of his prose, his eye effortlessly drawn to strong colours and natural formations - particularly wood, rock and iron. And he had a particular talent for spotting picture potential in the most unlikely situations - the side of a boat becomes an abstract study in colour, a window a proscenium arch, an array of Nepalese prayer flags could pass for a delicate watercolour, and the cracks and mould that overlay a 19th-century fresco add to its charm. And who would have thought that a pile of painted planks or a mass of corrugated iron had such artistic potential?

Bruce Chatwin: Photographs, Royal Festival Hall, South Bank, London SE1 (071-928 8800), 24 Nov-23 Jan. 'Photographs and Notebooks' (Jonathan Cape, pounds 20)

(Photographs omitted)

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