Wild geese, pigs, rabbits and sick rams

James Ravilious has been shooting Devon for 25 years. By Amanda Hopkinson
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The Independent Culture
James Ravilious is a man who ploughs his own furrow. His work on the countryside and its human, animal and vegetable inhabitants represents a permanent ongoing project of some 30 years' duration. He has documented rural France (in a reconstruction of Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes), and John Betjeman's England; he has also taken portraits of writers and artists such as Christopher Milne and Patrick Heron. But his heart remains in "the Land of the Two Rivers", between the southern hills and the rocky northern coast of Devon, where he has lived for 25 years.

As a young man, Ravilious attended St Martin's School of Art. But he abandoned the brush for the camera after a frustrating year spent painting in Orkney in 1962. Since then he has carefully compiled an archive of pastoral photography which now numbers more than 80,000 images. They may seem ordinary, but to Ravilious "there is emphatically no such thing as the ordinary". The extraordinary in the everyday is his subject. Geese at Swimbridge (right) presents a gaggle of birds that seem to have waddled under that cloudy sky for centuries.

In capturing his own corner of the extraordinary, Ravilious also taps the particular. The portrait, Archie Parkhouse with ivy for sheep, has at once the sense of a hard-living, pipe-smoking farmer in 1975 and of a fairytale woodman, swathed in ivy down to around his waist. That of the hedger drinking from his enamel mug on a lunchbreak, every detail salient into the farthest distance, every cut twig sharply outlined, is reminiscent of the Samuel Palmer woodcuts now stacked around Ravilious's living room. What is most specific is often what is also most timeless.

Yet his chosen medium is one repeatedly deemed the most modern available to any artist. If photography was chosen primarily in reaction to other art-forms, then Ravilious's use of it looks back rather than forward. Not for him the niceties of laser prints and digital manipulation. Even colour printing is taken as over-reminiscent of what painters do, as well as being beyond his control in its processing. One portrait has him deep in a forest, buried under one of those black cloths favoured by Victorian street photographers. He loves his old Leica, and his ideal worlds are given boundaries by a cherished Leitz framer. Like Cartier- Bresson, with his celebrated resistance to any cropping or cutting of his images, Ravilious's geometrically balanced pictures all show the black edging that marks their full circumference.

Ravilious cites Cartier-Bresson's 1969 exhibition at the V&A as his earliest photographic inspiration. He also owes a considerable - and acknowledged - debt to Edward Smith, the vastly under-rated British "humanitarian" photographer. There are close-ups of picnic teas, pigs slumbering beside a woodpile, and rabbits gazing at a pigeon. Even humorous subjects such as Alf Pugsley returning a lamb to its mother, which catches the shepherd in his homemade plastic mackintosh, or Bill Swale proudly guarding his "prize-winning onions", or Archie Parkhouse and Ivor Brock moving a sick ram (which they do by dragging the perplexed creature along in an old tin bath) have unusual dignity. It is dignity of an unfashionable form - the dignity of labour.

Ravilious's new book, An English Eye was published to coincide with an exhibition of the same name, launched at the Royal Photographic Society in Bath and now on tour. His work is so distinctive that it deserves to be taken out of the orbit of local history. Alan Bennett's irrepressible foreword explains why: because to a Yorkshireman like him, Devon once "seemed as exotic as the South Seas". The wide landscapes shadowed with weather, and the intimate outdoor or domestic scenes where, as Bennett says "nobody is on their best behaviour ... they have not spruced themselves up for the lens or done a quick run round with the Hoover" have a freshness and immediacy which defy their time and place. Valid contributions to a local archive they undoubtedly are. But they also form a treasure- trove for viewers of any age who are curious about the human condition, and its involvement with the land.

'An English Eye' by James Ravilious & Peter Hamilton (Devon Books, pounds 20): out now.