Benjamin Brecknell Turner'S Rural England

by Alex Novak


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It is always a pleasure to read the work of two of my favorite curator-writers--Malcolm Daniel and Mark Haworth-Booth. Unlike many academics, both have learned to inject style, drama and interest into their language. I had already seen the marvelous show that this book was drawn from at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, so this book, Benjamin Brecknell Turner: Rural England through a Victorian Lens, provoked considerable anticipation.

Published by V&A Publications and distributed by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., this 128-page book is listed for a reasonable $39.95. The color printing was done in Italy, but I must say I was a bit disappointed in its quality after seeing the actual work itself glowing off the walls of the Canon Exhibition Room in the V&A. Not that the printing is terrible. It is just that it suffers against the prints themselves. Therefore, if you have not yet seen Turner's prints (and what a shame that would be), you will probably think the printing is lovely.

The images, as in most photography books, are the real reason to buy this title. They represent a strong selection of Turner's work from what is undoubtedly the most important album that he put together, but you should not just skip over the essays.

Daniel and Haworth-Booth do not disappoint. They are both true writers with a flair for drawing you into the story--and stories they are that they have written under the bland headings of "Introduction: The State of the Art" by Daniel and "Benjamin Brecknell Turner: A Biography" by Haworth-Booth.

Malcolm's thesis is that there is something important about Turner's images being integrally "English" and very unique. But I am not sure this is such a crucial point; after all, culture and an individual's vision almost always have this effect on photography. I think the primary difference between French and English photography is that French photographers largely come from an artistic background and English photographers come from a scientific or business background, or both. Turner came from a business background but had many scientists as friends.

Daniel picked out some French images to compare the differences between the French and English. I am afraid though that if I picked out the French comparisons instead of Malcolm, I think I could have found some "dead ringers" for Turner among the truly rural images there. However, I did find his flare for setting out an examination of this premise to be informative, thought-provoking and entertaining.

Leave it to Mark to begin his biography of Turner with an examination of a photograph of the photographer himself. And how can one fail to like a man who appreciates wine and makes it the subject of one of his first images? Mark makes you like this man through his fully fleshed-out sketch of Turner's life and interests.

The main author of the book is Martin Barnes, associate curator with Mark at the V&A. The overall work that Barnes accomplished in helping to organize this book and show is commendable, and there is much good information in his article on the Turner album itself in his book essay "Photographic Views from Nature." It is a work of research that makes a major contribution to our understanding of 19th century amateur photography in Rural England and it is ably done.

I just wish it were not such an "academically" written essay. While Daniel and Haworth-Booth both use footnotes the way they were meant to be used--as references to the source material, Barnes--as too many academics do--succumbs to the urge to footnote too much instead of incorporating the ideas in the actual flow of the story, thereby enriching it. His essay is a bit dry for my taste, writing as if this were a Ph.D. thesis rather than a book to be shared with the Photography community at large.

But Barnes' grasp of the field of early photography is impressive, so I am sure that he will continue to improve his style with each of his endeavors. He merely needs to get some of his obvious enthusiasm for photography to actually show on the printed page.

Novak has over 42 years experience in the photography-collecting arena. He is a long-time member and formally board member of the Daguerreian Society, and, when it was still functioning, he was a member of the American Historical Photographic Society. He organized the 2016 19th-century Photography Show and Conference for the Daguerreian Society. He is also a long-time member of the Association of International Photography Art Dealers. Novak has been a member of the board of the nonprofit Photo Review, which publishes both the Photo Review and the Photograph Collector, and is currently on the Photo Review's advisory board. He was a founding member of the Getty Museum Photography Council. He is author of French 19th-Century Master Photographers: Life into Art.

Novak has had photography articles and columns published in several newspapers, the American Photographic Historical Society newsletter, the Photograph Collector and the Daguerreian Society newsletter. He writes and publishes the E-Photo Newsletter, the largest circulation newsletter in the field. Novak is also president and owner of Contemporary Works/Vintage Works, a private photography dealer, which sells by appointment and at exhibit shows, such as AIPAD New York and Miami, Art Chicago, Classic Photography LA, Photo LA, Paris Photo, The 19th-century Photography Show, etc.