Arts feature

A photographer sheds new light on Constable Country

‘I’m not interested in the grand vistas of landscape but in the small details’ – Andrew Lambirth talks to Justin Partyka

17 May 2014

9:00 AM

17 May 2014

9:00 AM

The phrase ‘Constable Country’ summons up a quintessentially English landscape: river and meadows, open vistas bordered by trees, the greens and golds of cultivated acres, with the wide (and often blustery) skies of East Anglia over all. John Constable (1776–1837) is one of our greatest artists and certainly one of the most popular. His vision of rural England has become a cherished ideal of how landscape should look, and is as much a state of mind as a real place. In actuality it is based around the village of East Bergholt where Constable was born, in the Essex–Suffolk border country, and extends through Dedham Vale and the valley of the river Stour. Constable famously painted nearby Flatford Mill, and the National Trust now administers a visitor centre there, which includes the Boat House Gallery, showing contemporary East Anglian artists.

Currently on view at the gallery is a small but choice selection of colour photographs by Justin Partyka (born 1972). Partyka trained as a folklorist at Memorial University in Newfoundland, a fact that is perhaps more obvious from his previous work with the small traditional farms of East Anglia. (In 2009, he held a well-received solo show of these agrarian photographs at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich.) I asked him how his training in folklore had equipped him to become a photographer. ‘I think it opened my eyes to the potential of focusing deeply on specific things, and how a place shapes culture, shapes people, and what’s in a landscape — both the material and the intangible things. I was very interested in the American South and the work that has come out of it — the literature and photography and especially the music.’ The bluegrass music of Kentucky was an early enthusiasm, and Bob Dylan. ‘The very first photographs of Dylan were taken by a photographer named John Cohen, who is also a film-maker, folk-song collector and folk musician. Here was somebody that brought everything together, and that inspired me, and suggested that all my interests had a purpose and I could do something with them.’

Partyka’s exhibition consists of just eight photographs, all of them depicting Constable Country in the summer, but none of obvious Constable subjects. They come in two sizes, 7” x 10” and 13” x 20”, and all are for sale in strictly limited editions. The relatively small size of the work is a reaction against the current trend for huge photographs, and though Partyka has himself done some large works in his previous East Anglian series, he wanted to encourage the viewer to get close to these images. ‘The photography is about these little hidden places, quite detailed, and I like the idea that you have to go in close to see them.’

Partyka works with film, preferring its tangible qualities to the cybernetic magic of digital imagery. ‘I’ve been working like this for over ten years now, I don’t want to change, I’m very comfortable with how I work and the film that I use. Photography can be a very technical thing, but I’m not really interested in that. Most of my work, and certainly what I’m most proud of, is of East Anglia. I think typically artists do their best work close to home. Although there’s the idea of the photojournalist who travels the world, I’d rather work on my doorstep.’ Similarly, he admires the work of the printmaker Michael Carlo and the painter Simon Carter, both of whom are rooted in their own localities. Carlo concentrates on the field behind his house in Suffolk, Carter paints the Essex coast around Frinton. Both aim, like Partyka, for a deeper reading of their subject through intimacy.

One of the photographs in the show is of a nettle bed at Wormingford — a great sea of nettles jewelled with raindrops after a recent shower. ‘What drew me to this was the light. It’s taken into the light, which obviously you’re not supposed to do, and you get these strange reflections on the lens. I’m not trying to make so-called classical photographs. I’m not trying to perfect the craft. People might say there are a lot of imperfections in my photography, but I’m doing what I want to do, I don’t follow strict guidelines. There might be a lot of black, but this is how I see it. I like my photographs to have a kind of weight to them, an emotional weight, an aesthetic weight. If they were paintings, the oil would be really thick.’

There are teasels at the front of another shot of Wormingford, with the Stour, here a small blue highway, running through the middle of willows. Like Partyka’s other photos, there’s a quality of the unexpected to the image, it’s not a typical view. ‘I was walking along and what really caught my eye was the lovely light and the fine detail. I’m not interested in the grand vistas of landscape but in the small details.’ His images are often dark (a review I wrote of his 2009 show was called ‘The art of darkness’), and late afternoon is his favourite time of day. ‘I don’t know if this is true or not,’ he says, ‘but I’ve always felt that the sun has to be out all day for the warmth of the light to build up.’ Viewed in this way, morning does begin to look distinctly thinner and cooler. Notice the wonderful raking light over maize and thistles with silhouetted skyline at Thorington Street; or the horse trough with cast shadow of the artist and the angled shadow of barbed wire across the water. This one was taken at Flatford, close to where the photograph is now on view.

When he started photographing in the Stour Valley in 2012, Partyka feared that the area might have been overexposed, as the artistic hunting-ground of such popular painters as Gainsborough, Constable and Munnings. He knew he didn’t want to follow in their footsteps, though he jokes that sometimes he felt Constable looking over his shoulder. Not for him a reinterpretation of the views and locations the master painted, he wanted to discover his own version of Constable Country. ‘There is something about this area which is special. I tried to see it in my own way, and avoid the anxiety of influence. It’s important to be able to do that.’ He sensed in himself a kind of shared sensibility or understanding of the countryside as he moved off the beaten track, out into the landscape in search of the details that give the landscape character. For Partyka it’s important to blend into the countryside, treading lightly.

It is often said of photography exhibitions that you don’t really need to see them if you have the catalogue. Partyka reminds us that the primary encounter with the actual image is essential: certainly for its scale and for the quality of the printing. ‘I put a lot of work into making sure the prints are perfect for what I want. In their frames, they’re more than just a photograph, they’re each an object. And you have to appreciate the object in the flesh: see it and stand in front of it.’ Partyka’s photographs, with their unexpected massing of black, their unusual (but eloquent) subjects, are often surprisingly tough. ‘I’m trying to create beautiful photographs but I’m not trying to create pretty photographs’, he says. ‘I’m trying to go beyond how people see things.’ His work challenges our preconceptions and offers us a new slant on the familiar.

Summer Days in the Valley is at the Boat House Gallery in Flatford until 29 June. Justin Partyka will be leading a two-day photography workshop, ‘Exploring Constable Country with a Camera’, on Saturday 7 and Sunday 8 June; further details at For bookings email

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