Fenland women in picture and fine voice again

In the 1970s Mary Chamberlain shone a light on Fenland women – now her ground-breaking book has been republished by an East Anglian press, with images by a Norfolk photographer. Keiron Pim reports.

Black peaty soil, ruler-straight drainage channels, vast sweeping fields, here and there a caterpillar of woodland on the horizon… the Fens have a landscape all of their own, one that often seems desolate and inhospitable to outsiders.

But while the topography is familiar to us all, what of the people who live there? In 1972 Mary Chamberlain moved to Isleham, a small and isolated village in the Cambridgeshire Fens, with the intention to give voice to its female residents. Three years later came the publication of Fenwomen, the first book published by Virago Press, and this month sees its republication by Suffolk-based Full Circle Editions, with a new introduction by Chamberlain and photographs by Justin Partyka.

The West Norfolk-based photographer's documentation of agrarian life reached a wide audience through his well-attended exhibition The East Anglians, held in late 2009 at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, and this handsomely-presented book again acts as a fine showcase for his work, displayed in a photographic essay entitled Black Fen they call it...

He made a point of not reading the book until after completing his contribution, he explains.

'I purposefully didn't read the book first because for me photography is a process of discovery and exploration and I didn't want to try to illustrate the text. It's more than 30 years old and I wanted to explore Isleham today.

He continues: 'I'm very aware of how photography can play with time and perspective, and you can play with the way that people see things. But I suppose, if anything, my photographs are very much in line with how Mary Chamberlain talks about the village today in her introduction,' he adds, suggesting that, while working independently, they two shared a similar response to Isleham today.

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In offering up the hitherto-ignored lives of fenland women, shining a light on their personal memories and ambitions, and showing how vital their 'humdrum' work was to maintaining their community, this book corrected an approach to rural history that ushered women into the home while focusing on the men in the fields.

With its intriguing new photographs and thoughtful introduction, this fine new edition amplifies the fenwomen's voices once again.

Fenwomen is published by Full Circle Editions at �25 but a special EDP reader deal offers it at �22.50 including free postage and packing, direct from the publishers. To order a copy send a cheque, made out to Full Circle Editions, to: Parham House Barn, Brick Lane, Framlingham Suffolk IP13 9LQ or telephone 01728 723321 and quote 'EDP offer'.

Black Fen they call it… is an exhibition of 11 of Justin Partyka's photographs from the book Fenwomen and is currently on show at the Babylon Gallery in Ely. Partyka will be in conversation at the gallery on Saturday, February 19, in a free event beginning at 2.30pm. Telephone the gallery on 01353 616991 for more details.

The exhibition will move to the Aldeburgh Literary Festival in the Cinema Gallery, from March 4-6, and Mary Chamberlain, author of Fenwomen, will be in conversation with Carmen Callil, founder of Virago Press, on March 4 from 3.30-4.30pm. Visit the website at www.aldeburghbookshop.co.uk for more information.

To see some of Justin Partyka's new photographs in Fenwomen see the EDP Sunday supplement in this Saturday's bumper EDP.

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