The Pencil of Nature

'A reaffirmation of the power of black and white photography'

Patricia Pyne consciously invokes the pioneers of photography with this exhibition at the Linen Hall Library –  after all, The Pencil of Nature (1844) was the mould-breaking work of William Fox Talbot, the inventor of the photographic negative. Pyne’s ‘Harbinger of Summer’ captures a swallow in the style of a Talbot ‘shadow picture’.

Elsewhere Pyne pays homage in ‘Wild Honeysuckle’ to Anna Atkins, generally credited as the first woman photographer, and in ‘Egret Walking’ to Eadweard Muybridge, the first photographer to successfully capture motion. The great bird illustrator, Audobon, is also an inspiration. Even the cover of her catalogue has a characteristically 19th century typeface.

This is no empty mimicking. Pyne reminds us that those early photographers, despite the limitations of their equipment, were capable of producing images, indeed works of art, that have stood the test of time. She achieves her own veracity in that tradition, whether exploring the landscape or wildlife of County Down, and in particular of Strangford Lough.

Her work is also a reaffirmation of the power of black and white photography. A hoary winter view of Inch Abbey truly captures its timeless quality, while an autumn view of Scrabo Tower across the Lough has the tower and its hill ethereally floating in the sky, and makes one second guess whether this is watercolour or photograph.

The same is true of a number of her photographs, and for example in her pictures of poppies, an effect enhanced by the irregular edges of the images and the evidence of washes sometimes unevenly applied. In the poppy photographs she re-enacts early techniques such as the cyanotype or the photogram. By contrast her ‘Scarecrows Alive, Scrabo’ achieves almost surrealist effect as scarecrows march down starkly delineated furrows. An odd one out geographically is a less successful view of Castle Place.

The majority of photographs here are of bird life. One of Pyne's apparent landscapes, and this time on the Lagan, features trees and rich vegetation over-hanging the river but in fact centres on a heron – the landscape is in fact its kingdom.

Other bird photographs no doubt rely on modern shutter speeds, but Pyne’s compositional skills are always to the fore, and one can only speculate as to the patience and prolonged observation that won remarkable images and often in winter. Nor are her subjects merely common species; the brent goose, the kestrel, the knot, the little egret, the whimbrel, and the whooper swan feature here amongst others.

In ‘Little Egret: Reach for the Sky’ and ‘A Rushing of Knot’ she makes particularly effective use of the actual shadows of the birds on the water: the co-ordinated and oscillating flight of a mass of knots is a remarkable enough sight, but becomes doubly so when immediately reflected in rippling water.

In ‘Take Two Terns’ she not only captures two terns in flight, but in a moment of seemingly tightly synchronised flying, while in ‘Skating on the Frozen Waters of the Quoile’ a swan does precisely that as it seeks to take off.

Irish Hares are the only animals featured and here she perfectly captures the slight blurring effect of their fleeting movement. The technical challenges in her photographs of flowers are less obvious but whether with bluebells or orchids there is a precision of observation and even a reflection of the history of botanical drawings or of collections of pressed flowers.

It was a number of years back that Pyne had her first exhibition at the Linen Hall, and of photographs of prehistoric monuments. She achieved the feat of at one and the same time acknowledging the history of recording these sites and bringing the inanimate to life.

The Linen Hall seemed a particularly apt venue for that exhibition, which was widely admired at the time, and the bond grows stronger with the new venture. Pyne has ‘often reflected on the similarities between the Linen Hall and Strangford Lough… both are repositories of hidden treasures with a wonderful capacity to delight, restore and inspire the mind’.

The historical overlap between two very different spheres seems even more valid as she appears to be working even more consciously within a tradition.

In doing so she proves her versatility and the radical possibilities of her craft. It is definitely an exhibition to call in and admire. Signed and limited numbered prints of the photographs are also on sale at £100 unframed and £150 framed. Not cheap I know, but these are true works of art.

The Pencil of Nature runs in the Linen Hall Library until August 31.