Offcumdens: A book of photography and poetry by Bob Hamilton and Emma Storr, to be published by Fair Acre Press on March 17th, 2022.
The Story: Once upon a time a photographer and a poet met at The Leeds Library and enjoyed a spontaneous connection. The poet asked if she could write a few poems inspired by the photographer’s black and white images of Yorkshire subjects—its people and landscapes. He told her that poetry didn’t normally speak to him but thought it was a lovely offer and, intrigued to know what words she would find, encouraged the poet to try. To the photographer’s surprise, the poems she produced did speak to him. They started a collaboration, usually a poem being written in response to a photograph, but photographs also being found to pair with existing poems. Occasionally, going on expeditions together, the selection of a photograph and the words for a poem would evolve organically as a result of a shared encounter or experience. A book started to take shape.
Offcumden: A Yorkshire term typically used to describe someone who was not born in the county. We can’t agree on who first came up with the title for the book. It probably arose between us, popping up in conversation until we both realised it was right. As offcumdens ourselves, brought up on different sides of the Thames in London, this is our very personal take on Yorkshire, the county we’ve adopted as our own—even though we know that Yorkshire will never fully reciprocate!
The Project: There is a sense in which both photography and poetry are a subtle form of storytelling, where image and words ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ and the narrative is left to the viewer’s or reader’s imagination. Offcumdens explores the possibilities created by bringing these two mediums together—a symbiosis of the visual and the verbal—the hope being that the combination of words and image will invoke deeper meanings than can be achieved by either on their own.
The work is very much the product of two minds coming together in conversation and we would love to think that this collaborative aspect comes across to the reader. The choice of subjects are an eclectic mix that’s evolved from both our individual and shared experience of Yorkshire. We travel from city streets to bleak moorland, go from the black austerity of a limestone pothole to the exuberance of the depart of the Tour de France. We visit a busking violinist and retired-millworker sisters.
The Format: We wanted each photograph to present in a consistent way and maximise the space on the page. The photographer has always chosen a square format for street photography and found, with the right picture, that it could also be effective for landscapes. From the very outset, both the photographer and the poet felt that the images should be black and white. Removing the colour helps the eyes to see the patterns in the image rather than simply the subject. It helps to see below the literal surface of things, into the realm of symbol and metaphor, an evocation of something that’s not in the image itself but in our own experience. A colour image is a representation. A black and white image is more akin to a poem.
In response to the photography, the poet has tried to make the writing accessible, even playful at times. There’s humour as well as heft. The range of forms is as varied as the photographs. Amidst the free verse and concrete poems are to be found a number of sonnets, a pantoum, a tanka and a haiku.
For example: This is the title pairing, along with some notes, which can be found in an appendix to the book, providing further information about where and when each photograph was taken. There’s also some insight into the creative process around the selection of the picture and the origins of the accompanying poetry.
I didn’t know I’d fall in love with bleak:
the swerve of dry stone walls around the hills,
the fissured scars of rock above the fields.
I’d never found an ammonite before
one nudged its corrugations out of mud
and curled its spiral shell in my palm.
I’d never heard of words like wapentake,
or village names that twisted lips and tongue:
Yockenthwaite and Muker, Thorpe and Keld.
I didn’t know I’d leave the swarming south
for winter dark and outstretched summer days
to trace my Viking name on Whitby graves.
Bob: There wasn’t much discussion needed to settle on this photograph for the title poem. It captures that combination of the wild and the tamed which is so characteristic of the Yorkshire Dales, paths leading through walled pastures to the high moors. This is the landscape that I fell in love with when I first came to Yorkshire, as a student, to go potholing. One morning, bruised and sore, my wetsuit in tatters, I chose to spend the day walking instead of caving. I’ve never looked back. The photograph is a view of the head of Littondale, shot from the track that leads from the village of Halton Gill over the top of Horse Head and down to Yockenthwaite in Langstrothdale. It was taken on a late October afternoon, at a time when the days are rapidly getting shorter and the shadows longer. The summit of Ingleborough can be seen in the far distance. (28/10/2018)
Emma: I have Viking roots, the name Storr meaning big or strong in Old Norse. When I went to Whitby, I discovered several Storr graves in St Mary’s Churchyard. I feel I have come home and don’t intend to leave. Many Yorkshire villages have Norse names and the term ‘wapentake’ is apparently of Scandinavian origin. According to some sources a wapentake is an administrative area, a subdivision of the three Yorkshire Ridings.
There’s a space; a liminal space, a creative space, an adventurous space and a surprising space where words and images meet and this superb book celebrates that exciting space. IAN McMILLAN
Each double page spread is a conversation – the eloquent understatement of black and white image leaving space for the warmth and sensitivity of the words. Together, they turn towards people and places with acute and generous attention. Offcumdens they may be, but Bob Hamilton and Emma Storr are returning Yorkshire to itself, with value added. PHILIP GROSS
A wonderfully evocative marriage of words and photographs that describes so well the Yorkshire I’ve come to know and love over the last 20+ years. Bob and Emma may not have been born here, but they have collaborated superbly to create a body of work that shows how well they understand and appreciate the charming and eclectic mix of places and people in their adopted homeland. LIZZIE SHEPHERD
A tour of Yorkshire, including the bits that other artists might overlook: both the poems and images are eclectic, addictive and inspiring. HELEN MORT
The relationship between words and images is not as simple as it looks. A poet and a photographer working collaboratively, each creating strong individual pieces of work which can be viewed or read independently, by putting the words and photograph together create something that is much greater than the two. Bob Hamilton and Emma Storr have achieved this creating a fine body of work that is a joy to read. IAN BEESLEY