Barry Thornton

I wasn’t fortunate enough to have met Barry Thornton. He died on 25th October 2003, a year after I first came across his name.

I first heard about him in the dining room at the Inversnaid Photography Centre in Scotland (closed in 2010, I believe). I was tucking into one of Linda Goulancourt’s superb meals, whilst talking to her husband, André 1, who ran the photography part of Inversnaid 2. Opposite me on the wall was a beautifully crafted picture of some silver birch trees. ‘Who made that picture, André?’ I asked. ‘Barry Thornton’, André replied. ‘He comes here quite often to lead workshops and print up his own work. You should read his books’.

And so I bought ‘Edge of Darkness’ and ‘Elements’.

Elements

Today, Barry is largely known by film photographers for his technical knowledge of film developers. Indeed his formulas, ‘Barry Thornton Two Bath Developer’ and ‘Dixactol’, are still being marketed. I often use his Two Bath Developer.

Of course, Barry was a great darkroom technician, producing pictures of the highest technical standards. His pictures have rich shadow detail with subtly graded highlights. But I principally remember him for being a great photographer. One can’t fail to be struck by the wonderful pictures in his books, taken mainly with his ‘beloved’ Rollei SL66 camera. His exploration of the ‘fine-grained, fine-art’ expression of landscape is inspirational and had a profound effect on me as a photographer. To this day I frequently return to his books.

As an aside, Barry’s daughter recently contacted me to say that her young son (Barry’s grandson) was very interested in photography. What better way to start than to look at his grandfather’s pictures? Aspiring photographers, whether film or digital, would do well to study the fine craft displayed through his pictures.

One comes to truly appreciate his skill when trying to emulate his work and then realising how your own pictures fall short in some way. Barry’s picture of silver birches taken at Inversnaid and reproduced in ‘Elements’ (page 72) (and, I think, on the dining room wall at Inversnaid in 2002), was the inspiration for my picture of silver birches. His daughter tells me that Barry took many pictures of silver birches and that’s something I can fully understand. They resolve beautifully in black and white. The picture in ‘Elements’ was developed from HP5 film in dilute Perceptol and got what John Blakemore 3 called a ‘flexible negative’. Here is my version of Silver Birches:

Iphone image of silver gelatin print (the print is too large to scan on my scanner). ‘Silver Birches’ © Tony Cearns. Ilford HP5 in 510-Pyro, printed on Ilford MGWT, Selenium toned.

The 510-Pyro also seems to have produced a ‘flexible negative’. My printing skills are not up to Barry’s standards, but I continue to strive for end-to-end mastery. I think this is what he achieved – end-to-end mastery. Obviously an iphone image of a print doesn’t do the print justice, but the picture is not edge-to-edge sharp, something which I think Barry would have insisted on.

Wouldn’t it be great to see his pictures properly displayed on a gallery wall?

Show 3 footnotes
  1. After studying photography at Manchester College of Art, André freelanced in studio photography, architecture and editorial portraiture. His work has appeared in numerous magazines and journals including Country Life, Architectural Journal, Designand Review, House & Garden, ManagementToday, Blueprint, Crafts and World of Interiors. Books include Dream Houses, The English House, monographs of Lutyens and Charles Rennie Mackintosh and contributions to many others.

    His exhibitions London 1900 and The English House were shown in the UK and abroad and The Gambia at Winchester Gallery of Contemporary Art. He is currently working on a variety of themes – religious symbolism, surface properties of water and Scottish country dancing.

    Founder of Inversnaid Photography Centre in 1987, André has accumulated a vast experience of leading workshops in a wide variety of photography subjects

  2. At the time, Inversnaid was a magnet to fine art photographers – this was the pre-digital era
  3. Blakemore is famed and admired as a world-renowned artist/photographer with work encompassing a wealth of aspects from landscape and portraits to superb print making. He is perhaps most known for his outstandingly beautiful still-life studies, particularly ‘Tulipia’, portrayed in major retrospective exhibitions and books, Inscape and The Stilled Gaze and his Black and White Photography Workshop.

    He was Emeritus Professor of Photography at Derby University, has worked on environmental topics for the CPRE and featured in TV’s, Exploring Photography and World Photography. With Inscape he won the highly prestigious ‘Fox Talbot Award’.

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