Francis (Frank) Meadows Sutcliffe, the 19th century British photographer, encapsulated the life of the North Yorkshire seaside village of Whitby and surrounding countryside of England. He attained international standing, and is considered one of the great masters of late 19th and early 20th century photography.
In 1869, Sutcliffe held his first camera, which was a massive, brass and mahogany stand camera with glass plates. The photographer began using the complex wet-collodion process, requiring the glass plates to be coated prior to the picture being taken, and then exposed and developed before the light-sensitive coating had dried.
Shortly after his father died in 1871, the young Sutcliffe, now head of the household, received his first commission. English photographer, Francis Frith, paid Sutcliffe to photograph the Yorkshire castles and abbeys. It formed part of Frifth’s project to document all the villages and landmarks in the United Kingdom, and they were to be mass-produced and peddled as “local views.”
Unfortunately, photographic commissions brought in little money, so Frank Sutcliffe opened up a portrait photography studio in the whaling and shipbuilding village. Whitby was also known for jet jewelry (valued for its magical properties), and his studio was part of a jet workshop in Waterloo yard. It was not ideal for the photographer, but his business thrived. In 1875, he left behind the factory noise and moved to more suitable studio on Skinner Street in Whitby.
The photographer’s images are gracefully posed and seemingly informal. Artistically and technologically skilled, Sutcliffe worked within the confines of 19th century photography to create images that are timeless. He had the genius to “abridge” the era into a setting and time that can be easily comprehended by the viewer in any era.
The photographer became renowned in the fishing village of Whitby, and when time permitted, he was often seen strolling the streets and photographing the fisher-folk and environment such as the harbor, the ruined abbey on the hillside, neighboring fishing villages and the North Yorkshire Moors. Being geographically isolated had a few advantages. He was able to produce striking photographs that captured the harsh yet tranquil essence of the fisher-folks lives.
An old saying states, “The only road to Whitby is the sea,” and before 1836, that was accurate. During Frank Sutcliffe’s lifetime, he walked through the fields of purple heather, and up and down the cobbled streets. He could stand on the hillside, and look northward towards the sea and the lower reaches of the River Esk. The village of Whitby could be seen both east and west joined by a bridge that divided the harbor. Along the horizon, he could view the Whitby Abbey ruins and St. Mary’s Parish Church. He could climb to the edge of the east cliff to see the ruins or walk the steep church steps, known as Jacob’s Ladder where he would witness incredible panoramas. Sutcliffe could gaze below to the harbor and see the Prussian Blue Dye Works hugging the shore. Alternatively, if he chose to look inland, he could make out the “blubber-boiling houses” and the Whitby-Pickering railway.
Though the notion of photographic arts was in their infancy stage, Frank Sutcliffe strove to push the limits of conventional photography. In the early 1880s, he moved to a more advanced process of factory-made dry plate.
By the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, Sutcliffe’s photographic work had won 62 medals at international exhibitions. He strongly believed in photography’s artistic potential, even though at the time, it was considered an inferior art, as a means to record. In 1892, the photographer became the founding member of The Linked Ring, an organization dedicated to promoting fine art photography.
The photographer became interested in the technical innovations at the end of the century, and began experimenting with an Eastman Kodak ‘pocket’ camera. Kodak had the option of using any photograph taken with the new camera models for their own purposes. These images were journalistic in style and more informal compared to Sutcliffe’s earlier works.
The photographer had photographic opportunities at hand wherever he turned – dramatic coastline, chalk cliffs, sandy beaches and moorlands – and fisher-folk who were easygoing and at ease with the familiar village photographer. Frank Sutcliffe’s sepia photographs presented an enduring record of life but more so, Frank Sutcliffe shared the art of photography with a small fishing village and the world.
By: Dawn Levesque