John R. Stilgoe
University of Virginia Press
Old Fields is a book that talks about the touching point of fantasy, landscape and glamour photography. The thesis is that both fantasy and glamour have a way of ‘bending’ light that hints at a greater meaning than what is evident on the page or in the photograph.
As both a photographer and an author and reader of fantasy I found the concept irresistible. At 529 pages Old Fields is a heft book and it is very erudite. John R. Stilgoe quotes an amazing number of sources in both literature and photography. He also follows a line of his own memories of his development as photographer.
However, much of the book is given over to praise of old technology and particularly the Rollieflex camera, a twin lens reflex that gave a square negative of two and a quarter inches on a side. It is hard to argue with the quality advantage of this large negative and I shot a similar camera for many years. I have a problem with the idea that the square is of necessity both more masculine and worthwhile than the rectangular 35mm film. It may be a purer form of seeing the world, or it might be that the older cameras were cheaper and more accessible than the 35mm which was for many years seen as the professional’s camera.
Fantasy doesn’t fare much better. Fantasy is revealed in Tolkien’s writing which while true is also limiting the roots of fantasy. Stilgoe talks about Faerie as the dangerous realm that is very close to ours and yet we are only able to gain glimpses. I like this way of talking about fantasy since it does speak to much of the fantasy genre. Unfortunately after such a great beginning, he dismisses most of fantasy as trash. The only recent author mentioned is Philip Pullman and The Golden Compass, and mostly the character of Mrs. Coulter. I would really like to have explored the geography of urban fantasy as it brings the glamour of lost geography into the cityscape. Charles De Lint deserves mention as a master of the dangerous realm of faerie and moreover he brings it into conflict with the native glamour of North America.
Old Fields is fascinating in parts and frustrating in others. It feels like being in a lecture with a tenured professor who is so comfortable with their subject that their own experience takes on the same weight as references to studies and histories written by others. It isn’t at all the book that I expected when I began to read, but it has its moments. The complexity of my reactions to this work can be seen in the fact that it took me twice as many words as usual to discuss it.