Luke Stephenson, British Record Fish

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2021 (here). Softbound with PVC cover, 30.7 x 20.5 cm, 84 pages, with 62 color photographs and numerous archival reproductions. Includes an essay by Michael Smith. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: “I’ve never taken a picture I’ve intended,” declared Diane Arbus famously. “They’re always better or worse.” She was talking about photography of course, but the judgement might also apply to fishing, a hobby based upon unintended consequences. You chose the place and time, and cast your line in the water. The rest is up to the fishing gods. Patience and perseverance can leverage your odds, but chance is inherent. Maybe you’ll catch something, maybe not, and even when the occasional fish is reeled in, it’s never exactly the one imagined. It’s always better or worse, or perhaps a different species entirely. If the whole enterprise seems whimsical and opaque, photographers are in no position to pass judgement.

The photography/fishing nexus has not gone unnoticed. Stephen Shore’s essay for Uncommon Places hovered above the streams of Montana before hooking on a direct comparison: “Fishing, like photography, is an art that calls forth intelligence, concentration, and delicacy.” Perhaps people fish to find out what a fish looks like a la Garry Winogrand? It seems plausible, but as a confirmed non-fisher I can only speculate.

Luke Stephenson may have been thinking along these lines when he conceived his clever monograph British Record Fish. This is a book which, taken at face value, is all about fishing, fishing holes, angling history, and outdoor beauty. But its contents are delivered with a wink and a nod, masking a deeper commentary on artistic process, the cultish devotion of hobbyists, and photography itself.

Stephenson’s book is a fish tale through and through. The cover is made of splash-proof orange PVC, housing sturdy satin pages (waterproof? I didn’t dare test), the design modeled on a fieldbook ledger. The title British Record Fish is adopted from The British Record (rod-caught) Fish Committee, a real organization based in Devon which does just what you might guess from the name: it tracks fishing records. The BRFC insignia and bylaws are recounted in the preface, along with past claims, certificates, news clippings, and photos. A map of Great Britain lists records by date and location. If all this fish talk motivates readers to attempt their own record catch, a handy appendix lists formal submission guidelines.

Photographers can probably relate to the gear-intensive nature of fishing and its insider lingo, both evidenced in a sample claim description: “My tactics were 6 lbs main line, 1 lb Avon style rods, 25 gram rennin flatbed feeder in the large size (orange mould) with 8 inches of sink tube behind it, a size 16 hook to 4 inches of nylon with a hair rigged 8 mm Drennan scopex syrup white method boilie.” 

White method boilies aside, photographers could learn a thing or two from anglers. Unlike the ever-shifting mores of the fickle art world, the BRFC runs a tight ship with firm rules regarding weight, size, and rank. Stephenson’s overview of the group is provided with deadpan accuracy, going so far as to adopt its original 1950s typeface. For a book which purports to be a photography monograph, scant text is devoted to photography – no theory, no artistic statement, no CV or exhibition history. Michael Smith’s introduction makes a fleeting reference to Stephenson’s photos before ruminating on fishing, life, and personal revelation. “Catching fish is a fundamental part of us in some deep way,” he philosophizes, alongside passages from Lao Tsu, Herman Melville, and Richard Brautigan. “Wading through the sea that day, for once I had an inkling of who I really was.”

Fishing can be life altering, apparently. But Stephenson is a photographer first and foremost, and for his purposes, the key facet of BRFC is its requirement for visual evidence. Every record claim must include a picture of the caught fish. These archives proved relatively easy to procure from BRFC, and Stephenson reproduced (with permission) thirty-one in his book. One after another, piscine vanquishers mug for the camera holding their catch, bearing expressions from pride to surprise to cheesy half-blinks. Most are from recent years, but some records date back to 1922 (a Pacific Salmon caught by Miss G W Ballantine in River Tweed, Scotland). Photographically they’re all over the map, some close, some far, some with background or flash, or not. Focus, exposure, composition, and palette are delightfully haphazard. Exuding the shiny lure of the real world, they look roughly similar to the fishing snapshots you might have encountered recently on Facebook or your buddy’s fridge.

These appear in the book as small photos on the left side of each spread, sequenced alphabetically by fish name. The right pages contain larger counterparts shot by Stephenson. For each record fish, he traveled to the body of water in which it was caught, at nearly the same time year, and made a landscape photograph of the scene. Never mind that Stephenson doesn’t consider himself a landscape photographer. “I hadn’t really taken landscape photographs since I was at university,” he explained in a recent interview. “I found it to be quite liberating.” Despite inexperience, Stephenson landed several strikes. His landscapes slot roughly into New Topographics style, reeling in broad swaths of trees, wires, clutter, murk, and sky with even handed determination. They might pass for a poor man’s version of Jem Southam’s River Winter, perhaps, or Andy Sewell’s The Heath.

Stephenson’s pictures are pleasing enough on their own, but it’s the pairings which catalyze them in the reader’s mind. It’s one thing to observe a calm view of Kingfisher Lake, Nr Ringwood, Hampshire. But when that photo is juxtaposed with the 11 lb Eel (Anguilla anguilla) which was caught below it surface, the scene assumes new meaning. Where exactly did it live? What else lies in the depths? A photo of a Bleak (Alburnus alburnus) casts a similar spell over its counterpart. This tiny thing might be a record catch, but weighing in an 4 ozs 9 dms it seems outmatched by the sprawling lake (Riverlark, Cambridgeshire) photographed by Stephenson. On the other end of the spectrum is a big bloody Pike (Esox lucius) weighing in at 46 lb 13 oz. Stephenson’s photo lets us know it was found in a modest looking drainage near Llandegfredd, Wales, but by which contortion it fit there is confounding.

These are the contradictions. But some of the pairings are spot on, and you can almost match them without captions. A slimy 4 inch Bullhead (Cottus gobo), for example would feel right at home in Stephenson’s photo of Green River, Nr Guildford, Surrey, while the grass tufts of an Arctic Char match the landscape of Stephenson’s Loch Akraig, Inverness Scotland. In a fortuitous juxtaposition which almost came out certainly better than intended, the shape of a tiny 3 Spined Stickleback mirrors the scale of a distant horse mural.

There are thirty-one such pairings in all, comprising the meat of the book. It’s a deceptively simple rubric, but an effective one. If the photographs of fishermen are taken as raw evidence, where does that leave their partners? Among the fishing crowd, Stephenson’s photos might easily be taken as supporting material for the record. But did he intend them for that purpose, or as fine art, or as landscapes following photographic tradition, or something else? Should his photographs be treated more seriously than found snapshots? If so, why?

The book offers no opinion on these matters. Its emulation of a fishing manual is so deadpan it’s hard to any draw firm conclusions or answers. Stephenson must have ideas in mind, but British Record Fish is circumspect. Its meaning remains hidden below the surface, while readers cast their lines here and there. If they hook by chance on a revelation, it may not be the one intended.

Collector’s POV: Luke Stephenson does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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