Delicate, yet dramatic, exquisitely coloured photographs

NFU Countryside - September 2001

When you look at your flower bed, what do you see?

Masses of colour? Contrasts ­ heights, forms, shades? Or do you, like most gardeners, seeweeds and jobs to be done? I¹m certain that few of us see what Countryside member Barbara Manzi Fe sees. Her photographer¹s eye takes in the colour and all the rest of it and because she is a keen gardener as well as a photographer, she probably sees the weeds and the jobs too ­ but she looks for something else. Drama. Drama of a sort that comes from a combination of lighting, differential focusing and a high quality macro (close up) lens.

She and her husband David live close under the Gloucestershire escarpment in a seventeenth century cottage that is surrounded by a traditional cottage garden, her outdoor studio. She uses a Minolta 35mm camera with a 50mm macro to shoot 400 ASA Kodak Gold negative (print) film; she has no truck with artificial lighting and her pictures are not the result of clever cropping, but of observation and the ability to choose exactly what she wants to show, no more, no less.

Born in Switzerland in 1943, her interest in photography was launched when an aunt gave her a Kodak box camera and a neighbour introduced her to the magic alchemy of the photographic darkroom. She studied photography in Zurich and followed that with a three-year photographic course at the Regent Street Polytechnic. She got her diploma with distinction and then went back to Zurich to work for a fashion photographer. Cupid interfered soon after that, his arrows driving her back to England where she got a job as a lecturer in photography at Bath Academy and a husband too. In the summer of 1970 Barbara Manzi Fe worked for the Institute for Swiss Art Research, photographing the entire output of Max Gubler.

That curricula vitae suggests that her dramatic flower pictures might be just one expression of her photographic training and her artistry. True. As a student she recorded the dying throes of Bethnal Green in London when street after street of slums were demolished and the area¹s residents were rehoused in the new town of Basildon, Essex. Her pictures were taken on black and white stock and they bear comparison to the work of the best  ­ and rather older ­ contempory photographers.

The performance was there, as well as the promise, so why isn¹t the name Manzi Fe up there with the rest? Well, Cupid¹s judgement proved to be flawed and having two children to bring up on her own rather cramped her style. She freelanced for some years as and when she could until her burgeoning interest in psychology persuaded her to become a psychotherapist and to relegate her photography to the status of a casual hobby. She became interested in horses and her move to Gloucestershire in 1985 brought everything together ­ she met her husband David, they made their cottage and its garden an oasis of peace and calm and the few acres that came with the cottage provided the means of keeping an Arab ­ called Ibn Taqah ­  and a white goat. At one stage they even had a Dexter cow and calf.

The psychotherapy period lasted for 17 years, which brings this story up to last year. Since then she has returned to her first love ­ photography ­ and she punctuates the time she spends behind a lens with long distance endurance riding (foot and mouth allowing) and sessions of drumming and learning to belly dance; the latter, she says, is very good for her back.

Her garden is flat, sheltered and fertile and the envy of neighbours further up the flanks of the escarpment. It is crammed with photogenic flowers such as poppies, clematis, tree poppies, dahalias, peonies, helibores which make it an irresistible source of powerful images. Given Barbara Menzi Fe¹s vast circle of friends ­ virtually all of them artistic or creative in one way or another ­ her pictures were bound to be brought to the notice of a wider audience.

A few months ago she was invited to exhibit by her neighbours across the field; artist Judy Swaffin and sculptor Jame Vans as part of the Stroud Open Strudios. This entailed choosing a selection of prints, having them enlarged to 20″ X 30″ and 18″ X 12″, mounted and framed. The ehibition took place in a one-time farm building which needed only a lick of white emulsion to turn it into a bright, attractive gallery. Husband David produced very handsome labels on his laptop iMac and when her pictures were hung they looked stunning.

Well over 100 people turned up to her exhibition and their comments were a litany of “Superb”, “Evocative and inspirational”, “Wonderfully sensitive”, “Brilliant,” “Gorgeous” and “Exquisite”. She sold a sufficient number  of pictures to make the venture worthwhile but, more important, her exhibit has lead to further invitations to exhibit at venues such as the Brewery Arts Centre in Cirencester, at the Riverstation Restaurant in Bristol and Cheltenham hospital.

Barbara Manzi Fe says she finds taking close-up photographs of flowers combining form, colour and light, to be exciting. Large-scale photographs bring the viewer into a new relationship with their surroundings and are another way of presenting the familiar in an unfamiliar fashion. Next time you go to a nature in art exhibition, look out  for large, dramatic pictures of flowers. And look out too for the name Manzi Fe. It is bound to crop up sooner rather than later.

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