PUBLISHED: 11:16 15 February 2010 | UPDATED: 14:59 20 February 2013
Much more than a collection of striking shots, Sally Fear's book New Forest Drift must have been a labour of love, writes Claire Pitcher
AS I pulled into photographer Sally Fear's driveway at her home just outside Brockenhurst in the New Forest, the house looked deserted - apart from the few chickens, geese and sheep in the field next to where I had parked.
It was a stunning setting: a gorgeous old house and stables, with glorious views across the forest. Even on such a cold day I was warmed by the prospect of the cosiness that waited inside.
After ringing the bell a few times to no avail, I began to wonder whether I had come to the right place, but then I heard the sound of tyres on gravel and I saw Sally in the driving seat of her four by four.
"I just popped out to buy milk and bread so we could have a coffee," she said welcomingly: "I haven't had time to light the fire yet so I don't know how warm it will be inside."
We went indoors and it was exactly how I had imagined - Christmas presents and cards dotted around the hallway, an imposing inglenook fireplace in the lounge - but what was most prominent were the photographs of New Forest ponies adorning the walls.
A lesson in life
Before I saw Sally's book, New Forest Drift - A Photographic Portrait of Life in the National Park, I knew nothing about the forest - the Commoners who live there, the animals which help sustain the ecology, the drifts - I could go on. And I'm not ashamed to admit that I was so unenlightened because, as Sally told me, I'm not alone: "When I first moved here in 1996 I was absolutely amazed how many people lived here who didn't know where they were living! You can forgive the tourists or visitors for not understanding how the forest works, but there are people who live in the National Park who still don't know where the Verderers Court is!" (It's in Lyndhurst, by the way).
Through her photography and her book, Sally has not only educated me, but many others I'm sure - but was this the only reason for spending the nine years it took to put the title together? "Seeing the forest made me want to take pictures. People make me want to take pictures. I made a film to begin with, just to do something different, and one of the Commoners said to me 'you could help us with your film'.
"I thought that a book would be more accessible. With a film you have to make time to sit and watch it, but you can glance at a book every now and then."
As you flick through you might think that it is merely a bunch of photographs placed randomly over 128 pages - wildly beautiful though they might be. But read the words alongside and it tells the tale of life in the New Forest: the pony drifts; Beaulieu Sales Yard; the role of the Verderers and Agisters; stock on the forest; the rights of common and the affect of tourism, to name a few. It's not just pictures - it's educational: "Some families who live on the forest go back generations. They say that 80 per cent of the animals are owned by 10 per cent of families. If they ever stopped Commoning there wouldn't be any stock on the forest. That's why I produced this book - so people would understand how this balance works."
Picture the scene
If you own New Forest Drift, then like me you will have marvelled at the amazing and sometimes dramatic imagery. I asked her how difficult it was to capture such scenes:
"People tend to look at the book and say to me, 'You were lucky, were you just driving through the forest and stopped the car to take that?' No. I went to exactly the same place for five years and one day the right moment arrived."
However finding the right places to position herself for the best shot during the drifts needed a little help from her friends: "I had plenty of assistance, in particular from retired Head Agister Raymond Stickland, who took me to the right places.
"I remember I had to sit for three hours in a prickly bush for one picture. It was incredibly uncomfortable. Once in there, I couldn't move, just in case the ponies came. Luckily they arrived and I managed to get the photograph (p40 of the book). But I may not have - you have to be in exactly the right place.
"They also may not come into shot right. There may be a scrappy, skinny pony at the front - or perhaps even a cow! You don't often get the right group of ponies, the right colours, looking fit and well, running towards you," she laughs.
Surely, positioning herself in such places for that perfect photograph was hazardous? "I never felt in personal danger, because even when the ponies are galloping towards you they would never willingly or knowingly mow you down. It's only if they are frightened or if they can't see you when there may be a problem.
"There was one instance when they didn't come the way they were supposed to and I ended up in their path. I wasn't frightened of them; I was frightened of the Head Agister shouting at me! I sat as still as I could and they went round me. I guess that's the best advice: when they're coming at you, stay as still as you possibly can."
So what's next?
After nine years of waiting for the right photographs, getting to know the Commoners, Verderers and Agisters then finally producing and printing the book you might think that Sally would want to take a break from shooting forest life. It seems not: "Once you have done one thing, people get in touch and suggest ideas, which I like to follow up. It will never end - it's an ongoing way of life.
"Someone wrote to me to point out that I hadn't mentioned the hunt in my book and what an important role it plays in Commoning. The hunt picks up the fallen stock, which has been tragically killed by careless motorists. Hounds are difficult to photograph, though. They either jump up and slobber all over your lens, or you just get their tails. I have enormous respect for people who take good pictures of hounds."
As I sat at Sally's kitchen table, sipping my second cup of coffee with her cat comfortably purring on my lap, I couldn't help but feel envious of her place in the community and her working life as a photographer. She must certainly feel blessed: "It is interesting. It's a privilege, having an insight into so many people's lives. But it's difficult turning your interest into a living."