Across 200,000 negatives and another 700 exhibition prints, Derek Evans captured a landscape of Herefordshire Life that was fading fast. Bucolic, Hardy-esque, they are moments in time, forever frozen in a snapshot. In one of his most evocative images, a family group of gypsies gather around a smoking campfire. They sit against the back-drop of their horse-drawn caravans clustered together. Wary looking, the group’s gaze is direct and uncompromising, staring into the lens of the camera.
This picture of course tells a story, but not the whole story. As is often the case when going through Derek’s archive, there are more questions than there are answers. It’s extraordinary to think that within a short lifetime, an ancient way of living was coming to an end. Who were these people, what were their lives like, when did they abandon their lives on the road? We felt we would never know and had begun to accept that the figures frozen in time in the photo would forever remain an enigma. But then life has the habit of sneaking up on you and, when you least expect it, you start hearing echoes from the past.
And it is thanks to James Smith, great nephew of one of the sitters in the Evans’ campfire pictures, who got in touch to claim the family group as his own. Social media has often been criticised for its manipulation of its user group, but it really can be a force for good too, making connections way beyond one’s friendship group. In this case, Facebook reached across several decades and miles to connect us to James and make a tangible connection to the family in the photo.
It seemed too good to be true. The photo was taken a good fifty and sixty years ago, could there really be a connection? James arrived from his home with another set of photos this time, from his family’s private collection. Among them were a couple of images showing a gypsy family walking the lanes of Herefordshire towards the next harvest. Looks familiar? On closer inspection, there is no doubt, as you can see for yourselves, this was the same family. The caravans are the same, the handsome man with the raven-black hair, swept back, is the same, he appears to be wearing the same jacket even, and holding that familiar gaze. This is the same group that Derek Evans photographed all those years ago. Only this time we have names, which feels like a real breakthrough. One can only imagine what Willie Butler and his family would have to say today.
We are grateful to James and helping us make a tangible connection with his family in the photo, a photo that draws us in again and again. If you recognise anyone else in the Derek Evans’ collection please get in touch. We would love to hear from you.
By Marsha O'Mahony