Photography and the South Wales Valleys: A PhD Study

A paper presented at the Welsh Institute for Research in Art & Design's 1st National Symposium for Emerging Art & Design Practitioners.

As a photographic practitioner I undertook a PhD study that would involve literature reviews, examinations of photographic collections and archives, collaborations with other researchers and practitioners, and the production of new photographic works. It is the case that in establishing the questions to be addressed in the study, the limited existing scholarship in the field of photography’s relationship to the South Wales Valleys became a key factor structuring the investigation. It is important to note that the process of establishing an appropriate focus for this study was not particularly linear. Here I will briefly outline my personal motivations for undertaking the study, how the study developed, and the part that unanticipated encounters played in its final form.

In 2004 I welcomed American photographer Ray Klimek to Wales, working to help him realise a project photographing coal tips in the Valleys. He had previously contacted me to see if I could assist him with an application for a Fullbright Fellowship. I was keen to work with Klimek as it offered me a first-hand opportunity to scrutinise the intellectual processes and working methodologies of someone from another country interested in the same subjects as myself. Klimek had already photographed ‘culm banks’ (coal tips) in his native Pennsylvania, whilst I had produced a series of photographs relating to one of the most visible coal tips in the Valleys at Tylorstown. Subsequently, Klimek produced images of Tylorstown tip with a focus on it as a site of “constant flux, continually shaped and reshaped by the interaction of natural and cultural processes”. My own focus had been on the tip as a symbol of a once dominant, now disappeared industry, and the tip’s currency as an aesthetically pleasing vernacular object. In 1998, Josef Koudelka photographed Tylorstown tip, his focus being on the formal appearance of the tip rather than its symbolic potential.

Whilst photographers from outside the region have produced the most widely visible images of the Valleys, the most resonant imaginings made by those living in the Valleys had been created through its literature. Before turning to work in photography, Klimek had been (and remains) a scholar of American literature. As part of his research before his visits to Wales he engaged with the work of writers such as Gwyn Thomas, Rhys Davies and Ron Berry. Gwyn Thomas had struck a particular chord with Klimek, a resonance that both he and I shared. In setting out to describe my feelings towards the Valleys when I first met Klimek, I was keen to use a Gwyn Thomas short story.

In the story “My Earth’s Warm Centre”, he describes his father’s promise to take him and his brother to visit a branch of their family who lived in the next valley, in the village of Mountain Ash. Thomas evoked the numerous journeys that they made across the mountain, pointing out that they never actually managed to get past the halfway point of their journey, which was the mountain village of Llanwonno. Whilst the brothers played amongst the ferns and springs, their father would visit The Brynffynon, the village pub. After the pub their father, too weary to start the second leg of their journey, would use the boys as his “crutches” to make the return journey home. Once home, his father, full of remorse would vow “like a latter-day Moses”, to one day lead the boys to the promised land of Mountain Ash. He never did. Thomas wrote about that mountain, which he could view from his home down in the valley:

It was very beautiful. It was bare except for a fringe of stunted trees across its top, bent and crouched by the winds that blew in from the sea. I felt sorry for those trees and I was relieved when I climbed the slope for the first time, touched them and found them stronger and happier-looking than they had ever looked from the valley-bed. That mountain became the centre of my heart and imagination [3].

Thomas’ story also pointed out that his father had said of Llanwonno “I can’t think of a healthier place to be buried”. Thomas himself remarked, “I’ve never had any truly passionate wish to be elsewhere”. When he died, Gwyn Thomas’ ashes were spread in the forest around Llanwonno, in the shadow of Tylorstown tip.

I grew up in sight of that same mountain, and would explore the forest around Llanwonno and played on the tip. I would ‘wild’ camp in the forest with friends, and get cider from the Brynffynon Inn. These places became “the centre of my heart and imagination” too. Helping this was a snapshot I had seen, which showed the actor Stanley Baker outside the Brynffynon Inn. Baker had once lived in the nearby village of Ferndale, and had persuaded the film production crew to shoot part of the 1964 movie Zulu at locations around Llanwonno. Even now when I visit Llanwonno, I half expect hundreds of African warriors to emerge screaming from the forest. Klimek enjoyed this strange provenance of ‘our’ coal tip, along with the almost constant blurring between fact and fiction, that makes the Valleys what they appear to be today.

For many, photographs such as that of three miners taken by Eugene Smith in 1950 signifies the Valleys not just as a place, but also as a mythical locus. There was little to correlate my own experience of the place with the claustrophobic and menacing projections offered by photographs such as Smith’s. However, it was clear that this particular photograph had become a significant image high in the canon of twentieth century photography and subsequently a template for many who would later photograph in the Valleys. Whilst I was aware that my own photographic work rejected such humanistic documentary approaches, I had never actually formalised why. My study, in many ways, became an attempt to explain this.

Finding Questions
At the start of this study I believed that non-indigenous practitioners had produced the dominant photographic imagery relating to the Valleys. An initial literature review was undertaken to establish which photographers could best illustrate this point. In terms of their careers, the dissemination of their work, and the scholarship relating to their practices, the American photographer Eugene Smith and Swiss photographer Robert Frank were identified as two important case studies. In order to offer a Welsh counterpoint to these, the work of Wales-based photojournalist Geoff Charles was also studied. These three photographers had made work in the Valleys between 1950 and 1953. I was also interested in Ffotogallery’s 1980s photographic survey ‘The Valleys Project’, and as part of the study documented this previously un-catalogued archive.

Emerging from the initial research came the understanding that central to the study would be a review of the work of the photographers I have just cited, and how their practices influenced the wider development of ‘creative photography’. The term ‘creative photography’ was applied as a description of photography during a period of its transition, moving beyond a recognised position as a pragmatic communicative medium, toward its wider acknowledgement as a significant form of artistic expression.

What I wanted my written study to prove was that the intense mass media attention given to the Valleys during the years of the Depression had shaped the photographic output of these early post-war photographers. These in turn produced photographs that would become the template for many other visiting photographers working in a developing photographic art context. I believed that this template was only fully rejected in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the industrial society of the Valleys had largely vanished, and photography found itself increasingly moving towards the centre of contemporary visual arts.

Encounters and Engagements
Where to start proving your arguments can be a difficult decision to make, particularly when you have a vast amount of data to collect, evaluate and analyse. This is where unanticipated encounters and engagements not only provided some of the richest forms of information, but also helped to provide a focus as to which areas would be engaged with first.

During the summer of 2005, David Olusoga, a television producer working at BBC Bristol, contacted me regarding a programme he was making about W. Eugene Smith. The programme was to focus on Smith’s work in Britain during 1950, and was being made as part of the BBC 4 ‘Timeshift’ series.

By the time Olusoga and I actually met, he had already filmed at the Centre for Creative Photography in Arizona, where he had acquired copies of the majority of Smith’s photographic contact sheets produced from his visit to Wales. Whilst Olusoga had identified the ‘Three Generations’ photograph as a key image, he did not know where it had been taken. Whilst visiting Coed Ely (where the photograph was taken) with Olusoga and Professor Dai Smith (who was contributing to the programme), we attempted to find if any of the men featured in Smith’s photograph could be found. It did not take long to identify the three men in the photograph and that one of them, Vernon Harding, was alive and living in a nearby village. Harding and I had a number of discussions about his recollections of being photographed, and how he became aware the photograph’s significance.

The forty-minute programme ‘The Lost Pictures of Eugene Smith’ was first broadcast on BBC 4 in October 2005. My engagement in the production of this television programme became a turning point in my study.

A significant and constant challenge to the study was the nature of a Practice Based PhD itself. Through the research of literary and photographic sources it became possible to develop an understanding of the imperatives of the influential photographic practitioners who had visited South Wales Valleys; this was subsequently presented as a written thesis. The photographic work produced for the PhD offered a contrapuntal response to the works examined in the thesis and was presented through exhibition and publication both during and at the end of the study. I was interested in subjects that related to the development of modern industries, using them to suggest that there were other significant activities that had not been highlighted in the dominant readings of the Valleys’ history. It is here that I engaged with historical archives of photographs dating from the 1920s, using them as a platform from which to create work relating to the contemporary South Wales Valleys.

My first photographic project to develop directly out of an historical archive was ‘Powerlines’. During archival searches I found a number of photographic albums produced in the 1920’s. A selection of these albums had entered the collections of the National Library of Wales where I had initially viewed them. However, I later contacted the present electricity company in South Wales, Western Power, to ask if they would be able to offer me access to their distribution lines so I could photograph them. They were indeed willing, and also provided me with several boxes of old photographs that included albums that were clearly contemporary and similar to those at the National Library. Subsequently, armed with a proposal underpinned by an endorsement from Western Power, and a unique archive of photographs, I was able to secure a Creative Wales Award that funded my photographic project.

The second archive that I used as a catalyst for the series “Outlook” also included albums dating from the 1920s. Again, it was an informal discussion about my interests in alternative histories of the Valleys that drew the Head of Photography at National Museums Wales to point out a series of photographic albums in their collections. Here, the photographs were used to document the undertaking of the Inter-Valley Road Scheme, a major road-building project that took place between 1925 and 1929.

The third and final photographic project for my study was the “Transmissions” series, which was a response to the cultural significance of the ubiquitous television transmission masts located in the Valleys. It has long been recognised that telecommunications and broadcasting play a key role in globalization. Also, it is understood that broadcasting in Wales has played a part in engendering the survival of the Welsh language. It was the case that “Transmissions” provided me with an opportunity to respond to the developing interests in the visual culture of Wales that has taken place in recent years.

Few Valleys-based practitioners had flourished in this developing context; exceptions included the Rhondda-based painter Ernest Zobole, who had sustained his scrutiny of his home ground over several decades. My interest in Zobole’s work led to a collaboration with Ceri Thomas, a Research Fellow establishing the Zobole Archive at the University of Glamorgan. This resulted in my work being exhibited along with that of Zobole.

Linking Practice and Theory
During my study I had produced a written thesis that examined photography’s relationship to the Valleys since 1950, and a body of practical work that consisted of three distinct projects. To illustrate the cross-referencing between thesis and practice, and to be able to make a statement about my own work, I decided to produce a linking paper. Whilst I believe it became necessary to do so in light of the way the study developed, I remain uncertain as to whether it is the only way to satisfactorily resolve a practice based PhD. No doubt this is an area for discussion for many researchers and supervisors.

The structure of my study with its thesis, photographs and linking paper now somehow appear appropriate and almost ‘natural’, yet it remained undefined for a worryingly long period. It was the case that whilst the available scholarship was a fundamental factor, it was the unexpected encounters and engagements that shaped the objectives of the study, and the final form of the PhD.

© Paul Cabuts

[1]. KLIMEK,R. 2006. Artist’s Statement: Welsh Tips. In: Ground – Exhibition Catalogue: Paintings by Ernest Zobole and Photographs by Ray Klimek. Treforest: University of Glamorgan.
[2]. KOUDELKA,J. 1998. In conversation with Paul Cabuts.
[3]. THOMAS,G. 1968. My Earth’s Warm Centre. In: STEPHENS,M.(ed) 1993. A Rhondda Anthology. Bridgend: Seren.
[4]. WILKIE,R. 1983. Introduction. In: Mining Photographs and Other Pictures. Nova Scotia: The Press of Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. p.xxvii.
[5]. BAURET,G. 1998. The Influences of a Legend. In: W. Eugene Smith - The Camera as Conscience. London: Thames and Hudson. p.316.