Wales - Three Views from the 1950s; Photographs from American, European and Welsh Perspectives

A paper presented at the National Library of Wales' 4th Annual Festival of Documentary Photography in Wales

In 1839 the announcement of photography coincided with the opening of the Treherbert to Cardiff railway line to service the rapidly expanding coal industry in the Rhondda. By the 1850’s the distribution of coal extended to the building of a railway line between the Valleys of south Wales and the industrial Midlands. This significant project required a viaduct that crossed the valley at Crumlin.

In his essay ‘Picturing Nations: Landscape Photography and National Identity’, historian Jens Jager suggests that, “Turner’s English scenes…and images such as Nichol’s viaduct encouraged members of the public to conceive of themselves as members of one nation by sharing a set of common experiences and a common heritage of landscapes and monuments” (p130). Jager is of course referring to the British nation, which was riding the crest of a wave of industrial and economic power whose emergence had been witnessed by the Great Exhibition of 1851. Wales’ own ‘nation building’ (in the modern sense) developed later.

Jager also suggests that a perception developed that, “the physical environment formed the character of its inhabitants, and therefore landscapes and landscape images were frequently seen as representing the essence of national character” (p 119). It can be argued that photography contributes to our Sense of Place – this is what we will be discussing today. We should however do so with caution as photography rarely works alone and visual images can sometimes be misleading. Before Crumlin Viaduct’s demolition in the mid-1960’s, Hollywood stars Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren visited Crumlin during the making of the rather exotically named film Arabesque. In the film they are chased across the Viaduct by a helicopter (Crumlin was closed down for the day). The action shots cut between close-ups of the stars, the helicopter flying around the viaduct, and vertigous views looking down to the river below. However, in the movie the river has been transformed into a wonderfully translucent aqua-marine, more akin to the Rio Grande, rather than the normally turgid river Ebbw.

(Photograph - Valleys Map)
My focus is the Valleys of south Wales – particularly the period 100 years after W.H. Nicholl’s photograph. Three photographers to capture the Valleys in the early 1950’s were the American W. Eugene Smith, the (essentially) European Robert Frank and Wales-based Geoff Charles. Of course there have been many other photographers who visited the Valleys and they include: John Dillwyn Llewellyn – W.H. Fox Talbot - Henry Peach Robinson – Ernest Bush - Levi Ladd – Edith Tudor Hart - James Jarche - Robert Capa - Phillip Jones Griffiths – Bruce Davidson – Jane Bown – David Hurn – Chuck Rapoport - Bernd & Hilla Becher – David Bailey – Ron McCormick – Paul Reas – John Davies - Martin Parr – Bruce Gilden – Josef Koudelka.

(Photograph - Coed Ely 2005)
The earlier inter-war years of the 1920’ & 1930’s were, of course central in the formation of an image of the Valleys. As historian Dai Smith pointed out, “The Valleys of South Wales were perceived and imagined almost as soon as they were made. When the first World War ended in 1918 their essential characteristics, as a real place becoming a mythical locus, were in place: from dense building within a distinctive landscape to radical politics and all of the social barnacle encrustation that accompanied the economically foundering settlements. Images were generated - in the clichéd columns of newspapers, in the overheated prose of epic scribblers, in the grainy pointillism of documenting photography, in the celluloid blurs between the movie projectors sprockets - to serve as explanation of what had occurred at such breakneck speed”.

Arguably the Valleys as an imagined place was fixed in the early years of the 1950’s, largely through photography. Of course, the world was rapidly changing following the ‘second world war’. The ‘Golden Age’ of photography was drawing to an end and photography was about to enter a period, which would see the dominance of television. Also, there was an explosion in interest in photography as a creative medium, which in turn led to the dramatic expansion of education in the field of photography. There have been less photographic visitors in more recent times, particularly in the 1990s and the start of the 21st Century – perhaps it is because the Valleys are now pretty much like anywhere else. It is a post-industrial region, in a globally orientated world, still getting to grips with the disappearance of its original purpose.

Eugene Smith was born in Kansas, USA in 1918. He was 31 when he made work in the Valleys. His career as a photographer, making work for publications, had started at the age of 16. At the start of his career he had been described as a “Teenage new-photographer prodigy – with a specialism in peak action shots. He joined the Black Star Agency on a freelance basis in 1938. It is during the same year that he undertook work, which was published in Life magazine, photographing a ‘Costume Ball’ in Ohio. During 1943, wishing to be active in the War, he started to work for Flying magazine. Within a year he had left the magazine and returned to American where he re-joined Life magazine and was sent back to the Pacific to cover the continuing war. His work often led him to the frontline and in 1945 he was severely wounded and spent the following two years undergoing medical operations and recuperating from his wounds. It was not until 1948 that he became fully active again with Life. By the time Eugene Smith visited Wales at the beginning of 1950, he had been consistently producing photo-essays for Life magazine for 3 years.

It is the case that the Valleys he photographed were defined by their heavy industries, particularly coal mining. At the time of his visit, Britain was, mainly with the help of America, struggling to rebuild its shattered economy following WW2. Politically, the Valleys had been seen as a place of radicalism, although as the Labour Party emerged as the dominant political force in Wales in the 1940’s this arguably became less so. The Labour Party had come to power in Britain straight after the war, and between 1945 and 1948 embarked on a considerable programme of social engineering and planning.

The key social reform introduced by the post-war Labour Government was the Welfare State where responsibility for the protection and promotion of the social security and welfare of the population belonged to the government. A cornerstone of this Welfare State was Britain’s new Health Service, which was introduced in 1948. The architect of this new service was Aneurin Bevan the Member of Parliament for Ebbw Vale. Bevan previously had worked at the Tredegar Medical Aid Society, a ‘local’ health service. The Society, which had been formed around 1890, was widely regarded as the best of its kind. The revolutionary idea was that through subscriptions, local residents could get medical treatment free at the point of care.

During the Depression of the 1930’s, the Tredegar Medical Aid Society had increased its services and converted the Palace Cinema in Park Place into a surgery with consulting rooms, a treatment room, pharmacy and waiting rooms. This building was a focus for Smith. It is likely that the internationally distributed film The Citadel would have been of interest to Smith prior to his visit to Wales. Released in 1940, the film proved to be “The first in a series of mining films which was to fix the image of South Wales in the minds of audiences throughout the world”. The film also “…broke new ground by suggesting the shabby morality of capitalism, the (pre-nationalisation) health service and by implication the whole of the social system”. The other films of the period depicting the Valleys were How Green Was My Valley and The Proud Valley. The Citadel carried with it a great sense of authenticity through its author A. J. Cronin on whose book the film had been based. Cronin had been a medical General Practitioner in Scotland and in South Wales at Tredegar and Treherbert. Between 1922 and 1924 Cronin had been employed by the Tredegar Medical Aid Society. Cronin based his book on his experiences there. His wife also worked in one of the Society’s dispensaries.

Whilst Smith’s focus on the Tredegar Health Centre might suggest he was driven by the political developments in Socialist Britain, this may not be the only factor. Health also features in his other essays, including ‘Country Doctor’, ‘Nurse Midwife’ and ‘Man of Mercy’ - also in ‘Spanish Village’. In a photograph of a lively discussion, Smith is arguably showing a politically active society – contributing to the political landscape of Britain. Wales’ ‘national’ identity within Britain in 1950 is unlikely to be of great interest to Smith; to an extent it was a backdrop, but not a significant one. In 1950 the Capital of Wales was still London and it would not be until 1956 that Cardiff would be given Capital status. In this sense Welsh nation-building was still very much ‘work in progress’ at the time of Smith’s visit.

The structure of the photo-essay demanded a form of visual narrative, which had a beginning, middle and end. Importantly, the overall structure needed to be coherent, where images made around one part of the story were linked to those made around the next and so on. These ‘parts’ can be seen as themes or strands that run through the story and arguably, in the case of Smith, these themes have a commonality throughout his photo-essay work. They are: Health, Work, Community, Play, Home, & Culture. Although Smith was primarily sent to Britain to cover the election campaign between Clement Atlee and Winston Churchill, Life had also commissioned him to make a photographic report on the state of British industry “…as rooted in the past after five years under Atlee’s government, characterised by the State’s heavy hand on the economy” (Mora & Hill 1998, p.88). This latter (and less noted) commission explains, in part, Smith’s interest in the industrial area of South Wales and explains why he was able to work extensively in the region on subjects that were not directly related to the impending election.

It was the case that in the early twentieth century one of the main concerns of reformers working on British industrial practices had centred upon the provision of bathing facilities for miners at the workplace. Although the 1926 Mining Industry Act handed the establishment of pithead baths to The Miner’s Welfare Committee, progress in providing them proved slow. Between the early 1920’s and early 1950’s, four hundred pithead baths were built in Britain catering for seventy percent of the industry’s workforce. It is interesting to note that Eugene Smith managed to photograph some of the thirty percent who did not benefit from such facilities.

It is clear from the editorial that featured in Life on February 20th 1950, just before the General Election, what the magazine’s position was in terms of Great Britain’s impending political contest. “We hope that the Socialists lose; their defeat would be a good thing for Britain and a good thing for the U.S. Socialism is, among other things, the symptom of an unhealthy and underproductive state of mind”. Smith’s photograph ‘Three Generations of Miners’ is captioned “Labor’s Backbone” and the accompanying text reads, “The wellspring of Labor’s power still lies in such grimy workmen as those pictured… Labor embraced the miners and the working class; it nursed their hatreds and cried aloud the desperation of their cause. Today it has gone far beyond the boundaries of the mining towns and slums to woo the whole of Britain on the prospect of a Welfare State” (Luce 1950b).

Smith’s own philosophical outlook was fundamentally humanist and his inclinations appear to show empathy with the largely Socialist subjects he encountered in the Valleys. This was at odds with Life magazine that had commissioned him to make a critical report of a stagnating British industry. The resultant photographs were sympathetic towards the people working in the region and were therefore not suitable for Life’s purposes. From the hundreds of photographs Smith made in the Valleys, only this one was actually published by the magazine.

Robert Frank was born in Zurich in 1924. He was 29 when he made his work in the Valleys. From 1941 worked as an apprentice photographer then moved to America in 1947 and almost immediately began working under Alexey Brodovitch at the popular magazine Harper’s Bazaar. Within a year of his arrival he was featured in ‘The Annual of America’s Leading Photographers’. Although Frank rapidly became successful as a magazine photographer working on fashion and editorial projects, his goal was to become independent, “An artist able to pursue his own vision without relying on the picture magazines for work” (Frank 2003, p.4).

His personal work of the period included a project in South America, which resulted in a book of thirty-eight photographs taken in Peru and Bolivia in 1948. Between 1949 and 1953 Frank travelled back to Europe twice visiting France, Switzerland, Spain, Italy and Great Britain undertaking personal projects including the work he made in the South Wales Valleys in 1953. His personal worked often proved successful during the period and an extended feature titled “Robert Frank” featured in Camera magazine during December 1949. In London he met a man from Wales talking about the miners and Frank had read How Green Was My Valley.

Although Frank’s personal work was being positively received he continued his magazine work for Harper’s Bazaar. In addition to this, his Paris work was published in Life. Frank also became the winner of a prize in Life’s ‘Young Photographers Contest’. Although Frank actually did very little work for Life during his career, he was interested in creating narrative sequences through his photography and was clearly aware of the way the magazine produced their photo-essays. Frank was however interested in looking beyond a traditional photo-essay towards more experimental forms of rendering his experience.

He later said that in Wales, “This became my only try to make a ‘story’” (Frank 2003, p.3). Frank set out to create a picture story about miner Ben James and his family and he structured it as a day-in-the-life story. Frank wrote on the back of one of his proof sheets a plan for the story, “1-Breakfast, 2-Walking to work, 3-In canteen, 4-In the cage, 5-Lunch underground, 6-Work underground, 7-Waiting to come, 8-Walking home-payday, 9-Washing up, 10-Pools, 11-Dinner, 12-Club” (p.6).

It is important to reiterate that Frank at this time was keen to “pursue his own vision” and that he had little interest in undertaking a photo-essay in the editorial format as produced by Life, which to a considerable extent would have been editor-directed. During 1952, Frank wrote to Eugene Smith expressing his views about the magazine, “By the little experience I had with Life I can understand how you must feel working with and for them… The only question for me would be how long do I need to stay with them”

It could be argued that whilst there is more directness in Robert Frank’s approach when compared to that of Smith’s, he is nevertheless using established approaches to his essay. He is employing the ‘establishing shot’, a photograph of the location giving the viewer a general view of the physical area involved in the story. The ‘relationship shot’ showing the relationships between two or more people. These could also include relationships between other subjects such man and machine, etc. Portraits in a photo-essay not only reveal something about the person photographed, but also something about the environment in which they find themselves. Also, the ‘person at work shot’ where the photograph clearly shows what someone is doing. It may be the actuality of work, but it could be an image showing the subject engaged in another activity such as play.

It would seem that Robert Frank’s work in Caerau is in two parts. The first of Frank’s two groups of images reflect Smith’s own documentary style, which was crisp and clean. Perhaps it is not surprising when considering Frank’s own interest in How Green Was My Valley that he used similar motifs to Smith such as the blackened face miner, the rows of terraced house and the tin-bath. The work in this group of photographs may represent what he referred to as his only try to make a story. The second grouping of ‘edgy’ photographs presents a more dynamic and determined people than those in Smith’s images and signal the successful style that Frank would later fully adopt in photographing America as part of his Guggenheim Fellowship in the mid-1950s. Frank’s photographs are often psychologically intense.

Frank’s intimate response to the people of the Valleys is, like Smith’s, sympathetic but unlike Smith’s it is not sentimental. It is about the here and now and Frank, like Smith, was aware that the lives and culture of these people were changing. It could be argued that Frank emphasised the miner’s present experiences rather than dwelling on their past.

Writer Ian Penman, commenting on Frank’s work of the period said, “His road is not one of exploitation, of turning people into mere props, stand-ins for an already settled subtext” (Frank 2004, p.22). Phillip Brookman wrote of Frank’s work from Wales: “Yet as Frank grew close to the miners and their families, his photographs took in the full scope of their lives, warming as he moved beyond documentary conventions to express a personal point of view” (Frank 2003, p.4).

In contrast to Smith, Robert Frank’s work in the Valleys was a personal rather than commissioned project. He initially set out to make a photo-essay in the style published in the magazines of the day but during his project he appeared to have moved beyond the established structure of a story to produce a more personal and immediate response to his subjects. Although he did adopt some approaches and motifs similar to those that Smith had embraced, his treatment was very different. Frank having focused on one miner got closer to the day-to-day lives of people in the Valleys with the result of an intimate and emotionally charged body of work.

Geoff Charles was born in Liverpool in 1909. He was 42 when he made this work in the Valleys. Earlier, he had worked for the Western Mail and the Mountain Ash and Aberdare Express before moving to North Wales. In 1936 he became the manager of the photographic section at Woodalls Newspapers. In 1937 he started to produce occasional work for Y Cymro Newspaper, which covered the mainly Welsh-speaking rural counties of mid-Wales. One of his first stories for the newspaper was an interview with the leading Welsh Nationalist the Reverend Lewis Valentine. Throughout his career, until he retired in 1975, Charles photographed the evolving Welsh political scene particularly the movements promoting Wales and its language. It can be argued that the most significant and sustained body of work Charles produced was his documentation of the civil engineering project to create a reservoir to feed the city of Liverpool through the flooding of a mid-Wales valley at Tryweryn. For almost ten years Charles recorded the protests against the flooding.

During the early 1950’s Y Cymro, which was essentially a Welsh language weekly newspaper, started to publish an English language version and sent Charles to cover stories relating to South Wales. No doubt Woodalls Newspapers were keen to expand their readership and revenue by servicing the mainly English speaking communities of the industrial south east Wales. During 1951 he made many visits to the Valleys to make photographs of the various activities, events and people that would have been of interest to Y Cymro’s old and new readership. Wales and its language was often central to Geoff Charles’ work – it is perhaps not surprising to find him making links between English-Wales and Welsh-Wales. Youth suggests the future, Gorsedd Circle, National Eisteddfod Caerphilly 1950. Ironically perhaps, the Eisteddfod would become a mono-glot Welsh-language-only event in 1951.

Mining was a significant industry in the Valleys at this time, but Charles’ focus was most often the leisure of the miners and their families. The article “Rhondda Miners’ Holiday Week Festivities” ran in the August 24th 1951 issue of Y Cymro. The accompanying photographs show various activities and present the Valleys as a generally wholesome place with rural scenes in the background. Where rows of terraced houses are included in the photographs they are shown positively and/or blend sympathetically into the landscape. Streets are not shown as a grim backdrop

The most emphatic difference between Charles’ work and that of two previous photographers can be seen in his rendition of industry. In Y Cymro’s issue of August 3rd 1951 Charles’ photographs featured in the article “New Mining Centre Cynheidre”. Responding to the plans to build a brand new, state-of-the-art anthracite coal mine at Cynheidre on the western edge of the coalfield, Charles focused on the theme of transition. The area was largely rural and Charles photographed the local people who would be affected by the development.

A portrait of a young girl in her mother’s arms is captioned, “Rosemary is two. When Cynheidre goes into full production she will be fourteen”. The portrait of a seventy three year old John Jones is captioned, “He doesn’t expect to see new Cynheidre”. The sinking of the colliery shaft was completed in 1954 leading to the full development of the site over the following years. Whilst there is a sense of loss or passing in Charles’ work it is predominately forward looking.

In another article “Gloom Town is Boom Town” which featured in the June 22nd issue Charles’ photographs feature the rise of manufacturing industries in Merthyr Tydfil. Workers at the Limes Brothers Toy Factory (Tri-ang Toys) are shown assembling a variety of toy products. Perhaps the most telling image shows a modern lorry trailer carrying the words “The Hoover Electric Washing Machine” juxtaposed to a derelict ironworks building in the town. The substantial Hoover factory that had been established in the town would not only provide domestic appliances to the expanding home market, but would also provide many much-needed jobs in the area lost through the demise of the older heavy industries.

In another of his photographs from 1951, Charles photographed the brand new steelworks at Margam near Port Talbot. Taken from a high vantage point on the hills about Margam, Charles shows the expanse of the new works adjacent to ranks of houses in the area, a symbolic image of modernity. Again in seeking to suggest transition the shot is framed to one side by the silhouette of trees and a broken stump – the new steelworks are rising out of an older rural landscape, in turn suggesting a new, modern and emergent Wales. Nationalisation of the steel industry had taken place in 1950.

Geoff Charles’ photographs taken at the Miners’ Eisteddfod at Porthcawl were published in Y Cymro’s September 28th 1951 issue. These photographs illustrate one of the few things that Geoff Charles had in common with Eugene Smith – their photographs were used to sell publications. Although there was a considerable difference in the size of their audiences, they were both employed to make images that would help sell their respective publications. For Charles, more faces on a page, would potentially produce a greater sale of newspapers.

The work of Wales based Geoff Charles’ had normally focused on transition and change. When directed to undertake work in the industrial south of Wales he sought out the developing industries of the area and the cultural pursuits of the population. Although his treatment was pragmatic it was also positive in outlook and stressed a Welsh dimension within the largely English speaking society. There is a stark contrast between the treatment provided by Geoff Charles and that of Eugene Smith and Robert Frank. This photograph shows that the Valleys had a reach beyond the dominant, and all too frequently quoted coal industry.

How do the photographs from the early 1950’s contribute to our Sense of Place when considering the Valleys of South Wales? Wales, like the rest of Britain was on the cusp of a post-war consumerist boom – each of the photographers would have been more than aware of this. We have seen landscapes and environments that clearly bear the marks of an industrial society. We see workers, mothers and children going about their everyday lives in those environments. We do not necessarily see heroes or victims (film-makers and writers are perhaps better at doing this than are photographers).

I believe each photographer worked with great integrity. It can be said that Eugene Smith attempted to work within his brief from Life and whilst sympathetic, to some extent emphasised an old, traditional society that was in stark contrast to the modern, progressive and individualistic nature of American society at the time. It is worth noting that American photographer Dorethea Lange photographed in Ireland in the mid-1950s for Life Magazine. She had become intrigued by the growing affluence of American society in the post-war years. Her enthusiasm and inspiration for her Ireland project had been the book Irish Countryman (1937) by the anthropologist Conrad Arensberg, which described the customs and beliefs of those Irish who still followed traditional ways of living. Many Americans had a strong sense the traditions of long-established European nations were about to disappear. Similarly, Paul Strand photographed in the Hebrides, again in the 1950s. The book he subsequently produced made a statement about a traditional working people arguably being caught up in the geopolitical manoeuvres surrounding the Cold War.

Arguably, Eugene Smith’s view is shaped, to a considerable extent, by being an American. Robert Frank wanted to be an artist. He had lived in Europe during the Second World War and perhaps because of it, often focused on the human spirit. In his photographs there is less certainty, few stereotypes and perhaps an uneasiness about how the rapidly changing world would affect the day-to-day lives of individuals. The Valleys as an imagined place, and indeed the society within them, are less important to Robert Frank. Wales is at the heart of Geoff Charles’ work. But not just that, there is an acknowledgement that traditional life has an enormous value, but transience and change are an essential part of the future if Wales as a nation is going to flourish.

© Paul Cabuts