Article published in Source Magazine - Summer 2003 Issue 35

The perception of the south Wales Valleys is formed, in part, by the photography that was undertaken there in the first half of the twentieth century. The most influential photographs were those published in the mass media magazines of the day and those, which have since been legitimised through being collected, re-published and exhibited by academics and intellectuals working within the boundaries of art theory and criticism. This can lead us to believe that what we see in such images is not only ‘the way it was’, but also ‘the only possible way it could have been’. As theorist David Elliot discusses in his essay Dangerous Spaces, there are difficulties in defining knowledge. He points out that in order to make sense of information (including photographs), “Forms have to be found to give it all order... things have to be related to their place within the whole... What we see is a function of what we know, and so we begin to mould our perception of the world and the way we represent it in line with what we believe. In short, what we see is what we want to”.

The often ‘generic’ images of depression and economic devastation of the 1920s generated by photographers, filmmakers and writers are the antithesis of the detailed documentation produced for the South Wales Electrical Power Distribution Company (SWEPD) during the same period. The pragmatic use of photography, which forms part of this documentation, offers an alternative view of the south Wales Valleys during the period. Not least the albums into which this information was organised, offer an informative and (until they were recently uncovered) less visible view of the region as it strived to progress beyond the restraints of its traditional indigenous industries.

SWEPD documented the installation and maintenance of electricity distribution lines using photography, cartography and written reports. The electricity lines, which linked the power station to sub-stations, were often many miles long, and followed a direct route across the often-difficult Valley terrain. The albums offer precise information that includes the type of cables being used, their length and the numbers of towers or poles being used to carry them. The towers or poles are each numbered, their location and elevation above sea level are recorded on hand-drawn maps, which are used in conjunction with Ordnance Survey maps. In addition to this, photographs of many of the towers, each carefully referenced with negative numbers, dates and source of negatives, are also included in these albums.

These maps, photographs and texts offer highly detailed information about land ownership, topography and technology. There is a sense that this documentation was deemed a necessary testimony to the modernising impulse of the period, which was providing an opportunity for progress and change. It was hoped that new industries would replace, in part at least, the employment lost to the decline of the traditional heavy industries. Powering these new industries was electricity; its provision was central to the future development of the Valleys and the rest of Britain. From 1926 the newly formed Central Electricity Board started to develop the national grid as a means of improving the provision of electrical power across the whole country.

In one sense it could be said that the SWEPD photographs bear witness to the laying of the foundations of the post-industrial age. This understated, positive and ‘alternative’ history is as much a part of the fabric of the Valleys as the dominant histories which are more readily recognised through the sombre clichés of the pithead wheel, the coal tip and the stoic miner.

The contemporary colour photographs in the Powerlines series offer a response to the SWEPD albums of the 1920s in that they too celebrate the specific rather than the generic. The poles that traverse today’s Valleys landscape follow the similar linear pathways as their precursors. They are photographed sequentially, and the subsequent ‘portraits’ suggests an individuality that echoes the similar ‘uniqueness’ bestowed on the earlier poles and towers through their documentation in the albums. As a reflective working practice the contemporary poles are also mapped and logged by the photographer as he works.

The Modernist enterprise of power distribution was to a large extent a successful one. Yet, the bright future that these structures represented in the 1920s has been replaced by one which is less certain. In the current phase which experiences a proliferation of the pervasive affects of globalisation, the need to celebrate individuality and cultural specificity has perhaps never been more important. The SWEPD photographs of the 1920s, along with their contemporary counterparts, go some way to achieving this.

© Paul Cabuts