The Valleys Project; Archive Index

Article published in Ffotocopy, Winter 2005

A new illustrated index for the Valleys Project Archive aims to make the work undertaken for this project more accessible.

The Valleys of South Wales has been one of the most photographed areas in the world. Images of the region by important figures in photography such as Robert Capa, W. Eugene Smith and Robert Frank have either been published or exhibited in many of the most prestigious magazines and museums. Robert Frank’s photographs taken in Caerau near Maesteg in 1953 formed part of his touring exhibition shown at Tate Modern early in 2005. This exhibition offers an example of how such images can re-emerge in today’s contemporary photographic contexts.

It would seem that those from outside the UK have made the most visible and widely seen images of the Valleys. That said, those closer to the region have also produced a wealth of imagery exploring the social life and culture of the Valleys, although very few of these photographers have been Wales based. In the rapidly developing photographic art environment of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Ffotogallery moved to instigate a project focusing on the region by commissioning photographers from South Wales and beyond.

The Valleys Project was initiated in 1984 with the aim of documenting the Valleys at a time when major changes were taking place in the region. The first three years of the project produced a significant body of work from photographers such as John Davies, Paul Reas and David Bailey. Although the project did continue into the early 1990’s its latter years were hit by the general reduction of arts funding during the period and a decline in interest in the Valleys as a subject for contemporary photographers. It was during this same period that contemporary photography was itself in a process of dramatic change, moving away from traditional documentary subjects and techniques towards more oblique and discursive approaches.

The corpus of the work produced for the Valleys Project can be located in the Ffotogallery member’s room at Chapter Arts in Cardiff. Contained within the 18 portfolio boxes are 420 matted prints that include some of the finest images made in the UK in the 1980’s. In an attempt to get an overview of what is included in this archive an illustrated 84 page index has been produced; this can also be found in the member’s room. It has to be said that this index does not make the difficult task of locating specific prints any easier, but it is a starting point. It is hoped that the information included within the index will join the other information about the Valleys Project on Ffotogallery’s website at some point in the future.

Now, 20 years since the start of the project, interest in making photographic work about the Valleys is again on the rise. American photographer Ray Klimek has been in the Valleys during 2005 making work documenting the remains of the South Wales mining landscape exploring the impact of this landscape on the identity and imaginative life in the Valleys. These photographs are currently being exhibited at the International Centre for Photography in New York. Interest in the rich photographic history of the Valleys is also increasing and the BBC is in the process of producing a 40 minute programme about Eugene Smith’s visit to the Valleys in 1950. Research undertaken for this programme has revealed some interesting insights into the photographic practice of the day and has revealed previously unknown information about Smith’s encounters with his subjects.

The development of contemporary photographic practice in Wales today can benefit from a broader understanding of its rich and vibrant past. The illustrated index for the Valleys Project may help those interested in this area of photography to access this often-overlooked part of the increasingly interesting relationship between photography and Welsh culture.

© Paul Cabuts