Perspectives on the Timeless and the Contemporary

A presentation at the Wales Millennium Centre with Aled Rhys Hughes, November 2009.

(Photograph – Stanley Baker – Unknown photographer)
It is better to start by looking at other people’s photographs when talking about my own. This is a photograph of the Welsh actor Stanley Baker ‘At the Brynffynon Inn – Llanwonno – on the occasion of filming ‘Zulu’’. Taken by an un-credited photographer, this ‘trophy’ image was published in Pontypridd the Old Urban Wards, one of the many books that became increasingly available in the 1980s and 1990s exploring local areas through old photographs [1]. Such books normally contain photographs taken for local newspapers, photographs from local library collections and not least vernacular photographs taken by the area’s inhabitants. This photograph was of particular interest as I used to visit the Brynfynnon Inn as a teenager and knew it quite well. The fact that Stanley Baker, from nearby Ferndale in the Rhondda, had brought the film-crew of the blockbuster movie ‘Zulu’ there was, to me, rather amazing.

Writer and broadcaster Gwyn Thomas, born in the Rhondda, also had links to this location. In his short story “My Earth’s Warm Centre”, he described his father’s promise to take him and his brother to visit a branch of their family who lived over the mountain, 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 Brynfynnon Inn. 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. 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” [2]. When he died, Gwyn Thomas’ ashes were spread in the forest around Llanwonno. The point being made in examining the Llanwonno photograph and reciting Thomas’ story is that history has a personal dimension. My own memories of this particular place recognised the descriptive forms cited here.

(5 Photographs – Monuments to Coal by Paul Cabuts)
Interestingly for me, other descriptive forms, in particular photography, produced less recognisable responses to the region in which I grew up. There was a misalignment between what I saw in the images of South Wales published in photography books, magazines and newspapers, and my own experience of the Rhondda and the other valleys in which I had lived and worked. Such imagery invariably offered the trope of blackened face miners set against rows of terraces under a menacing black and white sky. Whilst there were clear references to the coal industry to be found in the region’s landscape and its people, it was the case that my experience more often related to other concerns. For example, television brought me ‘men on the moon’, Blue Peter, Doctor Who and Pans People. There were of course more existential experiences included playing in Llanwonno Forest, hitchhiking over the Bwlch and Rhigos Mountains, and watching Black Sabbath play at Judges Hall in Tonypandy. Having taken up photography I decided to try and say something about these things through photography; it is perhaps not surprising that my photographs would be the antithesis of the tropes of the past. Moreover, I wanted to show that the symbolic features of the former Valleys had changed and no longer existed in the forms that continued to be presented through various media. My earlier projects therefore focused on colliery sites, coal tips and terraced houses.

Monuments to Coal considered that the names of the former collieries held a resonance for local communities and that their desire to create a tangible form of remembering the past was a strong one. Indeed, communities organised the erection of plaques, memorials and monuments to commemorate the pits and the colliers who had worked and died in them – these became my focus. For many, these markers represented the spirit of a community created and forged by the coal industry. For others, closer to the harsh realities of that industry, they represented a tragic era perhaps better forgotten. My approach was to show them as colourful features in a verdant landscape, very different from the usual presentations of oppressive pithead wheels in bleak industrial environments. The changes, that I was making more visible through my photographs, were having an enormous affect on the social and economic lives of the individuals who resided in the Valleys. The surface gloss of my imagery never quite hides the fact that in the early twenty-first century, Wales has a lower average income per head, and a higher proportion of people living on low incomes, than Britain as a whole. Such knowledge is always implicit in my photography.

(6 Photographs – End of the Row by Paul Cabuts)
Although one of the aims of End of the Row had been to show how telecommunications and satellite television were changing the face of Valleys’ streets, more profound was the extent to which such technologies were impacting on public interaction. In his seminal study “The Fall of Public Man”, American Sociologist Richard Sennett argued that society had become more insular and that there had been a destruction of life in the public domain. He wrote that the signs of an empty public life were “the results of a change that began with… the formation of a new capitalist, secular, urban culture” [3]. There is certainly a stark difference between the current de-populated urban environments in my photographs and those seen in early twentieth century Edwardian photography (which also feature in books of old photographs of the Valleys) that frequently presented busy streets full of on-lookers interested in the camera.

You will notice that there is a typological approach applied in my work, which perhaps suggests some form of objectivity. I have been making photographic work in and about the Valleys of South Wales since the late 1980’s. This period corresponds to a time in which it has become widely understood that photographs are very rarely objective. It is also a time, perhaps paradoxically, where photographers, artists, and the growing number of galleries showing contemporary photographic works, have exploited the objective ‘appearance’ of certain photographs. My own practice has been engaged in this activity, largely as it offered a significantly different model to the work of those influential humanist magazine photographers who had visited the Valleys in the twentieth century.

(1 Photographic Series – Powerlines by Paul Cabuts)
I have never conceived my work as being just a loose collection of random single images. Rather they are produced as a coherent series. In many ways my work was following another trend in contemporary photography, linked to the idea of objectivity, which has since been described as “Archive Fever” [4]. For many engaged in photography and other contemporary arts there has been a move to either work with existing archives or to produce brand new ones. My ‘Powerlines’ project is an example of how an historical archive of photographs can become the platform for the production of contemporary work. There are a number of characteristics that have been identified by theorists and writers regarding the use of archival strategies and the potential outcomes that they can bring [5].

(1 Photograph – ‘Historical’ Powerlines by SWEPD)
1) Archival ‘artists’ seek to make historical information, often lost or displaced physically present.
Having located archived albums firstly at the National Library of Wales, and then later at Western Power, I examined the detailed documentation contained in albums produced for the South Wales Electrical Power Distribution Company (SWEPD) during the 1920s. The ‘pragmatic’ use of photography, which formed part of this documentation, offered an alternative view of the South Wales Valleys during the period (i.e. unemployed miners).

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 offered precise information that included 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 were 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, were also included in these albums.

It was hoped at that time 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. Through my project a selection of these historical records were published in photography journals and featured on television thus projecting a differing historical perspective of the Valleys.

(4 Photographs – Powerlines by Paul Cabuts)
2) The (new) work in question is archival since it not only draws on archives but it produces them as well.
The contemporary colour photographs in the Powerlines series offered a response to the SWEPD photographs in that they celebrated the specific rather than the generic. The poles that traverse today’s Valleys landscape follow the similar linear pathways as their precursors. They were photographed sequentially, with the typological approach suggesting an individuality that echoes the poles featured in the historical images.

The Modernist enterprise of power distribution was largely a successful one. Yet, the bright future that the structures of the 1920s represented now appears to have been replaced by one that seems less certain. With the 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 1920’s, along with their contemporary counterparts, are an attempt to achieve this.

3) ‘Private’ archives question public ones; they can be seen as perverse orders that aim to disturb the symbolic order at large.
My aim was to highlight alternative histories produced by ordinary people in the belief that a diversity of voice is an important factor in resisting collective stereotypes and disrupting mainstream media clichés.

There is a danger that work such as mine can be seen as banal. Benjamin Buchloh suggested that banality in the work of German artist Gerhard Richter was a form of national “psychic armor [sic]” in which “Banality as a condition of everyday life appears here in its specifically German modality as the repression of historical memory, as a sort of psychic anaesthesia” [6]. For me, the pursuance of regularity and repetitiveness was a critique of the way the Valleys and its people had constantly been presented and re-presented as victims of their existence – I am keen to challenge this overly negative view.

(1 Photograph – Forest by Paul Cabuts)
The final project to be discussed here, ‘Forest’, is work in progress and takes us back to where we started in Llanwonno. I have been interested in photographing the forests for several years, particularly the ones I knew quite well. Not least I wanted to continue photographing subjects that had in some way become invisible. Whilst all around us, forests, just like electricity poles and television masts, have become an integral (necessary) part of our landscapes.

The more recent developments in the leisure uses of forests in the Valleys witnessed through car parks, picnic areas and forest trails, belies the forest’s original function, which was to provide a strategic reserve of timber for “use in an emergency” [7]. The Forestry Commission, formed in the 1920s, set out to rebuild and maintain a strategic timber reserve as stocks had been seriously depleted by the demands of the First World War - especially trench warfare. In this sense the industrialization of timber production developed as a response to the first uses by warring nations of industrialized methods of killing. In David Jones’ powerful evocation of the Fist World War ‘In Parenthesis’, he provides an insight into the experiences of those moving to the frontline and ultimately taking part in the historic battle for Mametz Wood. The relationship between humanity and the accessories of war (including industrially produced timber) echo throughout his account of a battle that would see 4,000 men of the 38th (Welsh) Division being either killed or wounded.

(4 Photographs – Forest [panoramas] by Paul Cabuts)
Whilst the Valleys have had a history of providing timber for war, including the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars in the nineteenth century, it was the industrial uses of timber for charcoal production and pit-props that resulted in the significant denudation of trees from the region. The Forestry Commission was given a large amount of freedom to acquire and utilize land in an attempt to replace the timber stock and provide valuable employment in the period of the Depression.

(5 Photographs – Forest by Paul Cabuts)
The photographs in the ‘Forest’ series document contemporary plantations over-looking the Valleys. For many they provide a high-backdrop to life down in the Valley. For the more adventurous who enjoy walking, playing and driving in and around the huge tracts of evergreen, they provide an intimate space for love, leisure and recreation. Some photographs show an industrialized landscape of planting, growing and harvesting. However, others record those trees that have broken away from the confines of the forest itself - individual trees striving to flourish in the more open and hostile environments beyond.

Whilst these images can reflect something of a wider history they also refer to the current concerns of the viability of forests such as those in and around the Valleys. The forest area of the European Union has been increasing in recent years with Finland and Sweden being considered as real "forest countries" with 74% and 67% of their territories covered by forests respectively. The UK has one of the lowest forest areas at 12% and has difficulty competing in the forest-based sector in Europe, which employs around 3.5 million people and has an annual turnover of around 400 billion euros. As with other industries, global forces influence the viability of the forests – so in yet another way these trees, perched (sometimes precariously) above the Valleys, can be representative of a more contemporary form of struggle.

It is possible that photographic projects such as the ones that have been outlined here can bring together and interpret both ‘history’ and ‘memory’. It is understood that like history, memory can be vulnerable to appropriation and manipulation. In many ways, such projects have the potential to act as a catalyst for the regeneration of collective memories. These photographs, perhaps, not only record the Valleys as they are today, but also offer a potential to reconfigure the past.

© Paul Cabuts

[1] REES,D. 1990. Pontypridd: The Old Urban Wards in Pictures. Pontypridd: D. Rees.
[2] THOMAS,G. 1968. My Earth’s Warm Centre. In: STEPHENS,M.(ed) 1993. A Rhondda Anthology. Bridgend: Seren.
[3] SENNETT,R. 2002. The Fall of Public Man. London: Penguin.
[4] ENWEZOR,O. 2009. Archive Fever. New York: ICP
[5] WOODWOOD,M. 2009. Creating Memory and History. In: Photographies, 2 (1), p.22
[6] BUCHLOH,B. 2003. Gerhard Richter’s Atlas: The Anomic Archive. In: Gerhard Richter Atlas the Reader. London: Whitechapel. p.112.
[7] KENNEDY,J. 1975. Forests. In: Cambrian Forests. London: HMSO. p.6.