A Turning Tide: The Sea, Photography and Wales

Exhibition text for A Turning Tide - Aled Rhys Hughes - April 2011.

Some of the earliest photographs taken in Wales were of the sea. Whilst mastering the brand new technology of photography in the nineteenth century, John Dillwyn Llewellyn set about photographing ships at Swansea’s docks at a time when the sea was a ‘super-highway’ for transport, trade and knowledge. In 1855 Llewellyn was awarded a silver medal of honour at the Exposition Universelle Paris for four photographs taken on the theme of motion, including a photograph that captured incoming waves at Three Cliffs Bay on the Gower Peninsular. In more recent years, as photography took up an important position in the contemporary arts, photographers such as Aled Rhys Hughes started to interrogate the Welsh coast in more expansive ways. Whilst Hughes’ exhibition A Turning Tide - Tro’r Trai can be interpreted as being in and of Wales, he is quick to make the point that, “Although each of the photographs…was made in Wales, the stories they tell are true of coastlines throughout the world”.

In Hughes’ photograph of the decayed hull of a ship at Marros he presents a proposition opposite to that of Llewellyn’s award-winning picture. Through a deliberately extended shutter speed, we are presented with a ghosting sea that caresses the eroding remnants of the ship. Whilst this might not clearly show what a wave looks like, it clearly conveys a sense of what waves can do. This might present a clue for viewers approaching Hughes’ photographs that whilst they are at once of a particular place, they are always also of something less tangible. The art of the work is to bring us to the point of contemplation whilst not telling us what we should see.

The picture of a land formation projecting into the sea at Castell Martin reminds us that the places Hughes photographs represent amorphous boundaries, and that even the more solid of these are fragile and susceptible to erosion and decay. Nothing is fixed even the title of the exhibition ‘A Turning Tide - Tro’r Trai’ reflects notions of transience. Hughes notes that boundaries can be, “a defence against invasion while at the same time enticing an invasion of another kind”. The notion that things remain open and that different interpretations are possible in the work is important to Hughes. There is also a suggestion of standing at the edge looking and then contemplating something beyond comprehension. The photograph of a ship leaving the river Neath pertinently reminds us that from the land, what lies beyond the horizon is not fully knowable. As if to extend that idea further, the timbers emerging from beneath the surface of the waters may suggest that we should consider whether our vision might also preclude other dimensions.

Hughes’ photographs engage in more existential concerns too. An important aspect of his work is the decision to present viewers with large and detailed pictures, which are made possible by the use of a large format camera. For all that we exist in the twenty-first century digital age, Hughes’ film camera is more akin to that used by John Dillwyn Llewellyn. Whilst these large pictures might appear to simply follow a trend in the exhibition of contemporary photography in recent decades, the device is more pointedly used by Hughes to create what might be described as a cinematic viewing experience. Simply, the pictures have more detail than can be consumed at a glance – there are decisions that we as viewers have to make such as what distance to stand at, what requires a closer look, and so on.

Aled Rhys Hughes has worked as a photographer since the mid-1980s; most of that time he has produced photographic art and has been recognised by being awarded the Gold Medal for Fine Art at the National Eisteddfod. Having grown up in the Rhondda with Welsh as his first language he has consistently produced work that reflects the influence of his upbringing in the ‘Manse’ and his strong feelings for the language and culture of Wales. Previous projects have explored his relationship to the land and sea in which he has captured residual elements that reflect metaphysical concerns. Earlier photographs featured in the book Môr Goleuni Tir Tywyll such as Creigiau Elegug, Castell Martin, featuring rocks and surf, have an affinity with the work of photographers such as John Blakemore who photographed the Welsh coast in the 1970s. Blakemore regarded his own black and white photographs of rocks and mist-like surf as “the dynamic of the landscape, its spiritual and physical energy, its livingness, its essential mystery”.

There is a sense of a deep and warm affection for the places Hughes responds to in his photographs. Yet the exhibition A Turning Tide - Tro’r Trai is far from nostalgic, Hughes’ photographs reflect the concerns of today using today’s photographic language. What perhaps makes this contemporary work remarkable is that through carefully balancing the often competing characteristics of photography, Hughes has produced pictures that not only document some of the most outstanding places in Wales, but they also invoke more universal concerns about the multiplicity of relationships we continue to have with the sea.

© Paul Cabuts 2011