Photography and Newport College of Art

A paper presented as part of On the Edge, Eisteddfod Fringe, Abergavenny - August 2016


It would be an almost impossible task to trace the myriad influences that Newport College of Art has had on the world of photography and beyond. There are too many instances of influential individuals and creative innovation to be able to track and reference them all. I will therefore look at the question of influence from a largely personal perspective as someone who both studied and worked there, and as someone interested in photography’s relationship to Wales. This paper largely relates to what could be described as the 'first wave' of Newport's influence and reach - the 'second wave', emerging from the early 1990s, will be explored another time.

First, the development of Newport’s premier learning institution is considered and how its evolution continues to the present day. Next a personal example of a student’s photographic work at Newport and how that work was formed. This is followed by a reflection on key staff with examples of the reach of their work as photographers and educators. Finally, an example of the achievements of a Newport graduate, providing the briefest glimpse into the significant reach of this important creative institution.

The history of Newport College of Art is interesting in its own right, with the name becoming synonymous to a recognisable and respected entity of organised teaching. Apart from a brief period in the mid-twentieth century, what we call the Newport College of Art historically sat inside larger educational organisations. The history of those larger organisations can be sketched out as follows.

In 1841 the Mechanics Institute opened in Newport with a room in the Commercial Buildings and held lectures and an exhibition of art. In 1845 the Institute held its second art exhibition and in 1853 held a third entitled ‘Exhibition of Fine Art and Manufacturers’. In 1872 classes in science and art began under the free library classes scheme at the British School on Stow Hill. In 1882 the Free Library in Dock Street opened incorporating the School of Science and Art. In 1899, land in Clarence Place in Newport was bought from Lord Tredegar with the new Technical Institute opening on the site in 1910. Two years later, in 1912, the first photography class was held there. William Bush, the Head of the (then) School of Art was a keen photographer and an adjudicator of the Photographic Section of the Royal National Eisteddfod at Newport, Cardiff and Llanelli during the period [1]. There were various changes in the operations of the organisation during the first half of the twentieth century. In 1958 the Newport Monmouthshire College of technology was established resulting in the activity at Clarence Place becoming exclusively dedicated to the new Newport and Monmouthshire College of Art. In 1975 three colleges, including the College of Art, merged to become Gwent College of higher education. In 1996 Gwent College of Higher Education formally changed its title to the University of Wales College Newport and the remaining art and design facilities at Clarence Place were transferred to Caerleon Campus. In 2004 the organisation was again renamed and became the University of Wales, Newport.

It should be noted that anyone working in the higher education sector (as it is now called) will have experienced courses being renamed, the restructuring of academic departments and university mergers, at increasingly breakneck speed. I joined Newport’s School of Art, Media and Design on January 4th 2011 as an Academic Leader for photography. It was the day that the School started to operate across two campuses - Photography and Fine Art remained at Caerleon Campus, and Film, Design and Performance moved to the brand-new City Campus in Newport. Within four months it was announced that the School of Art, Media and Design would cease to exist and the courses within it would become part of the new Faculty of Arts and Business.

To help reaffirm the importance of photographic study at Newport at this time, various ways of presenting its history were explored. It had been noted that photography had first been taught at Clarence Place in 1912 - therefore the notion of celebrating 100 years of Photography at Newport was seen as a positive initiative. The resultant series of related events, exhibitions, conferences and a new website both presented and celebrated the wonderfully rich history of photography at Newport over the previous 100 years (although it was the most interesting part of that history had arguably been the previous forty). Whilst the pairing of the two words of ‘activity’ and ‘place’, ‘Photography’ at ‘Newport’, was (apparently) genius, it would prove problematic. With the increasing political imperative within Wales for Universities to merge, the University of Wales, Newport entered discussion with the University of Glamorgan resulting in an institutional merger in 2013. The real problem with ‘Photography at Newport’ was soon realised as the new University of South Wales decided to move photography to Cardiff.

Photography at Newport is, of course, more than just the locations where photography has been taught. It is embodied by those who taught and were taught, through their approaches to photography and through their engagement with the world. At Newport, photography was not just taught as visual media, it was also taught as an approach to life.

All students were expected to throw themselves headfirst into the difficulties, complexities and graft of being a photographer. That was certainly my own experience and one that I would later recognised in the teaching when I worked at Newport. Students were very much made aware that as photographers they were engaging with a wider society, with communities and with the individuals within them. Of course, students largely understood that the world was complicated, and rapidly comprehended that a view of society could be impressed upon audiences.

For my own part, I now recognise that there was an overarching idea of society being suggested to us - one that might be summed up by something that Raymond Williams said of George Elliot’s writing. Williams was impressed with her use of metaphor in relation to society which she saw as “a network; a tangled skein; a tangled web… a tangled business”. Whilst Williams agreed with the metaphor he thought that she was wrong in her view that relationships were passive and that people were ‘acted upon’ rather than agents who were themselves ‘acting’ [2]. As students we were encouraged to find the active and seek out the dynamics of communities and individuals. It became understood that everyone, given the chance, has agency. It was always emphasised that to be a photographer was a privilege; one where people seeing your genuine interest in them, would most often allow you and your camera into their lives. It was clear that we were expected to treat people respectfully, with integrity and to represent them honestly.

At the very start of their studies students explored how pictures are made, how they are put together to tell a story, and how audiences normally received photography. I once asked David Hurn how he developed his way of teaching. He suggested that it was important to look at the best photographers and learn from their example. He had collected contact sheets from friends and colleagues, many of whom are now considered the greatest photographers. Hurn made an analysis of their contact sheets; looked at the patterns, the way the subjects were approached, and how you could recognise from a sequence of shots what the photographer was working to reveal. These types of pictures, which make up most Photo stories or essays, consisted of several core elements – these became the first things to be taught. Whilst teaching has continued to evolve over the decades, my own experience of it was this. The first approach students were required to follow was that of the ‘person at work’ shot. As with most of these exercises the student was briefed one week (a Monday morning in my case) and expected to have a small selection of printed images pinned on the wall ready for critique the following week. Prior to starting the exercise students were shown exemplars of the approaches previously undertaken by renowned photographers. The ‘person at work’ shot is one 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. So you have to find an individual who is doing something, but how do you show the activity clearly and how do you approach the subject? Firstly, you quickly learn how to approach people as a photographer. You also have to get to understand what they’re doing in the shortest time possible. Equally, you have to try and make yourself invisible and then chose the moment when whatever the person is doing is most clearly articulated. The second approach is the ‘relationship shot’. It could be the relationships between two or more people, but equally could be relationships between other subjects such as man and machine, bridge and River, Bird and tree, and so on. Of course this is more complicated as there are multiple individuals to engage. Again, how to approach the subject is key and how clearly the relationship is articulated is paramount. Sneaking up behind people is easy but often misses the best shot.

‘Portraits’ in a photo-essay not only reveal something about the person photographed, but also something about the environment in which they find themselves. Formal portraits are more straightforward but still difficult to do well. As always, the expectation when taking photographs is that you are already technically proficient and not fumbling over your equipment. For formal portraits the relationship between the subject and the photographer is key. This requires very good ‘people’ skills and not least the showing of sincere interest in the person being photographed. Informal portraits require patience and the development of skills of anticipation. Often, there is only one decisive moment that truly shows and emotion or expression character.

Having studied for a few months the student would then be introduced to one of the key pictures within a photo essay, the ‘establishing shot’. The establishing shot would be the photograph usually of a location that would give the viewer and general sense of the physical area involved in the story. However, it should also offer more than that. The photograph should be alluding too whatever is being explored, suggesting that there maybe nuances to the story, yet leaving it open so that the viewer is encouraged to look for further information. Providing an overview in a single shot is very hard. Everything within the frame of the photograph is of significance (as it always is). Trying to keep it simple, the establishing shot should be able to give a sense of the story without reference to the other pictures.

There were many other challenges for students as they progressed. For example, working with an inanimate object and being required to produce two photographs one that is objective, and one subjective. Of course, as students are working to hone their skills in the practicalities off photographing people, places, and activities, they are also learning new intellectual skills. The objective/subjective exercise challenged students to consider what the words themselves actually meant and how those words could be conveyed through photographs. At the end of this particular exercise, which again culminated with a critique of photographs with fellow students, it became clear (to me at least) that there was no such thing as an objective photograph.

Making good photographs is difficult - the added complication of editing pictures to tell a story, sequencing them to provide a stimulating narrative is challenging to say the least. In the early stages of study several photo-essays would be attempted, most often in a form akin to those presented in magazines. Later in the course students would be introduced to more discursive forms of photography. It was recognised that the photo-essay had been central to editorial photography, such as seen in the magazines popular in the mid-twentieth century. At Newport, certainly from the 1980s onwards, there developed what might be best described as a conceptual documentary approach to photography. This point is can be illustrated through a recollection of former student (and now course leader at Newport) Paul Reas. He and I were discussing a photograph of his taken at Penrhys in the Rhondda that showed a dance class for older people in progress. The exposure of the black-and-white photograph resulted in a male figure who was dancing alone being bleached out, as if he were glowing in the darkened room. Reas pointed out that his two tutors at the time each took a different view of the image. For Daniel Meadows, the glowing figure was a distraction and he felt that there were other images on the contact sheet that were better. In particular, there was one image that showed two dancers adjacent to two curtains similarly entwined; it was suggest that this was a more poetic and better picture. The other tutor, Martin Parr, preferred the photograph with the bleached figure as it captured the viewer’s attention, it was somewhat surreal in an otherwise ordinary situation, and importantly, it was something that could only be seen through a photograph (you would not be able to see it with the naked eye if you had been there).

In 1971 the Welsh Arts Council presented Magnum photographer David Hurn with an award for ‘outstanding merit in a living artist’ [3]. Hurn’s work had, by this time, been extensively published and exhibited internationally. Hurn’s coverage of the 1966 tragedy at Aberfan was a key factor leading to him returning to make his home in Wales - he had lived in Cardiff as a child [4]. In the early 1970s he was encouraged to establish a photography course at Newport by Peter Jones of the Welsh Arts Council - the course was a TOPs scheme that had been developed to get people into jobs. Hurn had an extraordinary impact on Photography at Newport. Projects included getting students to produce photographs illustrating big national news stories that were published internationally. The course created unique characteristics in what would become Newport’s extensive alumni of documentary photographers. Creative skill, married with a strong understanding of the competitive pressures of photography, were among the attributes that Newport photography graduates took into the world. Photography at the time was rapidly evolving and the gradual acceptance of photography was starting to be established within the fine arts. David Hurn encouraged Keith Arnatt, a leading contemporary British artist at the time, to join the staff at Newport adding another dimension to what was largely a reportage orientated focus on photography.

The desire to further develop live-brief work for students, along with the humanistic dimension of the documentary photography course, led to the development of the ambitious Newport survey, which started in 1979. Throughout the 1980s, Documentary Photography students worked closely with those studying Graphic Design to document life in the town. Collectively, the Newport Survey sought to document different areas of life in Newport’s changing communities during a decade of intense social change. The resultant work was published annually and also displayed within the town’s Art Gallery and Museum. Whilst the policies of Thatcherism did much to generate the demise of the heavy industry in the region it would be misleading to characterise the Survey as depicting nothing but decline; on the contrary, it often showed the resilient spirit of Newport’s population along with the presence of new industries such as the emerging electronics sector at that time.

The 1970s saw creative/independent photography in Britain starting to gather momentum in its development. An exhibition of Bill Brandt’s work at London’s Hayward Gallery in 1970 has since become regarded as a milestone for photography in Britain. During the decade organizations such as the Arts Council of Great Britain became more supportive of contemporary photography fostering the development of a small number of photography-specific galleries in Britain, including the Photographers Gallery and the Half-Moon Gallery (London), Impressions Gallery (York), Open Eye Gallery (Liverpool) and the Side Gallery (Newcastle).

In 1973 the Arts Council of Great Britain appointed Barry Lane as its first photographic officer. Another important contribution to photography in Britain at the time was the development of a small number of publications including Creative Camera, which regularly featured reports on the activities at the Museum of Modern Art. A visible example of growing Arts Council support was the annually published ‘New British Image’, a series showcasing the emergent British photography at the time. In 1977 ‘New British Image 4’ provided an anthology of 73 students and recent graduates, with the editorial committee including several photographers teaching on the documentary photography course at Newport; David Hurn, Daniel Meadows, Ron McCormick and Keith Arnatt from Newport, along with Paul Hill, Bill Gaskins, Aaron Scharf, Chris Steele Perkins and Peter Turner. Ron McCormick, the editor for the 1977 publication, writing an afterword to the photographs suggested that the work of these young photographers

"constitutes a step forward when the prevailing climate in British photographic education has for so long been characterised by an almost unhealthy concern with the industrial and commercial applications of the medium. Such a constrictive educational environment has produced generations of photographers singularly lacking in creative vision. The debate currently taking place in photographic education revolves around this very issue of, a training for industry or the study of the medium within a broader aesthetic and social context" [5].

Photographic education was developing quickly with key courses established at Trent Polytechnic at Nottingham, Derby College of Art, Manchester Polytechnic and (of course) Gwent College of Higher Education.

To provide an example of a student of that time, an interesting Welsh perspective can be found in the Graphic Design student (and now photographer) Marian Delyth. Her photograph in ‘New British Image 4’ is from a series of photographs of deserted homes in the streets of Pill, Newport, taken when the area was part of a regeneration scheme. During the period 1973 – 1976 when Delyth was studying at Newport she undertook a number of personal photography projects in Ceredigion, Splott/Adamsdown in Cardiff and at Pill in Newport. Discussing the period she said

"Looking back now I see how attending Newport School of Art from 1973-76 was hugely important to my life and career. I don't believe I knew anything about the Documentary Photography School when I applied - I was going there to study Graphic Design. But sneaking into the lectures of that school opened up a whole new world and a new way of looking at photography and an introduction to the work of major photographers" [6].

Within a year she had developed her Mynydd Bach project, an example of another important perspective that Newport taught students. It was just as important to photograph your own ‘place’ as much as anywhere else – as long as you do it well!

Delyth wanted to reflect the locality of Mynydd Bach and therefore ensured that her selected locations included key elements such as chapel, school, shop, farms and the area’s farmers cooperative. The resultant photographs were arranged on a number of designed panels and were organised as portraits, interior views and landscapes. One panel presented the map itself with colour-coded numbered dots placed along side properties with the four categories of property being ‘Permanently Occupied’, ‘Occasionally Occupied’, ‘Vacant’ and ‘Derelict’. The portraits, often featuring groups of all those in a property, were also presented with the associated colour-coded numbering allowing the viewer to match the people to the properties. The result of this was striking.

Whereas Twm Penllwynbedw and those others who had lived and farmed on Myndd Bach for generations seemingly match the fabric of the places depicted in the interior shots and landscapes, the other inhabitants look modern, sophisticated and somewhat out of place. The strategy that Delyth was applying to her documentary project was providing a clear illustration of the demise of farming in areas such as Mynydd Bach and the increasing trend for redundant farm buildings to be purchased to be converted into holiday homes by those from outside the area.

Marian Delyth’s enthusiasm for the potential of photography and her deep-rooted commitment to Wales, which was in turn coupled to her experiences of living and working in both rural and industrial Wales, led to the publishing project ‘Cymru’r Camera (Photographers’ Wales)’. Publishers Y Lolfa agreed to produce a photography book on a Wales theme with Delyth as editor. She solicited submissions from her own networks as well as advertising the opportunity in newspapers in Wales. Published in 1982, the book represented the first survey of contemporary photography in Wales and highlighted the concerns and approaches of photographers at the time.

Newport had a significant role in the early development of the first gallery dedicated to photography in Wales. It is perhaps no surprise that the gallery’s first show in 1978 would take the form of ‘Collected Photographs – Photographs from the collection of David Hurn’. Within twelve months there was a show selected from photographers in Wales entitled ‘Photography Wales 79’.

If Marian Delyth’s book is the first articulation of Welsh Photography in images, then Alistair Crawford produced the first written description of photography’s emergent Welsh dimension. Published in ‘Planet’ magazine in 1978, the photographer and academic outlined photography’s position in Britain and suggested that there should be priority in Wales for the development of a photographic gallery for Wales in which photography and its relationship to Wales could be celebrated. During 1977 and 1978 David Hurn had helped organise a series of lectures on photography through the Extra Mural Department of University College, Cardiff in collaboration with the Welsh Arts Council. Sir Tom Hopkinson, former editor of ‘Picture Post’, was the Director of the Centre for Journalism Studies at University College, Cardiff and a key advocate for photography in Wales at the time. The lectures drew a large popular response with guest speakers including Bert Hardy and Don McCullin. As a direct result of those lectures Oriel Ffotograffeg came into existence through the work of enthusiasts, professionals and academics.

The first few years would prove turbulent and difficult as the organization, largely run by volunteers, would work to professionalise itself. On the one hand volunteers such as Marian Delyth and Steve Benbow (a Newport graduate) would paint out the gallery on weekends buying the paint from Bessemer Road market (then the only place open on a Sunday). On the other, the ambition of Director Bill Messer to engage with European Photography would see him, along with the focus of the gallery, often some distance away from Wales. Following an acrimonious dispute, and the intervention of the Welsh Arts Council, Robert Greetham took over as Director and the organization was rebranded the Ffotogallery. As part of this process Ffotogallery restated its aims as “To promote and encourage the practice of photography in Wales. To bring photography of the highest international standard to Wales” [7].

Photographers at Newport would have a significant influence on Ffotogallery’s early output. Between 1981 and 1984 the gallery’s management committee consisted of approximately ten members, a proportion of whom were photography staff from Newport including Ron McCormick, Ian Walker, Keith Arnatt, Clive Landen, Pete Davis and Daniel Meadows. Keith Arnatt was the selector for Ffotogallery’s Welsh Open Photography 1983. Both he and Ron McCormick would feature in a two-part landscape exhibition ‘Eye of the Beholder’.

Ffotogallery continued its focus on promoting and encouraging photographic practice in Wales with the development of a project similar to the Newport Survey, but covering a wider geographical area. In October 1983 Susan Beardmore became Ffotogallery’s director and announced that an inaugural exhibition of the Valleys Project would take place in February 1984. The exhibition was made up of the work of sixteen contemporary photographers, a selection of historical photography, and the work of four community photography workshops. Phase two of the Valleys Project proved distinctly different from the first, with Ffotogallery funding the contributors through commissions. Ffotogallery was one of the early photographic galleries in Britain to make a commitment to photographers, allowing them the time and creative freedom to document their subjects within an overarching brief. The commissions were awarded to Ron McCormick and recent Newport graduate Paul Reas. Rhymney Valley District Council commissioned John Davies to undertake his part of this phase – the exhibition took place early in 1985.

Later in 1985 Ffotogallery produced the publication ‘Valley Visitors’. Researched and written by Newport’s Ian Walker it provided an insight into the range of key photographers who had previously worked in the Valleys. It remains a significant contribution to the understanding of the relationship between photography and the Valleys, and at the time also provided Ffotogallery with a counterpoint to the potentially contentious contribution to the Valleys Project by fashion photographer David Bailey.

By the mid 1980’s there had been almost two decades of steady development in photography in and of Wales, with photography as a creative and independent (non-commercial) activity receiving various forms of advocacy. Ffotogallery had started to publish and distribute its own magazine Ffotoview with the cover of the Spring 1984 issue giving an insight into the concerns of the day including features on ‘The Earliest Photography in Wales’, ‘Alvin Coburn in Harlech’, ‘The Valleys Project’ and the article by Alistair Crawford ‘Towards a Welsh Photography’. The title of his article arguably suggests that it was felt at the time that the relationship between Wales and photography was a significant and mature one.

It was recognised that from the late 1960s until the late 1980s British society and culture had been in a state of ferment and transition. Through the 1970s and 1980s the arts Council of Great Britain and British Council collected a selection of the contemporary photography of the period. The 2008 exhibition and book ‘No Such Thing as Society’ drew upon those photographs and presented a Britain that now appears astonishingly distant. Daniel Meadows made the photograph of three boys and a pigeon found on the front cover of the book. In the early 1970s Meadows went on an extraordinary journey photographing the English as he travelled the country on a double-decker bus. His career embraced documentary photography, oral history, storytelling, and teaching. In the early 1980s he worked with Welfare State International and was commissioned by New Society. By 1983 he was teaching with David Hurn on the documentary photography course at Newport.

The photograph, ‘Portsmouth: John Payne, aged 12, with two friends and his pigeon, Chequer, April 1974’ offered a window on a lost world. Meadows’ photograph is a masterstroke in providing clues about the life and times of those recorded through his lens. The boys became the subject, although the pigeon had been the vehicle for this particular engagement. In offering up their pigeon (the photograph was taken at their request), the viewer enters a world of friendship and pride, the social activities on a working class housing estate.

Wales was very well represented in ‘No Such Thing as Society’. Both Meadows and Keith Arnatt (whose work also featured in the show) had taught with David Hurn at Newport. Another contributor to the exhibition, Ron McCormick, had also worked at Newport and produced work for Ffotogallery’s Valleys Project. Two other Valleys Project photographers, John Davies and Peter Fraser, also featured, with Fraser’s photograph of a garage in Pontypridd “I Hate Green” being one of the earliest examples of large format colour photography to be seen in Britain. In the 1980s, Ffotogallery had also exhibited the colour photographs of Martin Parr and Paul Graham. In ‘No Such Thing as Society’, works such as theirs provided an index to the ways in which contemporary photography would evolve, and to some extent also provided a more familiar insight into the subjects covered in the exhibition for the 2008 audiences. Not least many of the photographers featured had, at some point, passed through Newport in their careers.

Daniel Meadows had made audio recordings as well as his photographs throughout his career and there is a recording of his encounter of the friends with their pigeon in Portsmouth. Meadows was always in search of ways to combine both sound and picture in an effective format. As digital technologies became more widely available he started to develop the digital storytelling project ‘Capture Wales’ in conjunction with the BBC. Encouraging individuals from communities to tell their stories, the project visited community centres, miners' institutes, welfare halls, pubs, arts centres, schools, colleges, all over Wales. People from all walks of life come together in small groups to make short films with the help of laptop computers, scanners, digital cameras and editing software. The resulting stories were often touching, amusing and surprising and were broadcast on television and on the web. To quote from Meadows’ website

“As we had hoped, participants found digital storytelling to be remarkably empowering and, imagined as a tool of democratised media, they quickly realised its potential to change the way we engage in our communities.
The results astonished us. Across Wales photographs discovered the talkies and the stories told assembled in the ether like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, a gaggle of previously invisible histories that, viewed on the web and on television, told the bigger story of our time, the story that defines who we are” [8].

I was fortunate to have spent time on the Capture Wales project and worked for a while developing the spin-off in Caerphilly County called Breaking Barriers. As it often seems, the small stories are the most important and precious. In many ways, this project, for me at least, chimed with the ethos of what had developed at Newport over the previous decades.

It is clear that Photography at Newport has always offered something very special and helped shape photographic practices in Britain and beyond. I have no doubt it will continue to be a significant force whatever the rapidly developing educational landscape throws up now and in the future. It is the case that many graduates will continue to focus on telling the less sensational stories, sometimes in a quiet way. Others will push boundaries and examine contemporary issues, whether intimate insights, or pressing news stories of global significance. To give just one example of a Newport graduate who continues to influence within and beyond the world of photography one can look at Anastasia Taylor Lind. Her website states

“Anastasia Taylor-Lind is an English/Swedish artist and journalist currently undertaking a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University. She has a background in photojournalism and has worked for leading publications all over the world on issues relating to women, population and war. Her first book MAIDAN – Portraits from the Black Square, which documents the 2014 Ukrainian uprising in Kiev, was published by GOST in the same year. Anastasia holds degrees in Documentary Photography from the University of Wales Newport and the London College of Communication [Paul Lowe, a Newport Graduate, runs courses at LCC]. Anastasia is a TED fellow and National Geographic Magazine contributor” [9].

I recommend a browse through the photographers to be found on the 100 Years of Photography at Newport website.

© Paul Cabuts

[1] BROWN, P. 2009. No More Worlds to Conquer. Newport: University of Wales, Newport. p29
[2] WILLIAMS, R. 2013. Culture & Society. Nottingham: Spokesman. p108
[3] HURN,D. 1979. David Hurn Photographs 1956 – 1976. London: Arts Council of Great Britain. end cover
[4] Lens - Welsh Festival of Documentary Photography 2009
[5] McCORMICK,R. (ed). 1977. New British Image 4. London: Arts Council of Great Britain. p91
[6] Email exchange between Marian Delyth and Paul Cabuts 2014
[7] GREETHAM, R. 1996. Ffotogallery 1976 – 1996. Unpublished. p7
[8] Accessed August 2016
[9] Accessed August 2016