How Green Was My Valley

Opening speech at Newport Museum and Art Gallery for an exhibition of Ron McCormick's photographic work from the Valleys. September 2019

Noswaith dda pawb. Good evening everyone and welcome to a significant moment in the expanding story of Photography and Wales.

It is a great honour for me to say a few words before officially opening How Green Was My Valley by Ron McCormick. There are three things I would like to briefly comment upon; firstly, Newport Museum and Art Gallery, secondly British Photography and, thirdly Ron McCormick’s influence and legacy.

Newport Museum and Art Gallery continues to play an important cultural role in the region and beyond. Like many others before me, I moved to Newport to study photography at the School of Art, then located at Clarence Place. I would eventually stay in Newport for twelve years. Newport Museum became a constant destination for me to view many high-quality exhibitions. It was never lost on me that in the 1980s, prior to my arrival, the Museum had exhibited the Newport Survey - these were highly innovative photographic surveys undertaken annually by photography and graphic design students at the School of Art. Working with professionals in the field, photographs were exhibited and published with overall direction of the surveys undertaken by Ron McCormick.

In the early 1970s a major retrospective of the work of British/German photographer Bill Brandt toured to eleven venues in Britain including here at Newport Museum and Art Gallery (July 1970). This touring exhibition has since become regarded as a milestone for photography in Britain although, perhaps ironically, it had been originated by the Museum of Modern Art in New York under the directorship of John Szarkowski. It is often lost on current audiences that in the first half of the twentieth century British photography was less significant than we might imagine. Ron McCormick was one of a small number of pioneers to reignite interest in, and further the development of, photography in Britain from the 1970s onwards; not just as a photographer, but also as an educator, editor, curator and director.

Ron McCormick’s achievements are significant and many. To bring a focus to this current exhibition it must be noted that he was the director of the Half Moon Gallery in Whitechapel when there was only a handful of photography galleries in Britain. The magazine Camerawork developed out of the Half Moon with an emphasis on photography as a social and political force – this is constantly at the core of Ron McCormick’s activity. He would soon go on to be the founding director of the Side Gallery in Newcastle which became a ground-breaking initiative for the presentation of historical and contemporary photography as a visual memory of its region.

We should not be surprised to find that following his relocation to teach at Newport, Ron McCormick was instrumental in the Newport Survey and later, the Valleys Project, itself a survey undertaken at a time of dramatic social change in the 1980s. There are a number of things that makes the photographs in this exhibition, How Green Was My Valley, significant. Many of the photographs have not been seen before, and for those of us who are familiar with Ron McCormick’s work in the Valleys Project these will be something of a revelation. The work made in the 1970s show us a place yet to collide with the trauma of the coming decade. Being someone who grew up in the Rhondda Valleys at this time, I find that it is these early photographs which touch me most. In them we see a terrain dominated by the instruments of Capital, often having endured since the late-Victorian or early-Edwardian periods. There are disused bridges, ramshackle fences, uneven roads, telegraph poles and that most important Valley utility, corrugated iron sheeting. There is an intensity to Ron McCormick’s seeing, but surprisingly, it is never gloomy. This is why I connect with this work – somehow, it’s not just about the way these places looked, but also how they felt.

The brilliant Welsh thinker and writer Raymond Williams conceived the idea of "structures of feeling". Williams believed it possible to facilitate an historical understanding of a place where the different ways of thinking at any one time in its history compete to emerge dominant. When looking at these photographs from the 1970s my memories of being a teenager in the Valleys somehow become tangible. The photographs of the 1980s do the same but bring a different emphasis. We can see the landscapes rapidly changing – some have called this regeneration, others, perhaps with some bitterness, have called it the re-landscaping Capitalism itself. Collectively, these photographs are as true a depiction of the Valleys as I have ever seen.

Finally, before opening the exhibition, I would like to thank Newport Museum and Art Gallery for hosting How Green Was My Valley. Also, I congratulate Ron McCormick for producing this most powerful document of the Valleys as they began their transition into the post-industrial age. We should all thank Ron McCormick for his energy and vision that brought so much to the development of photography in Britain. I will be forever grateful for the life-enhancing experience of studying photography at Newport under Ron McCormick. He inspired me and many others to use photography, as he always has, as a social and political force for good.

Please let us all enjoy the exhibition which I now declare open. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

© Paul Cabuts 2019