A Thirsty Dog in a Puddle

Article published in Planet, Autumn 2019, Issue 236


During the last decade photography in Wales appears to have gone from strength to strength – one of our institutions, National Museum Wales, has a new dedicated gallery for photography, and its first ever Senior Curator of photography; another, the National Library of Wales, has continued to purchase and exhibit contemporary Welsh photography; and Ffotogallery, the national photography agency for Wales, has produced a range of initiatives for international engagement and exchange.

However, does the work of these national institutions provide what is best for the development of photography in Wales? To some extent it does, and this greater exposure for photography corresponds with the acceleration of photographic engagement across the world in the age of the camera phone and selfie. Most people no longer consider photography as something exclusive, done by others – everybody is a photographer now. Of course, there is a difference between photographs taken in the service of vanity and those explicitly made to communicate an intelligent critique of contemporary life. With many good initiatives now established in Wales, is it time to reset our approach to the development of photography? Should we shift emphasis away from increasing the range of activities that have become loosely described as ‘photography’ towards developing those who actually make meaningful photographs – our photographers?

National Museum Wales’ 2019 photography season, shown at National Museum Cardiff until 1 March 2020, very much has a focus on photographers themselves, and features figures who have been significantly influential in the field. From the first half of the twentieth century there is August Sander, whose photographs aimed to capture a true portrait of a nation through recording people of all ages and backgrounds in Germany. During the second half of the century Bernd and Hilla Becher collaborated on a project to document industrial structures across Europe and the USA – not least, they recorded many structures in Wales. From the 1970s to the present Martin Parr has recorded people, places and cultures globally, exploring themes of leisure, consumption and communication – throughout that time he has made work in Wales that captured different aspects of Welsh life and culture.

Why are these contributors considered photographers? Sander and Parr were fascinated by people and the way they lived their lives - each used their camera in a very direct manner to capture representations of the people in front of them. Furthermore, each also assembled specific collections of their photographs to communicate their personal view of society at a particular time. Bernd and Hilla Becher had a similar method of documenting the world they lived in, except their project focused on architecture rather than people. Importantly, they are often described as two of the most significant artists of the twentieth century and that their work has reinforced photography’s international currency as art. This is not incorrect. However, it is important to understand that Hilla was an apprenticed commercial/industrial photographer and Bernd trained as a graphic artist and painter. After marrying in the late 1950s they embarked on a life recording industrial architecture before it disappeared. The nature of their photographs initially led to galleries and publishers being uncertain of how to classify them, as they appeared extremely technical and precise. Nonetheless, it later became recognised that the work aligned with the development of minimalist and conceptual art in the 1960s and was taken up in that field. While they were supported by an art market and their subsequent academic careers, they had simply set out to record industrial architecture as the world entered the post-industrial age. It is this very aim, in my view, the urge to commit an era to print, to freeze it in time, that makes all these exhibitors photographers as such, rather than another kind of visual artist.

The photographs of Sander, the Bechers and Parr will no doubt cause much wailing and gnashing of teeth in some quarters in Wales. Firstly, they are all ‘outsiders’ – Sander and the Bechers were German, Parr is English. For my own part I’ve never had a problem with a photographer’s nationality – a fresh perspective is important as photography is, and always will be, a subjective activity. The best of it reveals something unexpected or strangely familiar about the environment we live in. Secondly, this exhibition will likely antagonise some visitors as the Becher photographs often show industrial Wales in decline. However, they were desperately trying to record structures before they were demolished – therefore, their work is a significant contribution to collective cultural memory . Not least, there will be calls that Martin Parr has trawled up the usual stereotypes of Wales. I would agree his unflinching work often makes for uncomfortable viewing as he travels the globe in search of the seemingly vulgar. But in Wales, as elsewhere, he is most often photographing what has already been made glaringly visible - we shouldn’t turn away from his focus on our surroundings.

Major exhibitions of photographs such as at the National Museum are essential to convey information about our world, develop the understanding of photography’s role in society and, not least, to inspire emerging photographers. Similarly, the National Library continues to exhibit and develop its collections of notable photography specifically relating to Wales. Many, myself included, have benefited from the Library’s willingness to occasionally purchase contemporary photographs with a connection to Wales. In the last decade there have been some excellent exhibitions by Welsh photographers at the National Library such as the retrospective of Pete Davis’s work and Aled Rhys Hughes’s evocative images from the remains of the trenches at Mametz Wood. Ffotogallery has continued to show the work of photographers from Wales while it has increasingly raised an awareness of Wales’ lens-based art among international audiences. Projects such as European Prospects (Europe/Wales), Dreamtigers (India/Wales), The Place I Call Home (Gulf region/Wales), Diffusion Festival (Worldwide/Wales) have provided valuable opportunities for photographers in Wales (my own work was shown as part of European Prospects and two Diffusion Festivals). As I suggested in Planet ten years ago, there are also important regional galleries in Wales featuring photographs including those in Wrexham, Llandudno, Newtown, Aberystwyth, Swansea and Newport – this activity continues.

Among the most interesting developments in the last decade has been the emergence of what might be described as a new grassroots movement for photography in Wales. There are numerous initiatives that include a range of small galleries, a new hardcopy publication and an online platform dedicated to photography in Wales. These initiatives provide openings for photographers to disseminate work, often highlighting emerging talent alongside more established practitioners. The newer galleries include Oriel Colwyn (Colwyn Bay), Tilt & Shift (Llanrwst), ffotogaleri y gofeb (Machynlleth), Found Gallery (Brecon) and the Workers Gallery (Rhondda). The new Offline publication documents the development of contemporary photography in, from and of Wales, away from the internet and online platforms – existing as a limited print run. Ffoton (www.ffoton.wales) provides photographers in Wales with a web-based platform that allows them to talk about their work. To some extent all these organisations share the same sentiment that led to the creation of Ffoton. The statement on their website notes ‘Ffoton was born, frankly, out of frustration. Despite talented photographers living and working in Wales, many remain undiscovered to a wider audience.’

It is acknowledged that there have been challenges for photography in Wales in the last decade. The National Library’s Festival of Welsh Documentary Photography, Lens, seems to have stalled, having presented annual talks by speakers such as David Hurn, Marian Delyth and the late Philip Jones Griffiths. Neoliberalisation of higher education played its part in university mergers in Wales resulting in a duplication of courses, subsequently leading to photography course closures. Newport, once an important centre for photography subjects, had its teaching moved to Cardiff. The much-admired Cardiff-based Third Floor Gallery (again grassroots) with its international reputation for showing documentary photography, ceased operation. Ffotogallery had to leave its education and administrative centre in Cardiff’s cultural hub at Chapter Arts and then left its other premises at Turner House Gallery in Penarth. Following a false start in a new space in a city centre venue in Cardiff, it has now found a new permanent home in Cathays, a suburb of Cardiff.

Fortunately, there are positive gains to set against these losses. Aberystwyth Arts Centre now hosts yet another grassroots development with the biennial Eye International Photography Festival which focuses on photojournalism. The long-established teaching of documentary photography continues at BA, MA and PhD levels at the University of South Wales and remains a world-leading provider of photographic education in the field. Also worth noting is the gathering pace of doctoral research into photography’s relationship with Wales, with a number of PhDs on this topic now completed.

Perhaps all this activity, institutional or otherwise, would benefit from a shared strategy for the development for photography in Wales. Many have looked to Ffotogallery as the catalyst for a truly national development but the failure to establish a National Photography Centre for Wales in the 1990s proved decisive. Ffotogallery has done exceptional work in tracking the wider international development of the photographic arts that pushes the boundaries of expanded photography, trans-disciplinary art and hybrid media. However, despite recent progress, its reach across Europe and beyond has perhaps been more successful than its engagement across Wales.

Sometimes being a photographer in Wales feels a bit like a muzzled dog, thirsty and standing in a puddle. You have the energy and enthusiasm to thrive and share, and you can see there is sustenance around you, but you feel frustratingly disconnected from it. If, as I suggested earlier, we are all now photographers, perhaps our primary priority should shift away from developing photographies (the multi-faceted, hybrid forms of photography) towards developing photographers. No doubt detractors of such a principle will invoke tales of eggs, chickens, carts and horses, but that can work both ways. I continue to believe that encouraging people to look closely at the world around them is important. In Wales, priority could be given to enabling engagement by those of differing ages and abilities in the taking and reading of photographs through participation and formal and informal learning. This has the capacity to not only enhance awareness of our world and those in it, but also to provide the skills needed to contest the constructs of photographic meaning – this is particularly important in our post-truth world where visual literacy has become paramount. It is not just about ubiquitous in-phone photo manipulations that make someone look more attractive on social media, it is also about the ways we consume news and advertising images - their context and their construction. Rather than simply following international trends in the development of photography, Wales could become a leader in developing makers of photographs. This activity has the potential to help stimulate shared understandings and fairness in our nation and beyond – the capacity to offer insights into worlds other than our own.

I previously expressed my concern that in Wales photography’s specificity from the other forms of visual media that operate with and around it could become lost. I suggested that the proposed development of a National Gallery of Contemporary Art had the potential to accelerate such a demise. Ten years later, the feasibility study into the development has only recently been concluded and approved. Its findings suggest that a National Contemporary Art Gallery Wales would be defined by a set of six to eight galleries distributed across the nation. Importantly, it will be developed and co-designed through engagement with a broad range of stakeholders. It is hoped to provide ongoing revenue support designed to empower the current and next generation of Welsh creative citizens.

The time is right for a shift in emphasis for photography in Wales. Perhaps a move to develop opportunities for acquiring skills and knowledge whilst also disseminating work widely across the country could work to energise local engagement and engender a meaningful national discourse around photography and its role in society. Of course, this all needs not only a clear strategy but also a hub to co-ordinate activity. How would such a hub operate and by whom? Should it be part of a new National Contemporary Art Gallery Wales? There are many discussions to be had, but a change of thinking would be welcomed. For my part, I continue to worry about photography’s uniqueness being lost in the ever-expanding field of the visual arts and, not least, I remain concerned for that thirsty dog.

© Paul Cabuts 2019

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Cover image courtesy of Planet/Nigel Pugh