Common Cause

Article in Offline Journal No.5, Autumn 2020


The question of whether or not there is some common cause to be found across photography in Wales is not a new one, in fact that idea has been around since the 1970s. The first attempt to embody this idea can be found in the 1982 book Cymru’r Camera.

Ffotogallery organised one of the first surveys of contemporary photography in Wales when, in 1979, it presented a selection of such work in its first open exhibition Photography Wales 1979. The exhibition, shown in Cardiff, would go on to tour Wales and provoked “considerable debate and discussion, reflecting the diversity and strength of interest in contemporary photography in the region” [1]. Fast forward to one of the most recent surveys of contemporary photography in Wales which was another Ffotogallery initiative, Ffotoview, which was seen online and in a gallery exhibition at Cardiff in 2018 [2]. Such landmark events might make us wonder how much meaningful photographic work from Wales was made in the years between these surveys? It also raises the question of how much of it is visible to current audiences and, perhaps more importantly, could this work provide us with some sense of an emerging common cause for photography in Wales?

Surveys of photography can be ephemeral if catalogues of the images selected have not been produced. It is worth remembering that up until the turn of the millennium it would have been unusual to see collections of photographs from Wales on the internet, until that time any opportunity to review collections of contemporary photography would have largely been confined to those all-important catalogues and books. A survey of pan-Wales photography has always been rare, but we can see one example in the 1997 exhibition The Welsh Lens. Importantly, the exhibition was supported with a catalogue of photographs from twelve photographers along with their biographies and an essay by Alistair Crawford who wrote “The biographies included here demonstrate the emergence of the subject [photography] in Wales and chart the slow and still largely unrecognised establishing of a subject within a certain society. In spite of the improvements we still have to describe those presented here as pioneers” [3]. Catalogues such as this one, along with other books on photography made in and of Wales, provide the most valuable resources in terms of examining the evolving state of photography in the nation. Arguably this remains the case in the age of the internet as the materiality of a catalogue or book allows us to literally hold the past in our hands.

One of the best libraries of photography books in Britain resided at Newport College of Art. It was here, as a student, that I first encountered the book Cymru’r Camera (Photographers’ Wales), a book of photographs by thirty-seven photographers. Published in 1982 by Y Lolfa, the book had been edited by a previous Newport student, Marian Delyth. I have rarely been as excited about a book as I was when first seeing this eighty-page hardcover publication. I had never before seen such photographs as this book contained. Marian Delyth is now better known as a photographer but had been a Graphic Design student at Newport. After her early education in Aberystwyth she studied at Cardiff Art College in 1972, eventually graduating from Newport in 1976 with a First-Class degree in Graphic Design before proceeding to gain a MA in photography at Birmingham Polytechnic in 1977. During the period 1973 – 1976, when she was studying at Newport, she undertook a number of personal photography projects in Ceredigion, Cardiff and Newport. Discussing the period, she said

"Looking back now I see how attending Newport College of Art from 1973-76 was hugely important to my life and career [4]. 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" [5].

To today’s eye, Cymru’r Camera might be seen as an eclectic mix of the symbols of Wales including both traditional aspects (chapels, bards and farmers) and modern aspects (factories, protesters and the unemployed). It has to be said that both these aspects of Wales are not shown as mutually exclusive. The book also shows militancy within a Wales in transition with industrial communities and the decline of industry being among the themes illustrated by Steve Benbow. He had been one of the early students on the Documentary Photography course at Newport and went on to have a career as an international photojournalist and, like Delyth, was a founder member of Ffotogallery. Huw Phillips’s photograph ‘Gwrthdystiad, Abertawe’ (‘Protest, Swansea’) shows police restraining protesters who are holding both English and Welsh language placards relating to demands for more jobs during a period of high unemployment and a Welsh language television channel [6]. Martin Roberts and Huw Jones illustrate the issue of holiday homes in Wales and Anglicized road signs respectively. The billboard poster advertising Cottage Country Butter in Roberts’s image is deliciously subverted with the overwritten graffiti ‘Burn Them Down’. There are also quieter themes in the book such as architecture, community life and landscapes [7]. But the effect of the whole book is to tell us something about the key concerns in Wales at that time.

So how did Marian Delyth come to edit such a book? As with any such project the answer is complex and includes her enthusiasm for the potential of photography, her deep-rooted commitment to Wales and its language, and her experiences of living and working in both rural and urban Wales. Photography in Britain was starting to emerge as an independent, contemporary force in the 1970s and she felt that it was important for Wales to be shown through Welsh eyes as this perspective would be different to the external views most often seen. In many ways her book anticipates the mission of Gweled, a Welsh-medium association for artists and those interested in Welsh art established in 1984, of which she was a founder member. Delyth had been able to secure funding for the book from the Welsh Book Council whose own mission was to support the publishing industry in Wales through its services and grants.

The Welsh language is an important consideration throughout. Y Lolfa printed the open invitation to photographers to submit work for Cymru’r Camera in Welsh. That said, non-Welsh speakers do feature in the book including David Hurn. Marian Delyth’s foreword to the book is presented in Welsh, as are all the image captions. The only translations from Welsh are of the book’s title which are to be found on the front cover in French, German and English respectively. In the foreword Delyth notes that Wales’s native culture highly regards the written word and that Cymru’r Camera is one of very few publications to seriously consider the visual language of Wales. She also indicates that it was the book’s ambition to produce a portrait of Wales through a range of differing photographers; young and old, professional and amateur, all working to record life in their respective areas. Indeed, in the earlier open invitation to photographers she is clear that she absolutely did not want “the stereo-typed Wales of the post-card or tourist advertisement” and that the images would collectively work to “create a credible portrait within the pages of the book”. Importantly, the open invitation urged “photographers from all parts of Wales to send their work to be considered, in order to achieve this aim” [8]. Fifty photographers from across Wales did subsequently submit work.

Marian Delyth sequenced the photographs so that each of the thirty-seven selected photographers had up to four consecutive pages. This was the case for David Hurn who had photographs from Epynt, Cardiff, Tenby and Aberavon, whilst Robert Greetham had just two that he had taken at a fair in Aberystwyth. Greetham was the first graduate to undertake an MA in photography within Wales and became the Director of Ffotogallery in 1982. Delyth herself had two images, both taken from her Mynydd Bach project in mid-Wales. Chris Carpenter had two photographs from Baneswell in Newport included. Carpenter was a slightly later Graphic Design student from Newport and his work in Cymru’r Camera would also feature in the Newport Survey. Delyth had been aware of the instigation of this survey at the time she was developing her Photographers’ Wales plans. Whilst Marian Delyth acknowledges the influence of Newport’s School of Documentary Photography on herself and many of the thirty-seven photographers listed in the book, it is far from being the whole story. It is also worth remembering that no survey is innocent; their subjective focus will be shaped by the individuals and organisations directing them. Whilst the focus of Cymru’r Camera could be said to be transparent, others are often less so.

The book was launched at the 1982 Swansea and District National Eisteddfod where there was an exhibition of photographs from the book held on the Swansea University campus. The exhibition was made up of the actual prints submitted for the book and was, in many ways, an adjunct to the book. However, to have the book and prints at the most significant annual event for Welsh culture suggest something about the book’s importance at that time. It also reminds us that it is the book that survives and not the exhibition. Back to more recent times, the 2018 Ffotoview exhibition is long gone, but at least its digital life remains – to have also had the work published in a book would have put it in our hands.

The ambition of Marian Delyth’s 1982 book is remarkable and unique, it is a book that represented the first survey of contemporary photography in Wales and it highlighted the concerns and approaches of a broad range of photographers at that time. One of her ambitions was to see if there was a common cause or language to be found within photography in Wales. I often think about my first encounter with the book but remain unsure that such a cause is revealed. However, Cymru’r Camera certainly struck a chord – possibly it was my recognition of the places and the concerns of the day, perhaps it was something more. What I am sure of is that there is nothing else like Cymru’r Camera, and it remains a complete and utter joy.

[1] Greetham. R. 1996. Ffotogallery 1976 – 1996 (Unpublished) p.6
[2] (Accessed May 2020)
[3] Crawford. A. 1997. The Welsh Lens (Machynlleth: Y Tabernacle) p.2
[4] The College became Gwent College of Higher Education during this period
[5] Email exchange between Marian Delyth and Paul Cabuts 2014
[6] S4C was launched in Wales during November 1982
[7] Delyth. M. 1982.Cymru’r Camera (Talybont: Y Lolfa)
[8] Delyth. M. 1981 Open Invitation Letter [translation] (Talybont: Y Lolfa)

© Paul Cabuts 2020

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