New Vision: Photography and Wales

Paper presented at New Directions in Welsh History conference, October 2020

New Vision: Photography and Wales considers why it may be appropriate to realise a new project dedicated to better understanding photography’s relationship to Wales. A project that could interrogate the history of the medium whilst developing new critical approaches to the nation’s photographic present and future. Firstly, we will explore some examples regarding the evolution of photography in and of Wales. Secondly, the role of photography in the development of national identity is briefly discussed. Finally, the development of a national photography centre for Wales is considered.

Photography does not operate in a vacuum. It is worth bringing a focus to the capacity of the still image to help shape our identity, its influence on contemporary life, and how it might be used to help create a more informed future. Whilst photography has shaped many aspects of life in Wales, it arguably lacks the attention it seemingly warrants in and of itself. Yet we live in a time when we are all photographers, busily engaged with sharing visual imagery on a proliferation of digital platforms. In the ‘here and now’, photographs provide an influential backdrop to our everyday lives online, in shops, on billboards, in magazines and elsewhere.

The American photographer, writer, filmmaker, theorist and critic Allan Sekula prompted us to remember that photographs, in themselves, are fragmentary, incomplete, and require context - he suggested that they should not be taken at face value. When looking at photographs it can be useful to start by asking two basic things of a photograph: ‘For who? and By who?

“Conventional wisdom would have it that photographs transmit immutable truths. But although the very notion of photographic reproduction would seem to suggest that very little is lost in translation, it is clear that photographic meaning depends largely on context … photographs, in themselves, are fragmentary and incomplete utterances” [1].

Looking to the past we find that a photograph can provide a portal into the time in which it was created. We are often interested to see how things once looked and are surprised to see those things that no longer exist. In the case of the 1858 photograph of Swansea taken by John Dillwyn Llewelyn we are struck by the view: sailing ships in the docks, steam engines pulling trucks to and fro – such things provide an insight into trade and transport of the time. There are also social indicators: the terraced housing and the adjacent White Lion pub remind us that trade, transport and industry also require labour. It should be noted that camera exposures were incredibly slow – for this photograph the shutter was open for fifteen minutes to be able to capture the scene.

The questions, for who? By who? can provide us with some basic context. John Dillwyn Llewelyn was one of the great pioneers of photography, credited with many of the early technical innovations in the medium. In 1855 he was awarded a silver medal of honour in Paris for photographs taken on the theme of motion. At this time cameras were very large, required great technical proficiency and, not least, were expensive. As such, they were only available to those with the money and the time (or those making a professional investment as witnessed in the growth of commercial photographic studios in the period). For Llewelyn, the family’s wealth and enterprise, which included ownership of the Cambrian Pottery, allowed them to pursue their interests in science, botany and astronomy. He married Emma Talbot in 1833, connecting him to the ‘inventor’ of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot, and the land-owning Talbot family in south Wales. Llewelyn served as the High Sheriff of Glamorgan in 1835 and was a founder-member of the Royal Photographic Society. His scientific inclination led him to experiment with photographic techniques most often taking bucolic views of his estate at Penllergare, Swansea. His photographs would have been shared with his family and friends along with other photographers of the period.

Seventy years later both photography and Wales had changed. The ‘boom’ years of Victorian enterprise had become the ‘bust’ years of The General Strike and the Great Depression. Cameras had become highly portable with exposure times down to a fraction of a second. For the English photographer Helen Muspratt, photographing unemployed miners picking coal off slagheaps in the Rhondda in the 1930s was a political act. Prior to her trip to Wales, Muspratt had visited the Soviet Union to see socialism in action and had been impressed by the organisation of labour. On her return to Britain she joined the Communist Party and gave lectures about the successes of the Russian system illustrated by the photographs she had taken there. Similarly, the photographs she made in the Valleys such as of derelict steelworks, idle men on street corners, unemployed colliers, mucky children on doorsteps, were all used as slides in her lectures to show the failings of the Capitalist system.

Post-World War Two, photography technologies continued to improve and the public embraced the picture-led stories increasingly present in mass media magazines. The documentary photographs often jostled with colourful advertising images promoting products in the rapidly expanding consumerist markets. This was a golden age for black and white photography that was often produced by exceptional photographers such as the American W. Eugene Smith. His photograph of three generations of miners taken in Coed Ely in 1950 for Life magazine is now considered to be one of the best from his extensive career and he, in turn, is considered one of the greatest photographers of the twentieth century. He was one of several important photographers whose photographs in Wales were widely disseminated through international publications. It is noted that some, including Robert Capa, Robert Frank and Smith himself, had seen the ‘blockbuster’ John Ford film How Green Was My Valley. Perhaps this provided them with some form of visual template as they worked in Wales.

In more recent times we readily engage with photographs that have be produced collaboratively. The Ffasiwn Project was co-created by French photographer Clementine Schneidermann, Welsh creative director and stylist Charlotte James, and young people from the Heads of the Valleys region. Such collaborations offer the opportunity for self-identities to be constructed rather than reductive identities being imposed. Here, the photographs have been produced in summer school workshops where participants learn new skills and contribute to the photographic outcomes. Not only have the photographs been distributed locally, they have also featured in Vogue magazine and exhibitions in national institutions.

“A nation is conceived through symbols and rites, and the diffusion and acceptance of symbols belong to the process of forming a nation” [2].

The construction of identity is an important issue for photography. It has been suggested that the mid-nineteenth century was a critical time in the development of nation states – it was a time that corresponded with significant advances in the world economy of industrial capitalism and the social order it represented [3]. The emergent medium of photography would play its role in building the nation state and has continued to do so into the present. The process of the diffusion and acceptance of symbols has been important to Wales with the circulation of photographs playing a role.

From the 1880s onwards there was a conscious effort to establish a national identity for modern Wales, albeit still within Great Britain. The keen antiquarian and Clerk of the Peace Sir Thomas Mansel Franklen produced photographs for the influential Photographic Survey of Glamorgan which was instigated in 1891. The photographs allied the picturesque to ancient and enduring subject matter that were seen as integral to the cultivation of identity [4]. His subjects included Celtic crosses, Latin inscribed stones, ancient churches and abbeys, cathedrals and castles. Having the help of the acknowledged Celtic expert John Romilly Allen helped validate the significance of the photographs.

“the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story the only story” [5].

The story of photography and Wales is not a simple linear narrative. The Nigerian born writer Chimamanda Adichie discussed the issues around identity and stereotype – she suggests that it essential to tell more than just one story. There are incredible stories of photography and Wales but there is much more to do in drawing out these perspectives so that the prevailing narratives can be challenged.

It is only in more recent decades that it became recognised that Mary Dillwyn, sister of John Dillwyn Llewelyn, had not been given the historical attention she deserved. She was Wales’s first female photographer and was a photographic pioneer in her own right. She is credited with taking the first successful photograph of the moon and the first known photograph of a smile – she pioneered the techniques necessary in both cases. Her legacy was discussed at a symposium at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery in 2017 where contemporary female photographers were exhibiting work in response to Mary Dillwyn and her work.

And when the sombre W. Eugene Smith photograph of three miners is thrown up it can readily be contrasted with Geoff Charles’s 1951 photograph of the new steel plant at Margam. Charles was a Welsh photographer based in north Wales who most often worked in rural environments there. Whilst working in the south for the Welsh language newspaper Y Cymro in the early 1950s he captured the development of the emerging manufacturing industries and showed Wales embracing the potential of becoming a consumerist society.

Is it possible to develop a new project dedicated to expanding our understanding of photography’s relationship to Wales? It is certainly not a new idea. In the mid-1990s Ffotogallery, Wales’s agency for contemporary photography, led a significant campaign to establish a National Photography Centre for Wales. With considerable financial support from the Arts Council of Wales and the advocacy of institutions that included the National Museum, the National Library and a number of Universities it was agreed that the Centre would be established at Margam Castle. There were many good reasons for locating at Margam which had been where one of the earliest ever photographs had been taken by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1839. Unfortunately, the development of a national centre was ended before it could be realised.

In terms of New Directions in Welsh History, consideration should be given to revisiting the ambition to develop a sophisticated national discourse around photography. Perhaps some new entity could be established, more virtual than physical, encompassing many of the organisations already mentioned. It is worth noting that the recent feasibility study into a National Contemporary Art Gallery Wales suggested the adoption of a distributed model for working. This would involve existing organisations hosting aspects of the wider project - this approach could be an appropriate template for the development of new understandings of photography’s role in Wales. Partners could work to engender a strong commitment to collaborative working and social justice. In telling the story of Photography and Wales the engagement of historical collections could provide opportunities where the construction of photographic meaning is contested. This, in turn, could inform contemporary photographic practices and provide opportunities for socially engaged activity in the future.

[1] Sekula, A. 1983. Photography Between Labour and Capital. In Mining Photographs and Other Pictures 1948-1968, Photographs by Leslie Sheddon. Nova Scotia College of Art & Design: Nova Scotia. p.195
[2] Jäger, J. 2003. Picturing Nations: Landscape Photography and National Identity in Britain and Germany in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. In Picturing Place: Photography and Geographical Imagination. London: I.B. Tauris. p117
[3] Hobsbawm, E. 1975. The Age of Capital. London: Abacus. p105
[4] Pollock, V.L. 2009. Dislocated Narratives and Sites of Memory: Amateur Photographic Surveys in Britain 1889–1897. in Visual Culture in Britain, 10:1, 1-26
[5] Adichie, C. 2009. Ted Talk. (Accessed September 2020)

© Paul Cabuts