Reflections: Book Preview

Preview of the photography book, Form in New Welsh Review - March 2021

Paul Cabuts on the influence of Walker Evans’ American Photographs on his own Valleys images, and the interplay of social disadvantage and monochrome.

A night class at the old school on top of Stow Hill in Trefforest would prove decisive. I had already experienced years of taking photographs, learning about cameras and darkrooms as a kid with my uncle Robert, later assisting professional photographers, then on to working part-time on social and industrial commissions. I realised there was still more to learn, so started an A-Level. I would later realise that the most important thing that I would learn on the course was about ‘time’.

I had been introduced to the work of the American photographer Walker Evans which in itself almost led me to give up photography all together – it seemed pointless carrying on as he had already done everything that I thought was good in photography. After weeks of soul searching, I realised that Walker Evans hadn’t photographed the Valleys and therefore concluded that perhaps there was indeed something left for me to do.

I had already been photographing in and around Pontypridd before starting my A Level, although I realise now that it was all a bit random. I was certainly interested in the details to be found in buildings and approached the task using colour film (which I nearly always used for commercial work), making what might be called formalist, semi-abstract compositions. The torn posters, decaying railings and rusting signs all seemed worthy subjects to me.

I was pleased to be able to include several of these photographs in an exhibition of work by ‘local artists’, which included paintings by my old art teacher from Ferndale Grammar School, Elwyn Thomas. I was new to exhibition launches, particularly one that included my photographs, and was excited it was being opened by Dr Kim Howells, the new local Member of Parliament. He praised the creativity evidenced in the exhibition and warmly commented on several paintings and then turned to my photographs. I can’t remember his exact words, but he suggested that I made Pontypridd look like Beirut, which at that time was much in the news as a devastated war-torn city. It was a very useful lesson about the need to be always aware that just because you think your photographs represent one thing, it does not stop somebody else from seeing them in a completely different way. But I also realised something else. If the same photographs had not been representing contemporary Pontypridd, but rather the Pontypridd of say twenty-five or fifty years before, they would have probably been received as nostalgic, possibly romantic, almost certainly more positively than they actually were.

My A-Level studies put the idea in my mind that if I were to photograph the Valleys, I’d better do it in black and white so that the work would be taken seriously. My first real project/series used reflections in shop windows in Pontypridd to juxtapose the contemporary condition of shop windows in the town’s main shopping street, Taff Street, with the elegant Edwardian architecture visible at the tops of the buildings in which the shops were located. I was keen to choose window displays that featured contemporary artifacts and where possible, pricelists and signs. I’d noticed that Walker Evans’ American photographs included such things which offered viewers in later decades the opportunity to glimpse the everyday details of life at a different time to their own. It has to be said that this idea of how a photograph can provide a portal to the past has remained important to me, for I believe that I make photographs more with the future in mind, rather than for any significance they might have when they are taken. I would sometimes flummox my own photo-students when I would ask them whether they were making photographs for now or for the future. The truth is it can be both, but working it through can help clarify what is important to include in the frame at the time of taking.

Is a photograph a record of what is before the camera, a document, or something else? There are many, many books on the subject; however, the term ‘documentary style’ has always resonated with me. This term is often attributed to Walker Evans, who wanted to clarify, however, that whilst his photographs were produced within the conventions of realism, they were not documents. Unlike police photographs that might be used in a law court, his were ‘useless’ as they were not intended to be used in such an official way. That’s what he thought.

However, it has been suggested that collectively his photographs of shopfronts, houses, garages, street scenes, industrial landscapes, farms, house interiors and people, can ‘reveal the whole aspect of American society’. This notion of the ‘whole aspect’ posited on the sleeve of Evans’ book, American Photographs, originally published in 1938, is overstated. However, this seminal book presents upwards of ninety photographs, taken throughout the 1930s, that not only provide a view of what certain aspects of America looked like at the time, but also gives a sense of its prevailing mood.

To make sense of this latter attribute, it is worth engaging with the idea of ‘structures of feeling’, a way of understanding the dominant attitudes at any one time, as suggested by the Welsh thinker and writer Raymond Williams. For Williams, it was 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. Such ways of thinking become temporarily woven into the fabric of a society and its culture, and can, at times, surface and become visible. This is certainly case in Walker Evans’ American Photographs, but it is a phenomenon that also applies in Wales.

In whatever way photographs are categorised, it seems to me that they are inextricably linked to time in a range of different ways. Most photography students, me included, would have been asked to read the book, Camera Lucida, by the French writer and thinker Roland Barthes. Among many fascinating examples, there is a discussion of the 1865 ‘Portrait of Lewis Payne’by Alexander Gardener, in which we are fixed by the gaze of this man who is about to be executed. Barthes has captioned the photograph ‘He is dead and is going to die’, which is, of course, what happens when we view a photograph of someone who will die: in this case, it is powerfully illustrated as the portrait is made immediately prior to the man’s death. Of course, he is dead when one views the photograph which clearly shows him alive – the fact that he is also clearly aware of his fate makes this particular photograph all the more profound.

As with the subject of whether a photograph is a document or not, there are also many books on the subject of time. These things are deeply interesting but to navigate the making of photographs in the Valleys as simply as possible, I have had to think about it in a simplified form. It has always been thought-provoking when new photography students are asked to describe what they see in a photograph and respond, ‘a moment in time’. The French philosopher, Henri Bergson, noted that the moment we attempt to measure a moment, it would have gone. We can talk about a moment, but time is actually mobile, always on the move, and incomplete. It is true we accurately measure the duration of exposure in a camera, but that’s not the same as measuring the conceptually more ephemeral ‘moment’. The process of taking a photograph starts a long time before the photograph is made. There is the time when the idea starts to form, the time researching the subject, the time travelling to the location and setting up the camera. Once the photograph is taken, time is taken to process and disseminate it, then there’s time for reflection. The perception of whatever has been photographed will have already changed by this stage and will continue to do so in the future.

I can’t remember going into much detail about the concept of time during my A-Level, but my introduction to Walker Evans’ photographs, half a century after they were made, did make me marvel at the capacity of a photograph to act as a form of time capsule. But something else had happened over that half century, in that the perception of this photographer himself had changed; he had become recognised as one of the most significant photographers of the twentieth century. Of course, he was admired back then, but this has been amplified in our time when a photographer can also readily be a celebrity. By the time of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the original exhibition and book American Photographs, there was ‘another’ touring exhibition of the work, this time curated by Sarah Hermanson Meister. When interviewed for the BBC in 2013 she said:

The second part of Walker Evans’ American Photographs is really about the American environment and the ways that the structures that Americans had built could come to symbolise or represent a picture of America in the same way pictures of people might have done… the very local manifestations of vernacular American architecture and how that could symbolise what you might call an American photograph.

Time also messes with your ability to recall the past (ie memory). I remember seeing a beautiful exhibition of Walker Evans’ American photographs in Wales. It might have been in Aberystwyth, I think it was the smaller gallery at the town’s arts centre, I’m more certain that I bunked off early from the Lens Festival at the National Library in order to see the photographs before driving home. When recently checking on the internet to see the date and location for that exhibition, I could only find a reference in the North Wales Chronicle that notes that Walker Evans’ photographs of the Great Depression were shown at the Library, Colwyn Bay during February 2010. I’m certain I didn’t see it there.

Whilst my A-Level introduction to Walker Evans has continued to influence the way I think about photography, another important thing happened following my photographs of reflections in Pontypridd. They were exhibited in the bar of the Muni Arts Centre in the town; it was my first ‘solo’ show and was well received by visitors, thus opening up the opportunity for further exhibitions there. My next show would be in the main gallery, which I filled with triptych landscapes of the Valleys. By this time, my sense of subject and how to photograph it was improving, and the work was again largely well received. I say largely, as the exhibition’s comments book had an entry that stated

I am sick to death of the portrayal of the bleakness of the South Vales Valleys. People who live here do not need to be reminded of the lack of hope and change the Valleys have gone through. Maybe you should have tried to lift their spirits instead of dampening them through the use of barren landscape in the black and white medium.

I realised that I had again failed to recognise that although the photographs were positive projections of the transformative processes taking place in the Valleys at that time, not everybody would read them as such (although the next commentator in the book berated the earlier comments calling the writer pretentious and not talented enough to comment). From that time on, I always photographed the Valleys in colour.

© Paul Cabuts 2021

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