A Casual Archaeology

Article published in New Welsh Reader #129, Spring 2022

A Casual Archaeology traces how the renaissance of the photographer’s book in Wales documents neglected corners of our society. Not least, I suggest that photography in Wales has only recently found its own distinct and authentic voice and that developments in publishing ‘photobooks’ are providing new opportunities for the visual expression of a contemporary post-industrial Welsh experience by those living and working in the nation.

It might seem an odd proposition that photography in Wales has only recently found its own distinct and authentic voice. But it seems that developments in publishing ‘photobooks’ are providing new opportunities for the visual expression of a contemporary post-industrial Welsh experience by those living and working in the nation. Could this represent a significant moment in the evolution of the visual culture of Wales?

There has long been an interest in the ways that life in the south Wales Valleys can be represented in words and images. Whilst writing has had a long-established presence through the works of those inside the valley communities such as Lewis Jones, Jack Jones and Gwyn Thomas, it would be the work of mid-twentieth century international photographers such as the American Eugene Smith and Swiss Robert Frank that would come to dominate the representations of industrial Wales in photography. In more recent times, this external dominance of photography has started to be superseded by something new. Two new and insightful books by photographers from within Wales each combine images and words to make powerful statements about life in the nation in the twenty first century. Huw Alden Davies’s Scaffold to the Moon (published October 2020) focuses on family life in Tumble, Llanelli, whilst Dan Wood’s Black was the river, you see (published April 2021) takes a photographic journey down the Ogwr Valley that was inspired by his thoughts around his grandfather’s experiences of the industrial past.

What we can see in these books is the application of something akin to an autobiographical photographic form rather than the more distanced photo-essays that were dominant in the past. The emergence of these new forms have similarities to the phenomena highlighted by the great thinker and writer Raymond Williams when, in 1977, he discussed the emergence of the Welsh industrial novel in the early decades of the twentieth century. His analysis noted the apparent ‘lateness’ of the introduction of such novels in Wales when compared to those in England and suggested that the prevailing literary forms of the period did not necessarily provide the most appropriate vehicle to articulate the experience of Welsh industrial life at that time. In what is perhaps another echo of Williams’s view on the development of the Welsh industrial novel, the emergence of what might be called ‘creative photography’ as a cultural activity in its own right only started to receive institutional advocacy and critical attention in Wales from the 1970s. It was from this time that the work of photographers from within the nation’s communities could be seen in wider circulation.

The wider public engagement with such photography in Wales was to some extent initiated through the Welsh Arts Council (WAC). Its visual arts officer Peter Jones was a driving figure in the support of artist/photographers making work in Wales such as Raymond Moore and John Piper who had touring exhibitions across the nation during the 1960s and 1970s. Whilst both were England-based the support of their work was important in terms of the acceptance of creative photography within Wales. David Hurn received a WAC bursary award in 1971 which would prove pivotal to his ultimate return to live and work in Wales after a highly successful international career in editorial and fashion photography. In 1974 the National Museum presented Hurn’s photographs in the exhibition Wales: Black & White which included work made during his bursary activity. The exhibition went on to be toured extensively by the British Council, travelling internationally including a showing at the prestigious Arles Photography Festival in France where it won a gold medal in 1976. Peter Jones would play a role in connecting David Hurn with Newport College of Art where he would establish the highly respected School of Documentary Photography. Jones was also an important figure in the establishment of Wales’s first gallery dedicated to photography in 1978 that would soon evolve to become Ffotogallery. Increasingly exhibitions and publications relating to photography in and of Wales emerged through the National Museum, the National Library, Ffotogallery and a number of other important galleries across the nation. By the end of the 1980s there was a substantial cultural platform for photography in Wales that was increasingly shaped by new scholarship and the growth in related academic activity. There had been an evolution in which creative photography, with its roots in earlier communicative mass media, had become contemporary photography, where fundamentals such as photography’s documenting capacity and narrative structures were melded with new ideas emerging in the burgeoning contemporary visual arts.

Books have always been important in photography even during the decades in which the exhibition was seen as the apogee of cultural significance for the photographer. What might be considered the first survey of contemporary photography in Wales can be seen in the book Cymru’r Camera which was published in 1982, edited by Marian Delyth. The book presented a small selection of photographs from each of the thirty-seven photographers featured and continues to provide a fascinating overview of the priorities of a range of photographers in Wales at that time. By its very nature it could not offer the sustained singular vision of a photographer which is readily available in an extended monograph. Historical surveys of individual photographers working in Wales would be published in the first decade of the twenty-first century through the efforts of both the National Library and the National Museum with the former selecting important works from its collections of photographs by John Thomas (1838 –1905) and Geoff Charles (1909 –2002). The National Museum’s Millennium exhibition of David Hurn’s work was accompanied by the book Land of My Father which was the first major monograph of his extended work in Wales. Throughout the 1990s Ffotogallery had been active in publishing high-quality catalogues to accompany their exhibitions of contemporary photography. An example of work by a Wales-based photographer/artist, with a focus on the Welsh experience can be seen in Peter Finnemore’s Gwendraeth House, produced in 2000. The Silent Village publication, that accompanied the Ffotogallery exhibition of the same name in 2010, can be considered as not an exhibition catalogue, but rather a fascinating artefact in its own right. The three-volume slip-cased presentation of photographs (Peter Finnemore/Paolo Ventura) and texts (Rachel Trezise/Russell Roberts/David Berry) made a sophisticated and sensitive exploration of the 1943 Humphrey Jennings film made in Cwmgïedd, a partial re-enactment of war atrocities carried out in the Czech village of Lidice by the Nazis several years earlier.

Today, Wales is at a point where its contemporary photographers can readily benchmark the quality of their own output against the growing circulation of books relating to photography produced internationally and, importantly, within Wales itself. Another important factor is that the rising sophistication and access to digital technologies has made small independent publishing possible, as well as readily providing access to the latest photographic criticism. There are also new international markets for photographic works available through the proliferation of online platforms. These developments have provided photographers in Wales the opportunity to confidently create new work with a primary purpose of creating a photobook rather than pursuing the previously perceived ideal of an exhibition. This in turn has led to diverse approaches in shaping the form and content of such books. This recently acquired acumen has arguably allowed photographers to take more nuanced and personal views of what they want their work to communicate, and how best that communication can be achieved.

For those followers of photography, Dan Wood’s Black was the river, you see will be recognised as having adopted a dominant form of photobook where the photographs primarily act alone in providing a narrative. Unlike a textual narrative that consist of a linear string of words, a photographic narrative is enabled through careful sequencing which allows each photograph to be strengthened and supported by all the others through their visual characteristics. Dan Wood has paid meticulous attention to the narrative that extends from a key image of the River Ogwr as a stream at its source, on through his photographs that take us on down through the valley passing villages and towns on the way, ending where the river discharges into the sea. However, this is not some simple journey along the riverbank, rather, the photographs carry us in and around the environs through which the river travels and on into a world of the photographer’s imagination. Some photographs draw out the peculiarities of various valley landscapes whilst others show found objects that can be seen to represent a casual archaeology of the river itself. Importantly, there are the portraits of apparently arbitrary people who populate these riverlands including young children, a number of thirty-somethings, and members of the older generations. Sometimes they stare into the camera, sometimes they gaze elsewhere. There is no context to indicate their relevance to the river – but then, no one in the valley is ever really that far away from it. For all the apparent randomness of these characters, many are in fact connected to the photographer in some way. For those who follow the photographer on social media it becomes clear many of those in the photographs are part of his life – the child walking across a rooftop carpark, for example, is his son. Whilst texts are minimal, they do play an important role in the book with an introduction by Rachel Trezise placing the book in its Welsh context with her own personal observations acting as a counterpoint to the photographs. There is a contemporary poem by Rhian Edwards as well as a photograph of a stain-damaged sheet of paper with an extract from Rape of the Fair Country by Alexander Cordell which ends ‘Plundered is my country, violated, raped!’ Black was the river, you see represents Dan Wood’s feeling towards the oppression of the region by those earlier industrialists who, taking their profits, left behind forgotten and neglected communities.

Huw Alden Davies’ Scaffold to the Moon takes a decidedly different form with its eclectic and, at times, comedic mix of photographic portraits, ephemera, texts, recollections and a written narration by the photographer himself. The protagonist of the book is the photographer’s father, better known as ‘Prince’. An early text by Pearl, the photographer’s mother, provides a recollection of her and Prince when they were ‘just kids’ lying in the road looking into the night sky after a visit to the pub. We are provided with an insight into the book’s title and through the following pages we are taken on a largely chronological journey to the present. Prince’s own personally narrated stories are incorporated within the substantive text that itself weaves in and around the images in the book – Prince’s stories are laugh-out-loud funny and show him to be, shall we say, obsessive and eccentric. Photographs of ephemera such as Prince’s operator licences for the various pieces of heavy industrial plant he has operated during his lifetime, along with his social club membership cards, provide evidence that there is substance to the weirdly wonderful situations he describes in his stories. The book shows us what is essentially a world of interiors not just literally in the photographs of Prince’s garden shed, greenhouses and home, but also a strikingly resilient emotional condition that has held Prince and his family together decade after decade. The photographer’s portraits of his father extend this sense of inner tension, most often depicting Prince and his world in some kind of twilight zone. Huw Alden Davies is clear that the book is as much about hope as it is about the innate hardiness of many working people in Wales. His closing comments suggests that those looking at the book should ‘lose themselves for a moment… that sometimes it is okay to let go. To not care, to be silly, to be free, have fun.’

It is not the intention here to review these books nor judge their relative merits, rather, it is to show how they provide a platform for each of the photographers to express something meaningful about their own lives in Wales. We see in each a different approach to storytelling that has at one and the same time elements of autobiography whilst reflecting much of a contemporary Welsh experience. Dan Wood and Huw Alden Davies have rejected the all too easy trope in photography of extending into the present a defining condition of the industrial experience; a fight fought and lost, again and again, with its resultant and pervasive sense of defeat. Instead, we see lives being lived in ways that might prompt us to recall The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes where it is noted that ‘Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.’ The lives these photographers illuminate are each imbued with a Welsh cultural specificity that emanates from the shed clad with signage representing a dragon drinking Guinness, or the utilitarian blocks of flats stranded in an unmistakeable Valleys landscape replete with hills and fir trees. The combined elements in each of these books evoke a very specific and contemporary structure of feeling, which is not to say that the historical experience is ignored – of course, that would be impossible. For example, the T&E object found on the banks of the Ogwr is a reminder of the great Welsh religious revivals and the drive to Temperance that brought Thomas & Evans of Porth to manufacture and sell non-acholic drinks. In our present we are likely to be familiar with the place where those drinks were made, now known as the Pop Factory, a cultural setting for music, media and the arts in the Valleys.

That photography in Wales is finding its own authentic voice seems assured. Its future reach across Wales and beyond could be enhanced through greater institutional engagement with the works of photographers such as Dan Wood, Huw Alden Davies and their contemporaries. A more strategic and sustained approach to the support and development of contemporary photographers would do much to enhance understandings of our collective selves and our place in the world. The larger national organisations mentioned above do indeed continue their investment in promoting photography, but each has its own focus in terms of emphasis – arguably this has not always been to the benefit of photographers making new work in Wales. This has resulted in a growing cohort feeling somewhat disenfranchised and turning elsewhere to find support. It is these photographers who are developing new channels through which their work, with its nuanced reflections on the experience of living in contemporary Wales, is being taken to national and international audiences. The photobook is increasingly playing a key role and has become the vehicle of choice to this end. Whatever the reason, it seems that many photographers in Wales are now doing it for themselves, and to their credit, they are discovering that they can do it very well indeed.

© Paul Cabuts

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