‘From the mid 1950s my family went on holiday to Rhyl on the North Wales coast. The heyday of this resort seems to me to be the 1960s when I was taken to Rhyl as a small child. My family took snapshot photographs and made short cine films to record our time at Rhyl and along the North Wales coast. Perhaps this was the starting point for my own photographs of Rhyl that I began to make in the mid 1980s when I was a student at Newport Art College in South Wales.’
‘Influenced by the documentary tradition at Newport I walked along the seafront to map out the topography of this place. The photographs concentrated on the location rather than the people, much in the style of the British photographer Ray Moore. Over the following decade I would return to the resort to continue this exploration of the resort as it slowly crept in to decline.’
This archive of photographs was exhibited at Rhyl Arts Centre titled: ‘Postcards from Rhyl’ in 2006, which also showed in a different format at Oriel Colwyn in 2013 (re-titled: ‘Shifting Sands’).
As John K Walton explains, ‘Stephen Clarke’s exhibition at Colwyn Bay, a portrayal of changing perceptions and experiences of the nearby resort of Rhyl between the 1960’s and the turn of the millennium, offers a sharper, more obviously critical, more unforgiving angle of vision on what has gone wrong across parts of the British holiday coastline during those years. His approach communicates a sense of loss and desolation, through the juxtaposition of ‘before’ and ‘after’.’
‘Before’ is focused on the 1960’s, and sometimes earlier, because the presentation through colour postcards includes images from the 1950s, signposted most obviously by the vehicles visible in street scenes, a reminder that postcards sometimes had quite a long shelf life in the shops. The cards are adapted to display textual insertions from the Ward Lock guidebooks of the time, providing demographic detailed information and the eulogistic descriptions of the locality for the literate and self-improving holidaymaker, and certain illustrations are carried over from one illustration to the next. They also contain images from the address and message side of the card, superimposed on the picture.’
‘After’ takes the form of a separate series of black and white photographs. They show facades and frontages of buildings, alongside occasional beach scenes and isolated advertising figures of promotional fantasy, but with colour and most of the life leached out. The contrasts are arresting and disturbing.’
‘The postcard pictures are lush, soft and alluring in their bright colours. They depict scenes from the traditional family holiday which created its apogee and the climax of its democratic popularity in the post-Second World War generation, adapting nineteenth-century motifs for the new working-class markets of holidays with pay, in the final flush of the long heyday of Victorian and post-Victorian industrial certainties.’
‘Clarke’s black and white photographs contrast starkly with this sense of comfort and security. This suggested contrast reflects widespread perceptions of the decline of the British seaside, along with the industries, which supplied its reliable contingents of annual holidaymakers since the 1970s, as old ways of life fragmented and the lure of cheap flights to the Mediterranean prevailed.’
Last year photographs of the now demolished fairground, Ocean Beach, were published by Café Royal Books. This photobook will be accompanied by a new publication this summer that looks at Rhyl’s promenade. Pictures from this second book featured in the recent Carlisle Photo Festival.
Stephen Clarke is an artist, writer and lecturer based in the North West.
John K Walton has recently retired from the post of IKERBASQUE Research Professor at the University of the Basque Country UPV/EHU, Vitoria – Gasteiz, Spain.
John K Walton’s text was from ‘Walton, J. K., (2013) ‘Shifting Sand: Photographs by Stephen Clarke’, The Royal Photographic Society Contemporary Photography Journal, 52 (Summer), pp. 9-13.’
Hirael is a portrait of the Hirael district of Bangor in North Wales in the 1970’s by photographer Garry Stuart.
‘Between 1972 and 1976 I ran the University Photography Society, which I had renamed Photoworkshop, while being a student at the School Of Plant Biology UCNW Bangor. I photographed for the student newspaper Forecast documenting demos in London and more importantly for me getting into music gigs for free to shoot all the bands that played Bangor. In between lectures and often instead of lectures I tramped around the streets of Bangor shooting street scenes.’
‘I worked weekends and holidays in Royston Photographic Camera owned by Ronnie Aggett who really mentored me and showed me his photographic book collection. We had many discussions on photographic styles during the store’s quieter moments. I don’t remember getting paid as such. Ronnie just allowed me to take film, paper and chemicals in lieu of wages which was fine by me.’
‘The North Wales Chronicle ran a couple of stories on my photo documenting of Bangor. In the article I rather pompously declared that the County Archives should be helping document contemporary Wales rather than publishing the touristy ‘Hen Bangor’ ‘Hen Caernarfon’, etc (‘Hen’ meaning old). As a result the Gwynedd County Archivist Bryn Parry got in touch and agreed to help me out with film and photographic paper. The North Wales Association for the Arts also gave me a small grant for photographic materials.’
‘Now I had to back up what I’d said in the local newspaper which focused my attention on what I was doing. I decided to concentrate on photographing a sub section of Bangor. Hirael had a character all of its own and an island of terraced streets which had connections to the Penrhyn Slate Quarries and Port Penrhyn where most of the locals had worked until the demand for Welsh slate had diminished.’
‘Many of the terraced stone cottages were being boarded up and the tight knit population were being relocated to awful 1950s flats and the nearby Maesgeirchen council estate which did not have a good reputation then. It represented a disappearing part of North Wales history so I decided to focus my attentions on this small area. I concentrated on photographing the older residents who formed the majority of the population. They freely invited me into their houses and gave me tea and biscuits or cake as is the Welsh custom.’
‘A selection of 40 prints were exhibited at Theatr Gwynedd in 1977 and Bangor County Council purchased all of the prints. Most of my Hirael work has never been seen and I hope that this can be rectified 40 years later with an exhibition in 2016 in North Wales.’
This blog post looks at Without Words: The Photographs of Geoff Charles, a publication by the National Library of Wales with text by Russell Roberts and Peter Finnemore. The newspaper style publication asks us to re-examine the work of the photojournalist Geoff Charles whose extensive collection is held by the National Library.
“Newspapers are essentially ephemeral. They are often read then discarded, left on trains and buses, re-purposed, thrown away, forgotten. Such photographs found within their pages are rarely remembered beyond these associated with major historical or scandalous events, the rest belong to the traffic of familiar or eminently forgettable news stories. Without Words offers a slower contemplation of an encounter that was originally, in most cases, a fleeting experience with a half-tone illustration in a newspaper. By presenting them here in a new light, we invite audiences to think differently about one of the most ephermal forms of photography in the case of the extensive and singular career of the photographer Geoff Charles (1909-2002).”
Women’s Institute Folk Festival at Margam Park, 1951
Ellesmere Carnival, 1955
“Born in Brymbo near Wrexham, Geoff Charles later studied Journalism at the University of London. He initially worked for local newspapers in Wales and England during the late 1920’s and early 30s. Charles then returned to his home around 1934 with a position on the Wrexham Star. Following its closure in 1936, his attention turned to photography. For the next 40 years he devoted his professional life to capturing the unexpected dramas, civic ceremonies, traditions, modernisation and general fabric of everyday life in North and Mid-Wales and the Borders.”
Group of Americans on a visit to Dyffryn Ogwen, 1952
Clown, Orthopaedic Hospital, Gobowen, 1956
“As a regular photographer for Y Cymro and Montgomeryshire Express amongst others, Geoff Charles left an extensive visual map that historically reflects a deep but shifting value system in the life of a nation. There are recurring themes associated with the day to day to meet the diet of expected news stories, but also images that raise questions as to what Wales was, is and might be.”
Carrion birds caught by Mr T Mitchell, 1942
“The Geoff Charles Collection, held by the National Library of Wales, consists of over 120,000 negatives and is a powerful resource in the wider, unfolding story of the significance of photography in Wales. In Without Words, we have used various media to open up Geoff Charles’ photographs to a different kind of inspection.”
Ellesmere Carnival, 1955
Young boy at the Aberaman Miners’ Training Centre, 1951
“The resulting selection celebrates the unseen and known dimensions of the Geoff Charles Collection. These images removed from their original context can still be incredibly direct about the world around us but also mysterious fragments of it. Ultimately, Without Words offers a fresh perspective in order to make the richness and wider potential of these photographs better known and understood. It is an invitation to a different kind appreciation of Geoff Charles’ photographs, and a call to invigorate thinking about national histories through such images”.