‘Byland’ is a series of photographs looking at St Davids, Christina William’s homecity in Pembrokeshire, west Wales. Christina explains, “It is Britain’s smallest city and lies at the most western point in mainland Wales. St Davids is steeped with historical, religious and topographical elements that have over time altered its identity and shaped a very specific visual representation.
While studying my masters at the University of Wales at Newport I became interested in the photographic representation of Wales. As until recently it was predominantly based on industry and focusing on the South Wales Valley or the rural idealised landscape.
I’m interested in the visual rural ideal and how photography and the tourist go hand-in-hand. Having been brought up in St Davids, I find it difficult to relate to the tourist idyllic visions and the reality that I recognise.
While having been brought up in the tourist and framing peninsular of St Davids, my vision of Welsh photographic representation came from the tourist’s postcards, and brochures. Neither vision of Wales embodied how I felt about the place or how I see Wales.
My work looks at the spaces, empty landscapes and local people normally overlooked by the tourists’ lens. This project is equally as subjective as the postcard ideal but offers my vision as a local in a documentary tradition.”
‘Byland’ is currently on display in The Tower in Oriel Y Parc, St Davids until the 4th of November and is funded by the Arts Council of Wales.
Dr Paul Cabuts is currently the Academic Subject Leader for Photography for the University of Wales. Based in South Wales Cabuts explores the ever expanding genre of “Documentary Photography” with the core of his work focusing on the Valleys. The use of repetition and typological process plays heavily within Cabuts work as he explores the theme of cultural identity and surroundings within these small communities. His current work in progress, titled ‘Poles‘ explores the notion of an evolving culture that now, more than ever, influences the landscape of political and social change. With Poles being at the centre of Cabuts images we are presented with a typology of easily ignored landmarks in which they are featured with the upmost importance. “The photographs can tell us as much about their neighbours as about the poles themselves.”
‘The development of the cultural and political landscape within Wales’ seems to be a theme amongst your work, could you talk about your interest in the subject?
“I was initially motivated to take up photography through an examination of the differences between my personal experiences of living and working in the Valleys, and the way in which they had been represented in photography and other media. I found that the often two-dimensional and reductive representations of people and place did not accurately represent the richly diverse and vibrant culture that existed around me. I cannot pretend that my own work captures the complexity of an ever-changing society and culture. I do however attempt to disrupt the flow of imagery that often perpetuates a limited and often fictional view of the Valleys.
By making contemporary work with a focus on memory, personal experiences and a personal understanding of history, I am challenging long-established views propagated by dominant cultural and political forces. It is the case that the link between photography and politics in the Valleys has historically been strong. In the first half of the twentieth century, the society of south Wales was one of those most devastated through the vagaries of laissez faire capitalism and also, because of this, became one of the most visualized. The dynamics of this society and its associated politics attracted left-wing photographers from across Britain and Europe to document the impact of capitalism on society. Later, the Valleys became the subject for photographers and filmmakers responding to the emerging dominance of American culture, in particular the development of consumerism. Often sentimental in tone, many of the characterizations produced reflected a rapidly changing world and subsequently focused on traditional, not contemporary, life at that time. These images still have a powerful hold on the psyche of many.
As heavy industry disappeared (polite word for ‘was ripped’) from south Wales through the late 1980s and 1990s it became less easy to express cultural specificity. Post-industrial society became increasingly shaped by an expanding global consumerism that subsequently homogenized much around it. The strategies I apply when making work responds to this in differing ways – arguably more of a challenge than a response, albeit a modest one. Not least my survey, which has extended over two decades, continues to explore the residual, emergent and oppositional cultural elements relating to a society radically shaped by the systems and processes of continually expanding free market economies.”
Could you talk briefly about the process of photographing Poles. A typological survey provides viewers with the ability to compare easily, was this one of your motives for photographing this way?
“I have of course been aware of the capacity for the typological approach to provide fascinating insights into the unique qualities of even the most ubiquitous of structures. However, I was fascinated by the fact that when Bernd & Hilla Becher made their work in the Valleys they found it extremely difficult to suppress the surrounding landscape. It is the case that the dominance of the hills in the narrow Valleys often vied with the structures they were recoding. For me contemporary landscapes embody memory, experience and history so I have actively sought to give them equal importance to the structures documented in my own photographs. These two components provide differing points of reference, differing stories to be told – when brought together in the frame, and then within a series, they resonate with a new significance that they might not otherwise have had.
The poles in contemporary Wales support new and rapidly evolving communication technologies that carry significantly more private traffic than in the past. Accessibility to the digital transfer of knowledge and information has not only benefitted developments in commerce, but also challenged the stasis of inclusion and exclusion, continuity and change, emancipation and oppression – in short; it has potentially enhanced the capacity for political and social change. Whilst responding to the political, economic and cultural significance of these utilitarian objects, they are clearly placed in a context with its own culturally specific points of reference. These relations therefore suggest a particular place and time whilst referencing both local and universal concerns.”
What is your opinion of the current cultural landscape (photographic or otherwise) within Wales?
“These are interesting yet challenging times for Wales’ culture – certainly a good time to be a photographer making work in Wales. Multicultural Wales acknowledges its complexities and is certainly more inclusive than it has been in the past. The arts have continued to develop despite a largely hostile cultural and economic environment. Thankfully there are currently many interesting emerging photographer/artists in Wales and there is a confidence in what they do. The challenges remain. I believe it is important that photography should be used to promote individual and collective engagement in the pursuit of social justice within Wales and beyond. Photography can provide a voice that can challenge and enhance the society in which we live.”
In the summer of 2011 Alicia Bruce was one of three artists commissioned to take up the first residency in Ffotogallery’s re-launched Valleys project. Two years later, a selection of the work was exhibited at the inaugural Diffusion: Cardiff International Festival of Photography. I spoke to Alicia about the residency, Diffusion, and how the body of work sits with her now.
Alicia was invited to work in Blaenavon, a small ex-mining town in the valleys of South Wales. In describing the residency work, Alicia uses the words Blaenavon, community and land.
The starting point for the residency in Alicia’s first proposal was the William Dyce painting ‘Welsh Landscape with Two Women Knitting’, which is described as a celebration of Welsh rural life; depicting two women in traditional costume upon a hillside. ‘I proposed to use this artwork as a starting point as it draws parallels with my own heritage….Dyce was, like myself, originally from Aberdeen, Scotland, and came to Wales for his health and a change of air in 1860. The area immediately captivated the artist. I wished to question the romanticised view of this painting and hold a mirror up to The Valleys in 2011’.
Welsh Landscape with Claire and Jenny
The image inspired by this particular painting, Welsh Landscape with Claire and Jenny, was exhibited at Diffusion as part of The Valleys Re-Presented exhibition. Seeing the photograph within the group exhibition and outside of the series within which it exists, altered the meaning of the work for Alicia. ‘The portrait within that exhibition became a feminine emblem in what was a predominantly male and industrial show.’ On reflection I also agree, particularly when the image was viewed opposite Jeremy Deller’s So Many Ways to Hurt You.
Sheila Hawkins, Hawkins Corn Store
Other images from the same series, including Sheila Hawkins – in Wales and George Spencer – The Etcher, have yet to be shown publicly, until now. The process of re-staging historic paintings from the National Museum’s collection was fascinating to witness (I should add here that I was Alicia’s assistant during the residency). On being asked why she adopts this approach, Alicia says ‘Through appropriating paintings from local collections I aim to re-frame the everyday and give that same attention which was traditionally reserved for ‘the great and the good’ to everyday people. It allows the photographs to become familiar and unfamiliar, to contain something both past and present. Selecting a painting as a starting point also opens up a dialogue with the people I’m photographing, which brings a collaborative element to the process.’
Scream to a Sigh, Blaenavon Workman’s Hall
Alicia’s work exhibited at Diffusion also included the solo exhibition Encore at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, which presented a collective of individual portraits of the Blaenavon Male Voice Choir, overlooking portraits of a young group of musicians who were photographed directly after performing at the Blaenavon Workmen’s Hall. I fondly remember the evening Alicia photographed the Male Voice Choir, my job being to encourage each sitter to adopt the pose in Daniel Maclise’s painting John Orlando Parry (1810-1879). The work has a particular resonance alongside the younger musicians, speaking about the individual characters within groups, whilst also addressing the passing of time, industries and traditions in Blaenavon. In the Big Pit, Blaenavon’s coal mine; it’s now the last generations of coal miners leading the tours down to the coalface.
Blaenavon Male Voice Choir
Reflecting on the residency, Alicia says that she would like to one day come back to Wales and continue developing the work. In the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, the Male Voice Choir appeared static, silent and this is something Alicia hopes to address; ‘I’d like the next presentation of Encore to take place in Blaenavon Workman’s hall with sound and if anyone can assist in making this happen I would be incredibly grateful!’. I think it would be wonderful if the work could return to Blaenavon and be exhibited within the community that it was made, particularly when one considers that for Alicia, the work is all about Blaenavon, its people and land.
“The work is presented as diptychs, a hangover from childhood when I would stare at landscapes first through the left eye and then through the right, delighted by the differences in the two views”, Brian David Stevens. Flintshire
“I vividly remember doing this as a kid, and feeling that same enchantment, the excitement that comes with looking out at the world and all its potential. As an adult these seascapes bring a certain calm and reassuring balance, a fresh perspective on emptiness.” Conway
“In his book The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald describes the sea anglers along the shore near Lowestoft; he writes: ‘I do not believe that these men sit by the sea all day and all night so as not to miss the flounder rise or the cod come in to shallower waters, as they claim. They just want to be in a place where they have the world behind them, and before them nothing but emptiness.’
This emptiness was what I set out to observe on my series Brighter Later; of course emptiness can mean many things, but to me it was a space wanting to be filled, a space of optimism and possibilities. Looking out to sea you truly are looking into the future, seeing the weather and the waves that will at some point arrive at the shores of this island, you predict their inevitable, unstoppable approach.
You look out rather than look in. Carmarthenshire
As an island race we have always looked out; to find food from the sea, to find opportunity to trade, to find adventure, and to find ourselves.
The project had to be a journey, following the coastline of Britain taking in the coastal counties and producing a seascape from each. Each frame reflects the northern light and muted tones of our island.” Glamorgan
Why did you call it Brighter later?
“It comes from the shipping forecast ‘turning squarly, brighter later’ and gives the idea of something in the future to be positive about. I wanted it to be optimistic, hopeful. Whenever you photograph the sea you are photographing the future, generally the weather comes rolling in at you from the sea, so you are photographing what is to come. I like that idea of turning away from our insular life, there is too much navel gazing.” Denbighshire
What did you get from ‘looking out’?
“It makes me more comfortable about where I’m from, gives you a sense of place, and grounding.” Gwynedd
What were some of your favourite encounters along the way?
“I suppose Barry is quite grim to a lot of people but I just loved it. I loved finding out un-expected things like Fred West’s, ashes were scattered in Barry and I’ve found out randomly that witch burnings have happened in the places I’ve shot, especially in Scotland. You know Scotland have burned more witches than any other country in the world. One of my favourite shooting spots in Wales was Llandudno where I came across Professor Codman’s Punch and Judy Show, running since 1860 and I recommend it thoroughly.”