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Outlook: Contemporary Photographs and Collective Memories.

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Roehampton University Symposium 2009
If one were asked to conjure up a mental image of the south Wales Valleys it would almost certainly feature some of the characteristics contained within the photograph of three miners taken by the great ‘humanist’ photographer Eugene Smith in 1950. This image became a key element of my larger research study in which I considered the development of the photographic arts relating to the Valleys. The study suggested that the intense mass media attention given to the Valleys during the years of the Depression had shaped the photographic output of the early post-war photographers visiting the Valleys such as Eugene Smith. These in turn produced influential photographs that would become the template for many subsequent visiting photographers who were working in the rapidly developing contexts of the photographic art.

I believed that this template was only fully rejected in the early 1990s at a time when the industrial society of the Valleys had largely vanished, and photography found itself increasingly moving toward the centre of contemporary visual arts. I was an emerging photographic practitioner ‘interested in the Valleys’ during the 1990s, but found myself largely working in a kind of photographic wilderness. It is the case that the dynamic place that Eugene Smith had photographed with emotional intensity in 1950, was by the 1990s entropic and of little interest to anyone except those who lived there. It seems that the significance of the industrial past, and the almost constant reference to it in Wales’ cultural institutions, its media, and indeed in the collective memories of its population, can at times overwhelm the less prominent voices of progress and change in contemporary Wales.

I became interested in alternative histories and the potential they could offer to resist the collective stereotypes of the Valleys. My own photographic work has acted as an index to earlier photographic practices such as those of the South Wales Electrical Power Distribution Company, who documented the establishment of the National Grid in the region during the 1920s. Their progressive photographs offer the antithesis of the more visible photographs of the Valleys during the Depression. My work records aspects of the Valleys as they are today and indicates that there have been significant histories other than those relating to the dominant coal industry. In doing so there is also a suggestion that the processes engendering the hegemony of dominant history should, wherever possible, be examined. My engagement with another collection of photographs from the 1920s would reveal how the currency of photographs can shift as they move between private, commercial and public spheres.

The contemporary photographic project Outlook focused on a series of roads that had been built in the 1920s to improve the communications networks in the Valleys. I was interested in the ways in which these routes had been represented in various media in the past, including the pre-industrial period. In 1804, Benjamin Heath Malkin published the book, The Scenery, Antiquities and Biography of South Wales – The Parish of Ystrad y fodwg. In it he described his journey up the Rhondda Valley, which led him along the route of the current A4061 road. He describes a lush and verdant valley that becomes more dramatic towards its northern end, "…the mountains the most wild and romantic… [the landscape] is the highest degree of the picturesque... The path up the mountain, which is the highest in Glamorganshire, is winding and difficult… [but] this view… well repays the labour of the journey to those who affect the grander scenes of nature. On gaining the summit, the freshness of the breeze, [and] the extensive view of the mountain valley…bring to mind the best descriptions of Alpine scenery, though on an inferior scale".

However, the struggle between dominant histories and those arguably less so are always near the surface. As historian Professor Dai Smith suggested in 1993, "When we read Malkin we can dream, as generations of Rhondda schoolchildren did, of the mythical squirrel who could leap from tree to tree without ever touching the ground between Porth and Blaenrhondda; yet that is to conjure up a Rhondda which never existed as a fully peopled settlement. The Rhondda of the imagination, is one that feeds on the later reality of the world’s most significant coal-mining patch". Dai Smith makes the point that coal defines the Rhondda of the imagination.

It is also possible to compare Malkin’s visually descriptive account with a report produced in 2001, commissioned by CADW: the Welsh Assembly Government's historic environment division, which describes the very same landscape somewhat more objectively. "Upland mountain sheepwalk, partially forested; multi-period and multi-functional landscape; prehistoric settlement and funerary landscape; early communication corridor; Roman and medieval military structures; early medieval administrative boundaries; medieval upland settlement; post-medieval industrial landscape; relict upland agricultural landscape". The historic landscape area of Rhondda Uplands is a landscape of some importance, with a variety of surviving archaeological features displaying considerable time-depth. It therefore appears that the route taken by Malkin was a well-trodden one and had been in use for thousands of years.

The suggestion by French historian, Fernand Braudel, that “A true history is composed of a multiplicity of times: geographical, social and biological” is one that is visible in my photograph of the A4061 with Pen-pych and Mynydd Blaenrhondda in the background. The 3 speeds of time can be seen; the geographical history of the valley itself formed in the ice age, the social history of the transport route, and the biological history of those currently using it and maintaining it. It has been suggested that “History is the reconstruction of what is no longer” and that “Memory is Life”. My understanding of the ‘road’ as a concept (like anyone else that has experienced American culture through books, film and television) is that it symbolises non-conformity and an individual search for freedom. For me growing up in the Valleys it was Fonda, Hopper, and Nicholson’s famous search for America in the film Easy Rider that resonated the most. My use of these roads as a teenager to ‘escape’ the Valleys to go on ‘hitch-hiking’ tours was a key motivational force in undertaking this photographic project.

A very significant contribution to the project came from the photographs taken of the roads as they were built. Produced as a record of the construction of the roads, a series of photographic albums were presented to the key figures involved in establishing the roads by the contractors who built them. The albums are themselves interesting in that they raise questions about how their journey from commission to museum collection reflects upon the use of, and shifting attitudes toward, photography.

Five Inter Valley Roads were constructed between 1925 and 1929 with the cost for their construction being shared between Glamorganshire County Council and the Ministry of Transport. A report in The Times of the 4th February 1928 stated the following, "Colonel Wilfred Ashley, Minister of Transport, opened at Cwmparc today the first completed section of the Inter-Valley road, which is being made in Mid-Glamorgan. This work, which was started for the relief of unemployment, will involve the construction of 37 miles of new road and is estimated to cost more than Four Hundred Thousand Pounds".

The leather bound photographic albums have embossed covers, which vary from album to album with a typical example being:
With the compliments of Dare, Atkin and Company Ltd, Public Works Contractors, 75 Victoria Street, Westminster, SW1. Each of the five albums, now held at the National Museum Wales, contains a map and between 10 and 30 photographs of a specific road scheme.

The album containing information about the Bwlch-Y-Clawdd scheme includes:
23 photographs of road works
5 photographic portraits of the senior engineers (Government Staff)
3 photographic portraits of the contractors (Company Directors)
4 group portraits of the engineers (Government Staff and Company Directors)

It is clear that the album firmly places the public engineers and the private contractors central to the success of this ambitious scheme. It is interesting to note that this publicly funded road building project, in the decade before America’s ‘New Deal’, is documented by ‘commercial’ photographers whose imperative was to show the grandeur of the roads, rather than the dogged character of those previously unemployed workers who physically built them.

The Bwlch-Y-Clawdd album described above is embossed with: Major Sam Evans, Bwlch-Y-Clawdd, 3rd February 1928. It was noted here and elsewhere that Major Sam Evans, the Divisional Road Engineer, was a key figure in the planning and construction of the Road scheme. Embossed with the date of the opening of this road, it can be assumed that the album would have been presented to him during the opening celebrations, which witnessed the presenting of several gifts, including a cigarette lighter in the shape of a dragon to the Minister of Transport. The Times also noted that many key figures attended the ceremony including Ramsey MacDonald.

The albums subsequent accession to the National Museum of Wales collection was made in 1949. However, it was not until 1959 that the museum established a Department of Industry to collect and record in the fields of industry, maritime trade, and transport. This had been a response to the massive changes to Welsh industry in the post-war period. The albums had been donated by Miss B Evans of Whitchurch, Cardiff. Miss Evans is likely to have been a relative of Major Sam Evans and probably wished to pass these potentially interesting documents to a national institution on his demise. The maps in the albums are intriguing for a two reasons; firstly their dates coincide with the album’s accession to the museum collection and secondly, they appear to be primarily produced for the purpose of showing precisely where the photographs in each of the albums were taken.

It seems likely that the museum, with its significant interest in collecting art and specimens of natural history, would have been less inclined to accept the offer of the albums and may have applied conditions to the accession (although Miss Evans may have simply done this without being prompted). Either way, it appears that the photographs themselves, originally taken to show the glory of the road in the landscape, and not to illustrate specific engineering techniques, needed to function in a more empirical way if the museum were to accept them. The addition of the maps, clearly highlighting the locations of the photographs, transformed the albums from a collection of ‘best views’ into a form more akin to that of a survey. It is the journey of these the corporate photographic gifts, to private individuals, and then on to the ‘public’ institutional collection, that reveals much about the varying attitudes toward photography during the period.

I am interested in the ways in which others have perceived the Valleys. I was particularly taken by a speech given by the Minister of Transport to the House of Commons following his visit to open the newly constructed roads. "A work of social reform………..The ultimate effect of this improved communication on the lives and characters on the large populations cannot be assessed. The continual broadening of outlook through all generations that will inhabit the Valleys may be expected as long as roads are used for human travel".

(Outlook Photograph – Roadside Flowers)
In the photograph which shows bunches of flowers fixed to a roadside mesh, we see a Site of Special Scientific Interest that is in the process of being destroyed. The wire netting, which was installed to stop rocks from falling onto the road, is also inhibiting the growth of the unique flora and fauna on the rock-face. This brings with it another reading to those rather tired floral tributes.

(Outlook Photograph – Cwmparc Sign & Boulders)
There is a lack of appropriate signage on the roads for several reasons… In considering Cwm Parc, for example, the word Cwm refers to the semi-circular hollow formed by glacial erosion on the rocks at the end of the valley. However, Cwm is also used in the Welsh language to denote ‘valley’. In English, Cwm Parc literally means the ‘Park Valley’; it is perhaps no surprise that the landscape in this photograph is noted in the CADW survey as once being a medieval hunting park.

(Outlook – Richard Price Memorial)
When the American colonists rose in rebellion against the English crown, their most vocal supporter in Britain was a nonconformist minister from Llangeinor near Bridgend who proclaimed himself a “citizen of the world”. Richard Price came to prominence preaching in the leading radical non-conformist chapels in south Wales and London. He argued that governments held their power in trust for the people and were not instruments of some divine authority. The Kings of England, he maintained, were legitimate monarchs only because they ruled by the consent of the people following the 1688 Bill of Rights. Price asserted that the revolutionaries of France and the American colonies were merely asserting the same principle. In his History of Wales, Dr John Davies describes Price as “the most original thinker ever born in Wales”. It is the beguiling awfulness of this 21st Century marker-cum-galvanized-pedestrian-barrier at the end of the Blackmill to Llangeinor Inter-valley road that moved me to photograph it. Price’s death was marked in France by a day of national mourning.

In their book Picturing Place; Photography and the Geographical Imagination, Joan Schwartz and James Ryan discuss the role of photography in the way we see, we remember, we imagine and we picture, place. They argue that, "Photography [is] a socially constructed, culturally constituted, and historically situated practice, and photographs [are] visual images, historical documents and material objects". Certainly, the research I undertook for the Outlook project bears this out and suggests that the currency of the historical photographs shifted on their journey through differing spheres.

I suggest that my photographic project brings together and interprets both ‘history’ and ‘memory’. It is understood that like history, memory can be vulnerable to appropriation and manipulation. In many ways, projects like this one have the potential to act as a catalyst for the regeneration of collective memories. The Outlook photographs then, not only record the Valleys as they are today, but also offer a potential to reconfigure the past.

The historical photographic albums are still held by the National Museum Wales, in storage at its National Collection Centre. Currently, there are no plans to put them on public display.

© Paul Cabuts