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Photography Centre for Wales

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Planet Issue 150
Snapshots, family photos, photographs in newspapers and magazines and on advertising hoardings form a powerful visual backdrop to our lives. Indeed, it is photography's hybrid character that makes it so tantalisingly interesting and allows it to remain one of the most accessible and popular art forms. Most of us will have, at some time, taken photographs to record happy or memorable events. Indeed our desire to make visual records is no less diminished with the introduction of digital media, which continues to foreground our optical experience. Photography, in all its forms, remains central to contemporary life.

Wales not only has an increasingly vibrant contemporary photographic practice, but it also has a number of substantial historical archives, which contain unique visualisations of Wales and its people. Wales has also played a major role in photography, not least, through the work of the Victorian pioneers of the medium such as Reverend Calvert Richard Jones and John Dillwyn Llewellyn. In light of photography’s importance a plan to create a National Photography Centre for Wales is currently being considered and is reaching a critical stage at which the nature of the future development of photography in Wales will be decided.

In July 2001, photographers, artists, academics, curators, along with representatives from national institutions around Wales were invited to a forum at Margam Castle in Neath Port Talbot to view and discuss plans for the creation of a National Photography Centre for Wales. Cardiff based Ffotogallery has vigorously pursued the creation of such a Centre for a number of years and was successful during 1998 in obtaining funding from the Arts Council of Wales for a feasibility study, and subsequently obtained additional funding for a detailed development study in the Autumn of 2000. The study identified Margam Castle as offering the most “realisable” option for a Photography Centre for Wales with Ffotogallery and Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council (owners of the castle and surrounding park) being the major partners in the scheme.

Delegates at the Margam forum were introduced to the proposed project and were taken on a tour of the castle itself. One of the reasons why Margam Castle offers a unique opportunity for the development of photography in Wales is its association with the father of modern photography, William Henry Fox Talbot. Apart from Fox Talbot’s family ties with Margam the castle has it’s own place in photographic history. The earliest Welsh photograph that can be dated is a daguerreotype of Margam Castle taken by Calvert Jones on the 9th March 1841.

However interesting this may be, an argument for a Photography Centre for Wales cannot rest with the provenance of a building. As the discussions at Margam highlighted, there are many reasons why the Centre should be located there. (Significantly, many of the issues raised at the Margam forum echoed the debates about the display of contemporary art in Wales, which have been in progress for some considerable time).

Although Ffotogallery’s own work has largely been concerned with contemporary photography, it has consistently supported the idea of a centre combining the contemporary and historic aspects of photographic culture. Ffotogallery’s vision for the creation of a National Photography Centre for Wales identified three key areas of provision; local, national and international contemporary photography; historic photography in Wales; education, training and the provision of facilities for photographers. The form that such a centre would take to develop these areas include; galleries for temporary exhibitions, galleries for exhibiting historical Welsh photography, education and training facilities, digital and interactive archives, facilities for publishing, and facilities for the production of touring exhibitions.

Although Ffotogallery has been the main agency promoting photographic art in Wales other organisations have shown increasing support for the subject. These have included galleries such as Oriel Mostyn, Wrexham Arts Centre, Oriel 31, Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Glynn Vivian Gallery, Chapter Arts Centre and the National Museums & Galleries of Wales. Education has also proved a key element in the promotion of photography with courses across many levels of formal education in Wales. A number of agencies, including local authorities and community arts organisations, have likewise promoted photography through the provision of workshops, short courses and related activity.

To articulate the importance of understanding photography’s role in society during the past, the present and in the future is difficult. However, it needs to be addressed if we are to better understand ourselves and how others see us. Increased access to education and the democratisation of culture through new media offer Wales, perhaps for the first time, the chance to fully explore its photographic legacy. Importantly, these can also provide an opportunity for Wales to “picture” itself in the future. By placing a National Photography Centre at the hub of Wales’ photographic experience, we will have an agency that would help realise such ambitions.

During the coming months the Development Study considering the creation of such a centre at Margam Castle will reach a conclusion. The future of photography in Wales will not just depend on the outcome of this study, but also on a broad institutional willingness to embrace and fund this unique and significant arts project.

© Paul Cabuts