The tenet driving me to make my work has been the slippage between my experience of growing up in the Rhondda in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and the way it has been represented by various media including writing, film and photography. The work I undertake is, in part, produced to reveal the structures underpinning the media surfaces that have become the prevailing windows on this particular world.
From the time that William Henry Fox Talbot made what was probably the first successful photograph in Wales in 1839 at Margam Castle, the camera’s ability to record that which is set before it has been exploited. That is, the creation of an accurate delineation on paper (or silvered plate) that could be used by engineers, insurers and the like, to show, via optics and chemistry, what something looked like. The most effective way do this was to use the lens and viewpoint that most closely corresponded to that of the human eye, and to use low-contrast lighting enabling the greatest amount of detail to be revealed. The resulting ‘record shot’, whilst embraced by industry and commerce, was quickly discarded by those wishing to exploit photography for its pictorial and artistic possibilities. The largest proportion of photography’s history has been dominated by this latter trend. My work examines the point where these two divergent photographic practices, ‘record’ and ‘pictorial’, collide.
One of my most enduring memories of growing up in the Rhondda was a short bus journey to see my cousins in Maerdy when I was six years old. I was struck by the way the Valley looked on a crisp winter’s night; it seemed that the steep hills and the sky were joined by their darkness. Gazing up at the terraced housing I viewed how the streetlights pricked the darkness mirroring the stars above them, the only difference being the shift in colour from amber to electric blue. From the bus I could see these dots forming complex patterns, sometimes gathering on the Valley floor, sometimes twisting out towards the universe. These lights were joined by bright rectangles formed by lights shining through windows and open doors, some conforming to the lines of streetlights, others flashing at odd angles. The bus window fused reflection and non-reflection to make a kaleidoscope of shifting patterns - a memorable and totally magical experience. It is little wonder that many years later I found myself stunned and excited to encounter the work of Ernie Zobole and see in it the formative years of my life somehow rendered into two dimensions. Zobole’s paintings remain the truest representations of the Rhondda I have ever encountered.
The success of representation witnessed in Zobole’s paintings seems more difficult to achieve with photography. Perhaps this is because a painter’s work always seems inextricably linked to subjectivity. Photography however, has an objective nature in which there is a “transference of reality from the thing [the object set before the camera] to its reproduction” (Bazin, 1945). When photographing subjects in the Valleys, they are always framed by the Valleys, which in turn signify the recognisable and dominant past. It is difficult to get away from the influence of history when making my work. The absence and presence in a photograph, the bringing of the past into the present of the work, has the dangerous potential to lead to us towards the melancholy of the aesthetic of loss. Although the vast sweep of history does have its influence on the present, strategies have to be found to incorporate it into meaningful contemporary photographic work. Perhaps it is possible to reveal the latent, authentic histories residing in the fabric of the Valleys today without the stains of historical negativity. In discussing history, James Lingwood suggested that,
The ways in which the individual negotiates daily life and works through the systems and classifications which society imposes are no longer merely incidental. They carry with them the memories, and the accumulated experiences, of generations before them. They embody an unconscious of historical experience which exists below the signs and surfaces of the present (Lingwood. 1994).
In this exhibition the photographs record vernacular objects that resonate with a spiritual reality and their own specific histories. These recognisable features of contemporary Rhondda become referents to the struggle between the individual and society, the unique and the ubiquitous. Like Zobole, I view the world through a rectangular frame and contemplate it, and like him I wonder if I am viewing it as a detached observer or if I am seeing it from within.
© Paul Cabuts
BAZIN,A. (1945).The Ontology of the Photographic Image. In: What is Cinema Vol.1.(1967). Berkley: University of California Press.
LINGWOOD,J. (1994).Different Times. In: The Epic & The Everyday. London: Hayward Gallery.