writing about photography
We like combining photography and text.
We like making space for converstaions about photography. We want people inspired by our exhibitions to write about them.
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We write for page 5 in the new Welsh language literary review, O’r Pedwar Gwynt.
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‘Aitch’ is a photograph from 2006 by Tony Stokes, part of his Valleys series, which he began in 2000. To begin with, it can be described as much in terms of abstract painting as of photography. With its flat areas of colour, its textures and an emphatic division of the frame, it is initially a photograph of surfaces. Abstract and minimalist painters have had a significant impact on Tony’s photographic work and in Aitch it shows.
It’s a real, but very ordinary and consequently very unusual, curiously fascinating, subject and not one that many photographers would either notice or think worthy of consideration. And yet it represents to me something approaching a perfect photograph, a beautifully crafted depiction of an outwardly uninteresting, almost dismal subject, fashioned by a very different way of looking. Like an alien photograph.
The black ‘H’ is on a yellow fire hydrant plate, attached to a wall at the corner of a street in Trehafod, South Wales. Between the grey tarmac kerb and pavement below, double yellow lines appear from below, then exit right. On the road is a metal hydrant cover, painted yellow and an unusually blank creamy yellow wall makes up almost half of the image, all resulting in a marked colour theme.
Tony was plainly conscious of this when he first saw and then considered the possibilities of a photograph. Making use of one dominant colour is not an unusual photographic approach and it’s said grey goes with everything and Tony does look for colour interest, but being the photographer and person he is, he went further, retaining the initial yellow idea but developing other compositional and conceptual elements.
Carefully considered and constructed, ‘Aitch’ is an image built simply out of an expanse of blank wall, the bend of a pavement on a street corner (a favoured theme) and some road markings. The cement-grey, hexagonal-sectioned wall on the other side of the road, with its own quite separate modular design, is also worthy of attention and contributes some harsh modernity, but remains inevitably an extra, a comparative bit-part player.
The result is something rather unlike a photograph, because of the nature of what it depicts. It’s a representation of what we can and can’t see, a corner and what’s just around the corner. It’s a present we can see and the future we can’t know. Somewhere we could but can’t go, the vertical edge of the wall acting as a sort of sealed, one dimensional slit, a wall behind which there is a cool depth into which I cannot put my hand. This is the tension and confusion that a photograph can create, by appearing but not being real.
It’s a curious, haunting and beguiling photograph of a seemingly one-off place that Tony, walking one day in Trehafod, happened to come across, as if it had fallen from above and been slotted into place just ahead of him. A mundane, but science fiction-like location, quite empty, that is lacking but somehow essentially full of humanity. It’s both random and functional, a corridor without a ceiling and outside, so how did it evolve and why? And is it really a one-off or are there other similar grey and one other colour street corners all over? I like to think it’s unique.
by Geoff Young, May 2018
In the making and remaking of a place, character is given by the actions of people, building, adapting, modifying. Buildings are the sites in which hopes, dreams and practical necessities are given tangible form. People are nowhere and everywhere in these images from the valleys, which reveal the many ways in which buildings are testimony to the endeavours of their inhabitants.
Mostly, buildings are made through a process of deliberate design, visible here for example in a one-off new build which seems precisely honed to the resources of the moment, pride and aspiration laid bare with almost painful clarity (New Build West of Cymer), or in environments made in some soul-less process of modern urban design, whose product is identikit houses and hard landscaping, seen here in houses not yet customised by their occupants (New Build, Brynmenyn; 36A-D Rhodfa Tanyrallt).
But most of the buildings here are already old, and their inhabitants are making an accommodation with the legacy of a different age. Time could have given anonymity to terraces built in the heyday of industrialisation more than a century ago – their builders and early occupants long-forgotten, but they are the setting for lives lived now, expressed in an artistry of adaptation and embellishment on the canvas of the original: Colour against the grey (Magpie’s Bush, for example), flowers against hard edges, patterns in plaster-work (Shovel Finish), windows like framed pictures (Horse).
House-fronts are public realm, so external decoration, or outward facing window displays are wordless proclamations to the passing outside world. But buildings are also used as sign-boards for more direct messages and explicit texts – signs both practical and instructive and imaginative (God is Love; Jesus is Lord; Fish; Baker, Aberaman). These signs and names express an investment of determined hope and belief - Fairy Tales and Happiness are possible, even here.
These photographs also take us beyond the limits of design – to the edge-lands ripe for colonisation with sheds and garages, where makeshift arrangements flourish, where there are improvisations with whatever comes to hand, assertions of identity, the clamour of difference (Garages, Cwmavon), and a loving attention (Garage, Garth).
Places are made and sustained by all these interventions, which go beyond making do to a gritty making the best of things. These images also record the processes of holding on, holding out, fending off decay in palimpsests of ingenious interventions, for example in garage doors that are collaged and stitched together. But time takes its toll - the letter slipped from a sign, faded and peeling paint, buildings that have outlived their usefulness (Filling Station, Cwm; Outbuildings, Glyn Corrwg). There’s a sadness in this decay, evidence of giving up, of former hopes betrayed (Civilisati; Panache).
Finally, Tony Stokes also remakes these places in the way he sees them and captures their character. He finds a kind of beauty in casual visual relationships that delight and amuse the eye, for example in the relationship of paint and gorse in 41 Treorchy, or the blue harmony of car and sign in No through road. He also registers both a dignity and a wit which might otherwise have gone unremarked.
Judith Alfrey, June 2018, article commissioned by fforogaleri y gofeb
The fallen branch bars entry, a diagonal struck through the way ahead. The only fallen branch, it lies wearily on the ground and obstructs the view beyond. The line of trees on the right are darker and dominate, while the lighter trees on the left and in the distance are seen whole, are more ethereal and passive compared to the lowering trees on the right, whose dark shapes gesture inwards and again discourage progress to the distant lightness. But this is a knowing narrative that relates to a sadness that befits the location and its terrible history.
We know that it does not embody a truth. Branches fall and trees are neither dominant nor ethereal and a photograph taken from beyond the branch would support another narrative. But we're looking at a photograph and this reading shows how it is possible to interpret such a photographic scene and how an experienced photographer can observe, pre-visualise an image and respond to that possibility. Peter Cattrell, in constructing this image, writes the scene for a viewer, versed in photography, to read and creates a fiction to represent a truth, a metaphor for the sadness that existed for him.
Given the tragic history of the landscape of the Somme, the photographer's task is to begin, somehow, to represent it in photographic terms, through observation and the use of the compositional tools available, tools based on cultural conventions that have developed in the visual arts, some that have become specific to documentary landscape photography, where the scene and all its elements is an accepted given. The fallen branch was a gift. Without it he would not have taken the photograph. It is the subject of the photograph.
Despite these conventions, a photograph remains a personal expression and another photographer, using the same tools, might respond differently. This is the uniqueness of photography, its blend of the mechanical instrument and the conventions of its use and the photographer's approach and how the resulting image is seen and read.
Peter Cattrell has been photographing the First World War landscape regularly since 1996. A great uncle of his, William Wyatt Bagshawe, died at the Somme and it has become a personal commitment for Peter to discover what he can about his relative, and what led up to his death, not just by researching archives, but by treading the same soil, breathing the same air and taking photographs. This image was part of an exhibition, Echoes of the Great War and his WWl photography has been shown in Dublin, Belfast, Sheffield, Durham, London, Edinburgh and now in Wales.
This is a beautifully rendered photograph, crafted at all of its stages with technical and aesthetic skills developed over many years and it can be viewed purely on that basis, in the subtle gradation from dark to light, with the harsh detail in the foreground trees leading to the softness of the distant ones that disappear to a white nothing. Without supporting text, it can only be seen as a beautiful but sombre view. It was recorded on a bitterly cold and misty day, by a photographer, much influenced by film director Andrei Tarkovsky and his evocative and sometimes surreal depictions of a postwar Russian landscape.
This avenue of trees was planted on what was once No Man's Land, an open and unprotected area between the two front lines that had to be crossed, under fire. It is the protection that soldiers did not have. It is also the route visitors use to reach several war cemeteries. Since the photograph was taken a tarmac road has been laid that enables visitors to drive through in their cars, so the view has changed once again and a fallen branch will no longer be allowed to block the way.
by Geoff Young
essay first appeared in Welsh in O'r Pedwar Gwynt, 2017
In 1935 Edith Tudor Hart took this photograph in Trealaw of women and men marching against the government's unemployment act and the threat of means testing. A year earlier she had married the doctor, Alexander Tudor Hart in Vienna, a marriage that also offered a means of escape from Austria's fascist repression to Britain. Her younger brother, Wolfgang Suschitsky followed.
Edith was born in 1908. Her parents had a socialist bookshop in Vienna's industrial Favoriten district. Surrounded by political books and pamphlets promoting rights for women, sex education and birth control she gravitated towards the practices of Montessori teaching, and to Dessau, to the Bauhaus, home of the photographic avant-garde. But, as fascism cast its shadow, Edith was drawn to documenting the social and political life of Vienna, its people, street demonstrations and living conditions. In 1934, Alexander joined a GP's practice in the Rhondda. The desperate human landscape here, simmering against capitalism and fascism, was more familiar than strange for her.
Historically and politically monumental, the march was 300,000 strong threading its way past terraces spreading down and up the sides of the valleys; the street's length marked by gas-lamps, telegraph poles, the distance lost in the fog of the industrial heartland. And a useful gate post of a perfect height for Edith to glance up from the viewfinder of her Rolleiflex camera into the faces of the people gathered there. Boys in caps and shorts, girls bundled up against the cold. Young and middle-aged women looking out from underneath umbrellas (the better to see and to be seen), their lively shapes adding to the pattern of upturned and curious, mostly smiling, faces. With everyone joining the march, the few onlookers leaning in doorways, arms folded, enjoying the spectacle, their routine pleasantly interrupted. The banner held aloft reads MID-RHONDDA WORKING WOMEN'S GUILD - WORKER'S WIVES AGAINST THE SL [ . . .] CT . Then lines of women, up to six deep, give way to the men, more tightly packed, a police constable dressed for the rain, another in the shadows. The February light reflects from wet roads and rooftops where the shadows of chimneys record the progress of the march along its route, passing in and out of the frame of Edith's camera. The forward momentum of the crowd of marchers pauses, conscious perhaps, that they are somewhere between the past and the future,
By 1936, that event and south Wales was Edith's past. Alexander left for the Spanish Civil War to work as a surgeon, while Edith found work for her photography back in England where she turned her camera's attention towards the health care of a future generation, (her son suffered severe autism).
Like Edith, this photograph has travelled from its conception. Its apparent mundanity marks a vital point of view. It is a social documentary photograph and, as such, it asks the viewer to locate its full meaning in reality. When Edith fled Vienna, the authorities confiscated many of her negatives and photographic materials, and in Britain in 1951, still persecuted, she destroyed what she believed to be incriminating photographs and negatives from her time as a communist sympathiser and go-between.
In the nineteen eighties, Wolfgang printed what he had of his sister's work (Edith died in 1973). This photograph is one of 19 dated between 1934 and 1936, taken in south Wales, in the collection of the National Library of Wales. It measures 20.5cm x 19.5 cm, on a sheet of silver gelatin paper. It and a moment survived.
by Diane Bailey, commissioned by O’r Pedwar Gwynt, 2018