Monday, April 21, 2008

Once Upon a Time in Wales

The Valleys have an enduring appeal for photographers. For decades the mining areas of south Wales have been a magnet for social realist snappers keen to capture the 'authentic' or chronicle a disappearing way of life. Robert Frank’s early-fifties sojourn in Caerau being a prime example. Whilst the quality of Frank's work is undeniable, one can’t entirely eradicate the notion that many of these outsiders turned up with the specific intention of transforming poverty into coffee table art.

Such an accusation cannot be levelled at Robert Haines' Once Upon a Time in Wales, a photobook that records life in Heolgerrig and Merthyr in 1971/72. Haines is an insider (or at least he was back then) who during a college vacation when he was just twenty years of age returned home and took these remarkable pictures. Unpublished until now, the collection has the feel of a dug up time capsule.

The aesthetic here is a fusion of the nineteenth century with the questionable tastes of the 1970s. Ancient craggy-faced colliers are pictured alongside younger men who are clad in denim, sport long hair and bum-fluff moustaches. A teenage girl in a mini-skirt poses outside a cramped worker’s cottage. The area is clearly going through the painful process of passing from the industrial to the post-industrial - a process that would be accelerated in the 1980s.

Maybe it’s because Haines was so young when he took these pictures that they seem so free of any kind of cynicism or worse, patronising notions of the nobility of the poor. Often they are very funny. We find a comic-grotesque portrait of a man who came third in a world gurning championship for instance; an enthusiast of westerns done up in cowboy gear posing against what looks like an Arizona backdrop until you read that it is in fact a local quarry; and a generously bequiffed ladies man who wooed women with his rendition of Diana by Paul Anka.

Haines clearly had an impressive cast of characters to choose from. I loved the touching portrait of a young gypsy and his family. Also pictured is a local hard man who we learn was later shot to death. Mad Malcolm, another neighbour, had a fondness for cider and speed. And then there's the Brigadier - a member of the Free Wales Army.

The retrospective captions are perfectly judged. A picture of a fellow asleep on the grass with his face covered in a cloth turns out to be the photographer’s uncle. On a picnic in the Brecon Becons he had fallen asleep and to stop him getting sunburnt his wife had shielded his face. Haines completes the tale of a fretting wife by adding that she once woke up her husband to remind him to take a sleeping pill.

Once Upon a Time in Wales is excellent and should be a strong contender for Welsh book of the year (next year). It is published by Dewi Lewis and is on sale now. You can read a Guardian review of Haines’ work here and an Independent review here.