Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Creative Photography and Wales

The key image in Creative Photography and Wales is Eugene Smith's Three Generations of Welsh Miners. The photograph was taken in 1950 when Smith was in south Wales on a political shoot for Life magazine. Using this iconic picture as his starting point, author Paul Cabuts explores a variety of themes. The relationship between photography and national identity, for instance, and how the culturally dominant Valleys came to stand, in many outsiders' eyes, for Wales as a whole. We learn that legendary American snappers Eugene Smith, Robert Capa and Robert Frank all arrived in south Wales with Hollywood blockbuster How Green Was My Valley still fresh in their memories.

Through the work of Eugene Smith Cabuts provides an insight into the potentially compromised role of a post-war magazine photographer. Snappers had to operate within strictly prescribed editorial parameters which were often defined by commercial or political imperatives. Images were routinely cropped and inappropriate captions added. Pictures (including Three Generations of Welsh Miners) were staged in order to fit a narrative brief. Thus photographers were walking a tightrope between complicity and subversion. For a man like Eugene Smith with strong humanistic (even leftist) instincts this inevitably led to conflict with his employers (Life), whose proprietor was vehemently anti-Socialist.

Cabuts comprehensively sets out the historical context of Eugene Smith's work as well as the social history of the south Wales that he visited in 1950. He also charts the development of documentary photography (implicitly moral) to its contemporary position in the art world (aesthetic). In other words we observe the journey of Three Generations of Welsh Miners from the magazine page to the art gallery to the coffee table photobook. Other outsider views of the Valleys are investigated - these include the work of American Bruce Davidson and German husband and wife team Bernd and Hilla Becher.

Finally Cabuts examines the emergent notion of a "Welsh photography' and how this came about. A growing awareness of Wales's own photographic heritage; post-war nation building; psychologically scarring events such as Aberfan and the drowning of Tryweryn; arts funding strategies; the pioneering work of Ffotogallery; the establishing of a documentary photography course at Newport School of Art and Design; and initiatives such as the Valleys Project have all contributed to this idea.

Creative Photography and Wales by Paul Cabuts is a thoroughly researched and intelligent book that, happily, never loses its readability. Insightful and informative it is, I believe, an important critical contribution to the visual culture of Wales. The book is published by the University of Wales Press and costs a mildly terrifying £30.