Twentieth century America has been defined by its photographers. The masters have crossed and re-crossed the continent and recorded all they saw. Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange made black and white images of rural hardship. Ansel Adams shot the American west. Weegee captured the naked city. Garry Winogrand photographed women on the streets of New York. Their pictures have become iconic, reproduced on hoardings, in Sunday supplements and in volumes with the photographer’s name on the front. Walker Evans: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Ansel Adams: Yosemite. Weegee’s Naked City. And with its introduction from the King of the Beats, Jack Kerouac, Robert Frank: The Americans. American Americans, a whole culture followed that.
The publishing industry was not slow to capitalise. The books came out in heavy hardback, often costing enough to keep the rural poor in food for a week. They sold in quantity to the emerging middle classes. No coffee table was complete without one.
In Wales, however, we see ourselves through different eyes. We are defined instead not by grand landscape but by our TV presenters, our rugby stars and sometimes by our poets. No surprise, then, that the photographer here is a rarer beast. In recent years, though, the digital revolution has started to hit home and the streets have been replete with snappers attempting to catch everything from the surging of our football crowds to the ubiquitous Welsh street preacher.
I’d like to report that our publishers have been quick to react, but they haven’t. It is only comparatively recently that the Welsh equivalent of the US coffee table doorstop has begun to appear. Parthian’s Coalfaces, for example, is a lovely full-colour compilation from the work of Tina Carr and Annemarie Schöne. These two documentary makers have recorded the townships of the Afan Valley as those lost places dealt with the end of coal. From the same publisher comes Shimon Attie’s The Attraction of Onlookers, a full plate colour study of the inhabitants of Aberfan. Black backdrops, hard poses and Welsh to the core.
Seren have gone to the top with Magnum Photographer David Hurn’s Living in Wales - duotone shots of Welsh greats – Bryn Terfel, Colin Jackson, Peter Hain. They have also published Anthony Stokes masterwork, The Valleys, a quirky, multi-coloured take on disparate and often workless communities. Iain Sinclair takes on the Kerouac role and provides the introduction.
Seren also publish the Real series. Books on conurbations by writers more used to the pen than the camera. Mario Basini, Nigel Jenkins, Niall Griffiths, Grahame Davies, Ann Drysdale and, soon, Jon Gower, have all snapped as well as typed. Check out their edgy and often unconventional results. Try Real Merthyr as an entrée. Move on to Real Wrexham and Real Swansea after that.
A version of this post appeared at The Insider in the Western Mail of 9th May, 2009