Monday, 15 February 2010

Our First City vs Our Biggest

Whatever happened to the untrammelled wilderness? That land the Romantic Poets loved. A place where wildness flowed and human intervention was nil. Today’s new landscapes are cities – places of concrete, glass, movement and dust. John Briggs, the photographer from Minnesota who has lived in Wales now for long enough to look local, has devoted his recent self to Newport. Wales’ First City reads a welcome sign at the unreconstructed bus station. There are nine-story tall hair grips holding up a slender new river bridge. The arts cluster in the skewed silver box that is the Riverfront. The cattle market, loved and lost, is gone.

Briggs, is a follower of Cartier-Bresson, the photographer who invented the decisive moment. He waits on the street, Leica in hand, for the photograph to arrive. His splendid collection, Newportrait, fresh from Seren shows how near to the border Newport actually is. A child is shown having “We love our queen” stencilled onto her cheek by her mother. Waving flags royal visit celebrants balance themselves on the Upper Dock Street road sign. Women wearing union jack aprons sit in deckchairs in the sun.

In between Briggs records a multi-cultural community at work and at play. His people shots bring warmth to his bleaker takes on the built environment – the night lit transporter bridge, the market, the white Germanic clock tower of the civic centre. The sense of the past hangs ever present in Briggs’ black and white work. Shops full of industrial clothing, the windows of the workingmen’s dining room, the austere and perfectly-framed take of dying Llanwern seen from the working terraces of the city itself. But ultimately Briggs is his own man. A seeker of the fading, a photographer determined to catch it all before it goes.

In contrast Brian Lee collects the old photos of others rather than make new himself. His Cardiff Remember When (Breedon Books) shows me things about the capital I’d never seen before. And I’ve made that city my special interest. The half demolished County Cinema in Rhymney. Norman Harvey’s car showrooms on Penarth Road with a real lioness in the window. Dante’s Inferno showing at the Empire Cinema on Queen Street. Sybil Marks and her hot-pants wearing dancers in the final of Come Dancing in 1971. The Salvation Army pop group, the Joy Strings, arriving at Cardiff Prison for a concert. If you are old enough these things echo. Like Briggs, Brian Lee mixes people with buildings, collecting a past that would otherwise be totally lost.

The city of this book looks completely parochial, despite shots of Harold Macmillan walking the streets in 1960, the Pope in his Dr Who-like popemobile in 1982 and even the youthful poets R S Thomas and Dannie Abse reading together in 1980. Cardiff you’ve come a long way.

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday 13th February, 2010

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