Something of value.

During a thirty year career photographing the landscape and more than a decade ago adding wildlife to my repertoire, I’ve also been maintaining a bit of a sideline.

Dead seabirds (mostly common scoter), Freshwater East, Pembrokeshire. February 1996. I spent a couple of days in Pembrokeshire after the Sea Empress oil tanker ran aground. Some of the photographs appeared on TV at the time.

While out in the landscape I’ve sometimes come across quirky, incongruous or downright ugly scenes which tell us more about our relationship with the landscape than most of my (or anybody’s) actual “traditional” landscapes do. As an early example, in the early days of Fuji Velvia (the late 1980’s) , I remember taking a picture of a pile of bright blue plastic pipes close to a reservoir in the wilds of the Ceredigion uplands; it’s probably still in a filing cabinet somewhere. At first I called these images “human landscapes” although I don’t feel that that description now does them all justice. Many are informed by my environmental concerns in a broad sense and some actually say more about us than the landscape. Some ask more questions than give answers.

Near Bangor, Gwynedd. July 2019. An exception to the rule: having seen this phone mast from the driver’s seat of my van, I revisited it some months later and searched out the best spot to photograph it from.

Throughout my life in photography I’ve been a big fan of the brilliant Joe Cornish and his contemporaries as well as the almost unique world-view of the late Fay Godwin; both have their place in the world of outdoor photography. Fay Godwin, it seems to me, began her photographic career specialising in traditional black-and-white landscapes. But as her consciousness developed about the damage we are inflicting on nature, so her images became more closely aligned to her environmental concerns. She disliked the description of “landscape photographer” that people gave her, despite the fact that she worked mainly in the landscape; she preferred the term “documentary”. I understand exactly what she meant; it’s unfortunate that in the photographic world the term landscape means only one sort of landscape.

Near Trefenter, Ceredigion. March 2021

Going back to my own human landscapes, I’ve often been able to sneak them into my books and exhibitions while no-one was looking! I can imagine that many viewers’ reactions would be along the lines of “But Wales is such a beautiful country, why photograph that?” It has long been an ambition of mine to put them all together and exhibit them. Over the years it’s been known variously as my ” Black and White Project”, my “Retrospective of Sorts” and my “Homage to Fay Godwin”. As a prelude to this (I hope), at the end of last year, I put together a one-off photobook of more than fifty of them.

Pembroke castle and Oil Refinery, December 2009

How this eventually came about is worth a mention. I’d been putting it off for years. I had had some very dispiriting criticism of the project from a photographer in the Joe Cornish tradition who I had previously admired tremendously. I whittled the selection down to about a hundred, including plenty of new work but some already published in colour. I converted them all to black-and-white, and had some cheap test prints made, but still couldn’t put them together. Then while browsing on the internet one day I saw a promotion from an online company offering £100 off one of their top-of -the-range photobooks. I responded immediately and was sent a coupon valid for 30 days. This was the impetus I needed, and within a couple of weeks I had the finished product on my desk. Compiling it was the most fun in photography I had had for years! The quality of the book was excellent except for one thing; it had been designed online and the mid-grey front cover with white and black lettering looked fine on-screen. But in reality my name in black was almost invisible against the grey unless you saw it at a certain angle to the light. I pointed this out to the printers and they offered me a full credit for the cost, amounting to £118.23p, most of which I hadn’t paid in the first place!

Tywyn, Gwynedd. (June 2010). Taken while researching locations for Wales at Waters Edge

The content of the book, when I saw it, was really quite an eye-opener. I realised most of images had been seen almost out of the corner of my eye, while I was actually intent on taking other photographs. Mostly other landscapes, sometimes wildlife and surprisingly often while I was driving from A to B and just saw something. Many of them are at places where I stopped, took a picture and moved on. I know I will never be back there again. I’m sure I’m not the only photographer who sees a fantastic landscape from the driver’s seat of a car, stops, walks back and the finds the potentially world-beating image has completely disappeared. My snapshots are quite different to traditional landscapes, however, where the quality of the light is critical and a significant amount of pre-planning is usually required. In many cases individual images have limited value on their own but in the company of a few dozen others, the photographer’s vision becomes more clear.

Near LLanwchllyn, Gwynedd. September 2008. This could be described in terms of the media, or the message, or both. Not everyone gets both………

The good luck didn’t stop at the refund for the cost of printing the book, either. The National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth has quite a large collection of my colour work already. Just after Christmas I was strolling along the sea-front in Aberystwyth when I met its curator of photography, Will Troughton. After a bit of a general chat he asked me if I was working on anything at the moment. My usual response these days to that question is “well, er, no …….. not really…….” but fortunately I remembered to mention the retrospective/Godwin/b&w project. He expressed an interest and I arranged to meet him, book in hand. A couple of days after seeing it he phoned to say that he had “found some money” and would like to buy a selection of prints. The importance of the sale is not so much in the cash, but rather the recognition that I still produce photographic work of some value.

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Swings and roundabouts

Fish farm, Penmon: Purchased by National Library of Wales

Over a period of many years the National Library of Wales bought complete sets of prints from each of my books as it was published, or as they were exhibited. They currently have a total of 371 Cibachromes purchased in this way. This came to a sudden end about ten years ago when they took on a new member of staff whose task it was to raise income from items in its Collection. I’m not sure what her background was but this bright spark decided it would be a good idea to sell copies of photographs bought from photographers or donated by them. She obviously had no idea about copyright. I was asked to sign a statement approving this and I refused. I found it astonishing that an institution whose readers had to sign a “personal use only” statement every time they photocopied a page of one of its books should believe it could appropriate photographers work in this way.  It may have been a coincidence but no more of my work was purchased for the following decade. It was just one of the ways in which my income declined over that time.

I’m glad to say the situation seems to have changed. That particular member of staff has apparently retired and I’m now in the process of selling a set of prints from “Wales at Waters Edge” to the Library. Not the whole lot (there are over a hundred) but a selection of twenty made by their Curator of Photography Will Troughton. He has described me as “Wales’ leading environmental photographer” and goes on to say that “his meticulous work has received extensive praise from many quarters”. For months on end it feels as if one is working in a vacuum, so this came as a very pleasant surprise. Environmental photography might sound a bit of a niche but it does suit my work quite well. I’ll quite happily use a building – a castle, lighthouse or cottage – as an aid to composition in my more commercial landscapes (the postcards, for example). But in my personal work I’m usually careful to use human elements within the landscape only when I’m tring to say something about that landscape.  I’m not always sure what exactly I’m trying to say but photographs do not always provide answers; sometimes they can pose questions. In my case the question is often “What exactly is our place within the landscape?” That is also why I have always been so keen on Fay Godwin’s work. It was very pleasing to see from his choice of prints that Will understands what I am trying to do.

Life is full of ups and downs and I have also suffered a major setback recently – although hopefully only a temporary one. Most of my books have been published by Gomer Press, arguably Wales’ premier publisher. However they are clearly now downgrading their publications department and in an attempt at “restructuring” are replacing the number of posts by 50%. All eight current members of staff were asked to re-apply for the four posts now envisaged. All refused and took redundancy payments. Gomer currently thus has no publications department, and any books “in development” but not contracted have been shelved.  However I am still hoping that either Gomer Press or another publisher will take my new book up before too long. Both Jon Gower (the author) and I are well-known and respected in Wales in our respective fields so they should be leaping at the chance!

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