Following on from my last post here, I can now explain what I’ve been up to and what an experience it has been.
A few weeks ago, I realised I was so caught up in other activities that I had not taken nearly enough photographs for myself. I wanted to get away to a place that would relax and revitalise me and decided to head to an old haunt, that I first visited fifteen years ago. The town is called Blaenau Ffestiniog (here’s the Wiki page), in North Wales and it is known for two things: 1) raining more than any other town in Wales, and 2) being a historically important slate mining town – a real powerhouse of production for over a century.
Fifteen years ago, I shot the above photograph on 6x9cm roll film with a view camera in the general area. Agfa APX100 I recall. I printed it in my darkroom on 20×16″ Agfa MCC and it is currently hanging above my TV until my loft conversion is finished. It will probably then vanish for another few years. I can still remember what I felt standing on the edge of that stream, with the old mining cart rotting in the water and the slate cottages caught in blazing afternoon sunshine. Clouds rolled though and the sunlight appeared and went off almost as sharply as if a celestial switch were being operated. I felt electrified to my core and I carried the sense of awe with me as I walked back down the mountain, once the light had faded. Within a week or so, I had toned the print in selenium and sepia (which also happens to be the favoured treatment used by Roman Loranc (see interview here and book review here), because I wanted it to last. I knew I wanted to come back it is in more ways than one.
Every now and again we step into places that possess such power that they seep into our very being. This is one such area. It can sometimes be difficult to explain exactly why, but I think this location possesses certain qualities in common with many others I have been drawn to over recent years (including Afghanistan and Iceland). That quality is adversity. More specifically, it’s what that adversity means in terms of the determination and resilience of the people who lived and worked there over the generations. Anyone who thinks Iceland is ‘king of hard landscapes’ might find this challenged or eclipsed by what one finds in the mining areas of North Wales. They are of course very different, despite certain similarities.
As I have mentioned before, I am planning to start running photographic workshops and so decided to kill two birds with one stone. I would take my day out in an area I thought would probably make for an excellent photo workshop location. I planned for this visit to be a recce, but the inevitable happened: it got under my skin, instantly and completely. I went with it, starting a bit later than I had intended (10:30am) and shooting until late lunch back at the van and then a shorter second foray in mid/late afternoon. In total, I was on the ground of about six hours and it was one of the most thrilling days out I can remember.
I had checked the weather forecast a few days prior and it was for fog and mist, which appealed to me, but then it changed to ‘overcast/drizzle’ the night before. I thought I would double check in the morning and it had changed back to fog/mist, so I jumped in the van and off I went. This is the first photograph I took in the series and it introduces the sense of space and the sense of one’s own insignificance that it tends to instil.
Visibility was poor, but the air of mystery it created was perfect for the long abandoned slate mines I was about to visit. Over the years they have been slowly broken down, but it isn’t so much the obvious decay that appealed to me. It’s the sheer volume of rock move by mortal men with far more basic mechanical assistance than we expect today. This was the real Man vs. Mountain and it played out from the late 19th Century until very recently. There are still active quarries (very limited compared to in the past), but no mines and railways of the kind that completely reshaped this landscape over the years.
There is another aspect to this landscape that appeals to me immensely and that is its imperfection. Yes, you can make picture perfect photographs here if you wish, but I feel it is far more interesting than that. Not only does it have a fascinating history, but the landscape bears marks from the distant past alongside those created much more recently. I feel this is important. It binds us to the past and its ongoing chronology. In shooting this ‘documentary landscape’ series, I looked at what was actually there and rather than manipulated it to show a romanticised version…. an idyl that never existed and certainly doesn’t now. This isn’t a quaint landscape like The Shire in Lord of the Rings (although some scenes from the trilogy were in fact filmed here). It is a place where people lived extremely hard lives. I feel it’s the granular reality of that connection and the struggles people still have with the same terrain that appeals to me most of all. Nonetheless, it is beautiful, but for me, it is all the more so because it comes with these caveats. It’s real. It’s as profound as a human altered landscape can be precisely because it isn’t new. It shares this facet with Russians and Royals: retreating legacies that continue to shape lives.
As I climbed higher, the fog closed in and visibility worsened.
Fog and mist tend to be quite dynamic and this meant that waiting would see the scene change as the fog changed in density.
Today, the population of nearby Blaenau Ffestiniog is around 4,800 – less than half its peak of 11,300 in the 1880s. The primary industry is now tourism, with a number of attractions in the local area, including tours of slate caverns. It would be difficult to visit without seeing rock climbers, hikers and groups caving, all enjoying this landscape in their own way.
Sometimes it takes months or even years to put a series together. However, this series took just one short day. It this respect it has a relation in A Tree Falls, which I shot in a similarly short time, during a short spell of heavy snow in Kabul. Both gave the same concentrated pleasure and sense of ‘what just happened?‘
While Iceland possesses landscapes that are harsh in an almost cosmic sense, these slate areas feel darker, damper, more organic and very closely connected to our own existence. One cannot observe the vast slate structures built by hand, the scattered mine shafts pockmarking the mountains or the towering spoil heaps without a deep sense of awe. They feel like superhuman endeavours and, at least in me, they command enormous respect. If Iceland reminds me of how small and insignificant I am in the grand scheme of planet Earth, Blaenau Ffestiniog reminds me of our own collective mortality and of the preciousness of life, time and family. While I was there, I stood beside the stream in exactly the spot I shot the first framed photograph from fifteen years prior. Part of the wall of one building has collapsed and the wooden cart has deteriorated significantly. Such environments are dynamic and in some small way I am now connected to the history of this remarkable place. What made it all the more remarkable is that (likely due to the weather), I did not see another soul on the mountain. It was just me, the mountain and the fog.
I returned home that Friday evening itching to return, so that is exactly what I did the following Monday. I spent that day in an equally spectacular but very different slate mining site about 30 miles away. I will introduce that series of photographs soon. Suffice to say, I will be holding photography workshops in these areas and feel very excited about sharing such experiences with some of you in due course.
I am going to conclude this article here and invite you to see the Welsh Slate series on my website. It is an early edit and it may change over the coming days/weeks.