Inflexion is one of the frustrating joys of language. Utter words and sentences in different ways and their meaning changes. Take the title of photographer Ron McCormick’s exhibition: How Green Was My Valley. Without a question mark it could be a statement of regret (the valley’s no longer green) or of nostalgia (it was ever so green). With an interrogative, it might sound like an inquiry about some halcyon time (tell me of the old, verdant days) or a sceptical query (I doubt if the valley was as green as they make out). Whatever the interpretation, the ‘greenery’ in this selection of McCormick’s black-and-white photographs from the 1970s and 1980s has been banished to the background hills or sparsely retained in the foreground. A supplementary question might concern whether or not it will ever return to its former vasty acres. But, as light industry replaces heavy, it is returning.
McCormick was born in Liverpool and was once principal lecturer in documentary photography at Gwent College of Higher Education after it had subsumed the celebrated Newport College of Art. He made his first visit to the industrial valleys of South Wales almost fifty years ago and now lives in Newport. The area referred to in the title for the purposes of this exhibition is a composite of what are known in terms of the former county of Gwent as the Eastern and Western Valleys. They now comprise the boroughs of Torfaen, Blaenau Gwent and, in the Western’s greater complexity, parts of Caerphilly. The photographs depict an industrial area about to change or in transition. They are all urban landscapes in places where the natural one, the erstwhile ‘green’ one, dictates the topography or broods in the distance, biding its time. In a place where the tumultuous land has such an influence on people’s lives, the use of these so-called ‘pathetic fallacies’ is admissible. McCormick’s view is thus from the outside. Valley dwellers, individuals, are mostly absent from these photographs; so is any attempt to internalise what valley life is like or has become at a personal level. The present tense is apt here: everything has changed but in another sense it has remained stubbornly unaltered. If you had lived and worked in these towns and villages and then lost your job, travelling to another would have been made only marginally easier, the return of a passenger rail service a recent development and not comprehensive. Only at the northern and southern extremities are there dual carriageways to speed a journey by road. Change has been largely in the valley depths, where coal was once mined and steel and other things made; the hills, dark and implacable as well as green, keep eternal watch. Or so it seems. Often the spoil heaps do duty for them. Earlier than these pictures were taken, and in another valley further west, one of them had insinuated itself into consciousness as an almost natural feature – until it split open to reveal itself for what it was and proceeded to smother a village called Aberfan.
Documentary photography shapes the recording of history, behind which a political dimension hovers unspoken, like the hills themselves. The skill lies in not allowing the artistry to romanticise what is being photographed, or even betray the politics. McCormick’s pictures ensure that composition and texture allow viewers to focus on the scene; and not the least advantage of that is how it enables them to pore over the pictures with forensic and microscopic zeal, identifying what’s gone and what’s still present; what they can remember or may have forgotten. McCormick would be happy with that as much as he would identify with comments on the sturdy formal qualities of his work. He is especially keen to recognise that the contours of the land in the valleys influence, for obvious engineering reasons, the sweep, dips and swirls of road and rail, the often neglected infrastructure on which the valleys depend.
This is true of Llanhilleth – site of the former Llanhilleth Colliery, looking north to Abertillery from High Street, one of a selection of panoramas mounted in triptych. The image was made in 1984, a year engraven on the memories of miners and mining communities in the valleys on which this exhibition centres. There’s no pictorial reference to the strike of 1984-5, nor in another capacious image, of Six Bells Colliery, is there any sense of the underground disaster of 1960, when 45 men lost their lives. But such allusions are possibly for a different exhibition, a different set of photographic concerns, a more specific delving into the wider social context of this show. The colliery sits there as part of the community, which is what it was. Other things were happening, such as new building and plans being formulated for it. People went on with their lives in distant terraces, and walked – though we can’t see them – the more distant hilltops.
They also waltzed and foxtrotted. New Tredegar – workingmen’s club focuses on how an unprepossessing exterior is enlivened by a moulded plastic mount of a pair of dancers, presumably some sort of illuminated advert. Is it still there? Is the building still there? If they aren’t here’s a record of it, a document. There’s a story behind Abertillery – Rhiw Parc Road, corner of Rhiw Parc Terrace, which can’t be told here but which locals will recall with a cheeky smile, McCormick probably included. The edifice resembles the thin Flatiron Building in New York except that this one is flanked with piled-high corrugated sheets, made from steel galvanised in its countless thousands of tons at the Ebbw Vale works. How on earth did they get there? The works, pictured from Eastville Road and at full blast in 1984, became the victim of world over-production and competitive pricing before it closed 18 years later. The forward movement of change implied in all these pictures has to be weighed against the weary realisation that history repeats itself. McCormick’s Satanic mill shot is composed with a deserted play area in the foreground. It looks as if the kids have fled noise and pollution but the scene is more a meditation on the valley’s myriad juxtapositions, the most evocative being the church nestling against the detritus of New Tredegar – rear gardens, a certain species of hope springing eternal amid evidence of its abandonment. More than hope was abandoned when the mines closed: a way of life disappeared. It’s commemorated limply by the fixed laden truck in Site of Nine Mile Point Colliery, Cwmfelinfach – mining monument, which McCormick has dignified by framing it between two sentinel trees. He may have thought it was the least he could do. Changes going on at the time these photographs were taken were often accompanied by a ‘believe-it-when-we-see-it’ attitude born of deprivation within living memory. It’s encapsulated in The British – Big Edgehill Terrace, with its billboard proclaiming a blueprint for new homes and its cattle snatching at whatever grass there might be in the foreground. The upper windows in the terrace of houses behind are blacked out. Are they uncompleted homes or condemned ones? It’s a visual conundrum, cleverly posed. It could be either.
Although representing a small selection of McCormick’s work, the exhibition has its share of scenes in which there’s an almost brave-face intent to make the best of things, especially in recognising that devastation can possess its own weird beauty. The British – coal spoil tips, looking northwest to Cwm Byrgwm Colliery is made to appear as though nature and ruination have made a restorative pact, and Garn-y-Rhiw – looking South to Big Pit has the quality of a woodcut or deep etching reminiscent of the Japanese. That’s not romanticism but an artist’s ability to see something that others don’t. Not that McCormick would object to a transformed blot on the landscape being accepted for what it really was and ticked for removal. (A wag once joked that whenever a JCB was sighted in the valleys one never knew if it had arrived to demolish or to prepare for construction. Demolition/construction: twin valley processes, ongoing.) The exhibition is proof that though the valleys are always changing, sometimes slowly and not for the better, they have always been at any given time a source of pride, even when they are not shown at their best and offer permanent evidence of how dispiriting living in them could be. It was once said of a John Piper painting that the artist ‘hadn’t been blessed with good weather’ for one of his neo-romantic subjects, perhaps the supreme example in art of not getting the point.
Under the storm clouds and bluffs of McCormick’s images, people live in a place which changes but always stays the same. The precipitous hillsides see to that. It’s the ability to recognise the permanence and durability behind the changes that means most to those looking at these pictures with genuine interest in them as images of record, with an appreciation of their revelatory power, and now and then with a wry grin. For sure, a fair bit of the green has returned, and the air is definitely cleaner.
The Kickplate Gallery, Church Street, Abertillery, September 3 – October 1 2016
Ron McCormick was born in Liverpool and studied at the city’s school of art and the Royal Academy schools. As a freelance his work appeared in New Society, The Times Educational Supplement, Time Out and others. He was artist-in-residence at Gwent College of Higher Education (formerly Newport College of Art) in the late 1970s, and became senior lecturer in documentary photography there from 1979 to 1997. He was then head of Design at Southampton Institute for three years before becoming custodian of Southampton Solent University’s art collection. He then based himself in Newport, becoming a member, afterwards chairman, of Ffotogallery, Cardiff, in the late 1980s. He has taken part in group exhibitions at, among others, the Institute of Contemporary Arts; the Barbican (Through the Looking-Glass – Forty Years of British Photography); and the National Museum of Wales. Solo exhibitions have been held at Oriel, Arts Council of Wales, and the Galerie Lampingstrasse, Bielefeld. The current Kickplate show, on view till Oct 1, is the latest of several to display his photographs of the South Wales industrial valleys. His first visit was in the 1970s – to Merthyr on assignment for New Society.