visual culture wales

Articles by Huw David Jones

W. E. Jones: The People’s Photographer

Shows like MTV’s The Valleys damage perceptions of the Welsh.  The story of W. E. Jones, one of the pioneers of photography in Wales, reminds us how important it is to control our own imagemaking.

Workers in a stall at the ‘Clog and Legging’ Level, Pontypool, c.1910

In 1970, the Welsh Arts Council commissioned a special film called Coalface 1900 for the exhibition Work at the National Museum Cardiff – part of its pioneering Art and Society series.  The film, produced by photographer Roger Worsley and industrial archaeologist Richard Keen, centred on a set of photographs taken 60 years earlier by William Edmund Jones, an amateur photographer from Abersychan near Pontypool.  They were shown to accompany interviews recorded with men and women who had been born in the late-Victorian era, recalling life in the south Wales coalfield at the turn of the century.

Worsley and Keen had met W. E. Jones by chance while exploring a deserted pithead.  Jones explained that he had worked in the mine as a boy, and invited the two filmmakers back to his house, where he presented them with a box of lantern slides.

Plas y Coed Level, Pontypool, c. 1910. The buckled cross timber shows the dangers miners faced daily.

The slides had originally been produced by W. E. Jones for his father, Jabez Jones, an activist within the South Wales Miners’ Federation and the Independent Labour Party.  Jabez Jones shrewdly recognised the propaganda value of using documentary images in his campaign speeches for better pay and working conditions.  He instructed his son to: ‘Look for the roughest miners’ houses you can find and don’t come home with pictures of any good ones’.

The young photographer used a Thorton Pickard half-plate camera and tripod to document the experience of Welsh miners.  He literally got right to the coalface, showing the cramped, dirty and dangerous conditions in which colliers toiled for eight hours a day.  In most mines the risk of the camera’s magnesium flash igniting subterranean gases would have made it impossible to shoot underground.  But Jones worked in a ‘naked lights’ pit, the Clog and Legging Level, which was fairly shallow and free of methane.

W. E. Jones’s mother (wearing the spotted skirt) chatting with friends, c.1906

Jones wasn’t solely interested in portraying the horrors of work, however. He also produced affectionate photographs of friends and family.  One shows his mother chatting with friends outside the family house.  Of all the photographs he produced, this was the one he said he valued most.

Art historian Peter Lord argues W. E. Jones produced one of ‘the first examples of a new kind of imagery [to have] emerged from within the industrial community itself’.  The photographer helped counter the negative portrayal of Welsh miners as ape-like neanderthals or nobel savages circulated at the time by imagemakers like the cartoonist J. M. Staniford in the conservative Western Mail.

But W. E. Jones’s photographs also had contemporary resonance when they were rediscovered in the 1970s.  At a time when miners were again facing hostility in the press for threatening to strike over better pay and working conditions, the images reminded the public of the courage and extreme hardships endured by mine-workers.

The point was underlined by the Welsh Arts Council in its publicity material for the Coalface 1900 film: ‘before judging the actions of today’s union men, listen to the memories of their parents and grandparents.  Try and imagine yourself in the described circumstances and conditions. And remember, human life is short but memories are long.’  The film’s political message was confirmed when a selection of Jones’s photographs was later shown at a special gala in Cardiff organised by the South Wales NUM to mark the union’s victory in the 1972 Miners’ Strike.

Coalface 1900 exhibition catalogue

Coalface 1900 went on to become a successful touring exhibition.  The show visited libraries, miners’ institutes and arts centres across Wales and the north of England throughout the 1970s, and was shown at the first Celtic Film Festival on the Scottish islands of Uist and Benbecula in 1980.  It was particularly popular with working-class audiences, for whom this was the first time they had seen the history of ‘ordinary’ people documented.

In 1985, W. E. Jones’s photographs were donated to the Big Pit Museum in Blaenavon, the first mining museum to open in Wales. They helped to provide an important record of Welsh coal mining at a time when the industry – in the wake of the failed Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 – had all but disappeared from the landscape.

Some of the photographs were also reproduced in Hywel Francis and Dai Smith’s The Fed: A Social History of the South Wales Miners in the Twentieth Century (Lawrence and Wishart, 1980), part of the new wave of history ‘from below’, which focused on the lives of ‘ordinary’ people rather than elites.

Cardiff Bay heritage information board with photographs by W. E. Jones.

W. E. Jones’s photographs continue to circulate to this day.  They appear, for example, on heritage information boards near Cardiff Bay barrage – part of an attempt by the city council to address persistent criticisms that its new waterfront development ‘whitewashed’ over the social and industrial history of the old coal docks.

The Code, by Darius Mikšys, features one of W. E. Jones’s coalface photographs.

One photograph was also recently included in an art installation called The Code, created by the Lithuanian artist Darius Mikšys for the Artes Mundi prize at the National Museum Cardiff.  The image, showing a group of colliers underground, is displayed in a glass cabinet alongside other industrial artefacts, all selected at random from the museum’s collection.  But without any text to explain who produced the image or why, its full meaning and significance largely remains concealed.  The glass cabinet gives the photograph the aura of historical importance, but also distances it from the viewer – both physically and in terms of its social and political relevance to our own times.

W. E. Jones’s photographs are important not only because they illuminate the history of the south Wales coalfield, but also because of what they say about the role of photography within that society.  Jones showed how ‘ordinary’ people could use the camera to document their own lives in their own terms – to represent themselves, rather than have their image controlled and exploited by others.

At a time when ‘reality’ shows like The Valleys are doing so much damage to perceptions of the Welsh, that lesson is as important today as it was a century ago.

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