Boy in a window

October 15, 2017 2 Comments

An old, long-abandoned factory in Swansea’s Strand.  It has two storeys, a stone wall at its base and a corrugated roof.  Below, the windows are boarded or blacked out.  Upstairs, where ragged glass hangs in the smashed panes, one window frame’s open.  At its base a round-faced young boy, with dark hair and jug ears, smiles out at the photographer.  The ruin is his adventure playground.  The year is 1970.

This is one of the many striking photographs taken in the 1960s and early 1970s by Colin Riddle in a new book, Swansea: a photographer’s dream.  Swansea people, especially those brought up in the town, as it still was till 1969, will find themselves drawn back to their own childhoods, in an faroff age much closer to the Second World War than it is to today.  Some of those at the opening of Swansea Museum’s complementary exhibition on 6 October were able to recognise their small selves in some of the photos on display.

But often photographers don’t simply document a place.  Consciously or unconsciously, they encode or inscribe their own vision into their pictures – how they select and treat them.  That’s certainly true of Colin Riddle, a self-consciously artful photographer.  The ‘dream’ of the sub-title is his own.  Colin was brought up in Penlan, Swansea and showed an early interest in his family’s cameras and what he could do with them.  After leaving school he went to Swansea College of Art in 1961 and took a part-time course taught by Ivor Davies, who gave him free access to his own equipment and facilities.  He claims he failed to grasp many of the techniques of his craft, but it’s clear he’d absorbed the photographic ethos and vision of his teachers, and of the photography masters.

Dereliction is Colin’s main theme.  He counts himself lucky, he says, to have been born in Swansea in 1945, after the Second World War.  An early picture in the book is a night shot, spread over two pages.  Taken from the bedroom window of his family’s house in Penlan, it’s jet black, with the exception of lights in houses nearby and a blaze of light far away near the BP oil refinery at Llandarcy.  It’s a picture that deliberately echoes the memory of the Three Nights’ Blitz of February 1941 that reduced most of the centre of Swansea to rubble.  In the 1960s much of the area around the centre was still undeveloped after the destruction.  In addition the lower Swansea valley was yet to experience the comprehensive clearing away of its ruined industrial past.

A map at the back of the book gives the location of most of the photos included.  They cluster in the city centre, or more particularly in the fringes of the centre, including Mount Pleasant (the heady slope of Constitution Hill and roller-coaster Cromwell Road), as well as in the part of the lower Tawe valley around Morriston and Landore.  For the most part Colin ignores west Swansea, as well as the commercial centre rebuilt so drably in the 1950s, and lingers in the Victorian streets and alleyways not far away – areas still untouched by modernisation.  This gives many of the photos an aura that recalls an earlier, pre-War age – like the children playing in an abandoned car and dustcart in a Morriston field.  Dilapidation and neglect – wrecked and damaged cars, boarded up houses, abandoned factories reflected in standing water, slagheaps, the dangerous, rickety West Pier – hold a strong appeal to the photographer’s eye.  Colin belongs to a long tradition of ‘derelict art’, going back to Piranesi and continuing through Turner to Paul Nash and John Piper.  It’s a powerful vision, with a strong undertow of melancholy and sometimes nostalgia.

But you have the feeling that Colin is too cheerful to keep channelling the black stuff for too long.  His tone is often playful and ironic, particularly when he incorporates the written word.  One sodden streetscape features two large hoardings: ‘Go one better!  Vote Communist’ goes head to head with ‘The Queen Mother: the first authorised life story’.  A concrete wall, Swansea’s urban sprawl beyond it, has the inscription, ‘Where will you spend eternity?’  Several photos follow the crew shooting the film Only two can play in Swansea in spring 1961.  They capture Peter Sellers, Mai Zetterling and the supposed glamour of film-making from a position that’s both physically and authorially detached – except when Colin got too close and, he says, was shouldered rudely out of the way by Sellers.  In one of the pictures, taken on Mayhill, the self-absorbed film crew are cut down to size by what lies beyond them – a majestic vista of the streets, terraces and old factories of the lower Swansea valley spread out below.

The other antidote to the ‘melancholia of ruin’ is how Colin observes the people in his photos – and especially the children.  For me the warmest pictures in the book are a series catching moments in the play of a group of six young children in Cambrian Place in 1970.  They’ve gathered, with their ragged clothes, gappy teeth and untidy haircuts, on the steps of one of the terraced houses, and extemporise their games from a few cheap props – a broom and dustpan, a ball and a comic book.  They’re all smiling or laughing.  ‘I have never seen kids with so little, but so happy’, is Colin’s comment.  These pictures remind me strongly of photos Philip Jones Griffiths took, around the same time, of children playing on derelict land, before his better known photos of the Vietnam War.  Today, taking pictures like these would be impossible.  In any case, the children would probably be indoors, tapping on their smartphones.

Other series are similarly distant in spirit as well as time: pictures taken of the working Helwick lightship and its crew (one man strums a mandolin), of the south end of Swansea Canal (now extinct), of places associated with Dylan Thomas, and of a crew of demolition men, working without mechanical aid or health and safety precautions.  Colin, as he explains in an appendix, spent hours repairing and restoring his surviving negatives and prints – many were in poor condition after nearly sixty years and nine house-moves – and many bear the signs of this work.  A couple of the demolition men series look in their restored form remarkably like the work of French naturalist painters in the late nineteenth century, intent on lending dignity to the labour of manual workers.

What photographs would emerge if you were to send a seventeen year old camera enthusiast on to the streets of Swansea today?  Depressingly, dereliction is still all too obvious in and around the city centre, as are the effects of inequality and poverty.  I wonder whether, despite the superficial changes in Swansea’s environment and the ways of its people, the pictures of a second Colin Riddle might not look all that different.

Swansea: a photographer’s dream is a handsome book, apart from some show-through from the use of too-thin paper.  It’s published with a bilingual text by the Royal Institution of South Wales with help from the City and County of Swansea.  An excellent exhibition of the photos, organised by Karl Morgan, is on at Swansea Museum.  A visit is highly recommended.

Comments (2)

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  1. Alan Perry says:

    An excellent, perceptive, in-depth review of an oustanding book!

  2. Colin Riddle says:

    Thank you very much Andrew for a thoughtful and sympathetic piece. I’m not sure I deserve to be sharing space with Turner, Nash and Piper but it is always interesting to see ones work from a completely different viewpoint – it is a solitary business restoring images and alternate perspectives are rare but very welcome…Many thanks.

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