Structures of Feeling / An interview with Peter Finnemore and Russell Roberts about their work with the Geoff Charles Archive
May 2013 Interviewed by Emma Lewis
Geoff Charles (1909 – 2002) was a press photographer who documented daily life in North Wales and the Borders over a career spanning almost fifty years. Today his work exists as an archive of some 120,000 negatives held in the National Library of Wales.
On display as part of Diffusion, Cardiff’s month-long festival of photography, ‘Structures of Feeling’ is the second of three projects on Charles’ body of work organised by artist Peter Finnemore and writer and curator Russell Roberts. Comprising large-scale prints and a film with footage edited and re-worked by the curators, the exhibition presents Charles’ images in a quite different format to their original reproduction as halftone illustrations.
Emma Lewis spoke to Finnemore and Roberts about their approach to the complex task of curating the archive.
The title of the exhibition ‘Structures of Feeling’ is a term used by literary critic, poet and writer Raymond Williams to consider the organisation of emotion and lived experience at any one given time. What relationship did you draw out between this concept and the photography of Geoff Charles?
Our work with the Geoff Charles Archive began two years ago based on a shared interest in the visual cultures of Wales. The challenge has been trying to find a way of reading the Archive and the world through which those photographs once flowed. To this end we have used various approaches. Williams’ work offers us another route into these photographs.
As the accumulation of a life’s work in press and magazine photography extending to over 120000 negatives, the Charles archive is a culturally significant resource; partly as a result of a long term and deep representation of place through press and magazine photography spanning over 50 years and partly because the quality of the photography was comparatively sophisticated in light of the function Charles’ pictures had to perform. He was still working on 5×4 for news stories up to the 1960s as well using medium format and 35mm cameras throughout his career. In professional terms, that kind of concentrated, slow picturing of a region by a single person, responding to major and minor events, is rare.
Looking through the contact sheets and database, the ‘archival grain’ is very much around chronology and within that you see a social patterning, a certain style and pictorial clichés that repeats to help illustrate a range of news stories from civic functions to natural disasters, political protest and the rural economy, to village fetes, carnivals, consumerism and more perfunctory aspects of daily life. It is this attention to the micro and macro stories of the everyday that marks Charles’ archive as a unique portal into a complex emotional and historical world. Finding a way to frame it, culturally and physically, needed to work with and against some of the archive’s dominant characteristics.
In terms of the exhibition title, it grew from seeing our working selection become more refined where photographs began to resonate for us either around certain themes. Rather than prescribing categories for unpacking the archive we let it speak to us; images of interest became grouped together around a thematic or re-classification of Charles’ photography following the initial sift. Themes such as masculinity and landscape, religion, animal and human relations, labour, performance, history and ‘touch’, help us to maintain an encounter with the archive that was not exotic, neither was it an ‘aesthetic salvage project’ (see John Szarkowski’s From the Picture Press, 1973). Instead it was driven by a fascination with the photograph as historical document and historical process within the contexts of news.
In using Williams’ idea of a ‘structure of feeling’ as our touchstone, we looked to photographs to convey a greater density of time, cultural value and lived experience, to amplify photography’s relationship to people and place. This was not just a matter of compare and contrast, we looked to ways in which the photographs could to talk to each other, to ‘speak’ unexpectedly through exhibition through overt and subtle narrative connections.
Williams’ use of the term ‘structure of feeling’ is complex. It evolves from the 1950s to more detailed uses in The Long Revolution (1961) and again in Marxism and Literature (1977). Williams critical methods have combined literary expression alongside his important materialist analysis of the ideological conditions of culture, the politics of place and nationhood. That double-edged approach was helpful to us in other ways given our synthesis of art and history for this project. For Williams, it was the possibility of combining the historical and documentary record of a time with other forms such as literature from which a greater sense of what it felt like to live where everything was ‘in solution’. Charles’ photographs offer a unique residue of longstanding traditions in Wales but also of modernization and change. Indeed, it is this tension between the past and the present that Charles seemed to be particularly attentive to, and how that shaped individual and collective lives. Playing the photographs off against each other as pictures and information helped us to create a tension around the historical possibilities of the archive.
An ongoing concern in curating archival material seems to be a one of balance between exploring ways of opening up new meaning and insistence on original context, something that has particular significance for press photographs. Could you explain what curatorial decisions you made in this respect? I notice, for example, the captions are available to the viewer but not displayed alongside the prints themselves.
We are very careful when it comes to curatorial method and the form of our translation of the archive. We are interested in historical consciousness and how that is formed by and through photographs, and the archive as a particular spatial and temporal experience of the past rooted in the present. Our intervention or re-presentation is borne out of an interest in, and respect for, the professional side of archival work and related institutional practices, as well in exhibition’s potential to explore memory and historical relations. Neither photographs or archives are the product of one set of power relations alone. Photographs move through history in the most unexpected as well as most determined of ways, and the pulse of the archive is never constant throughout.
As you say the captions were not included in the conventional sense, but as a hand-list instead. Sometimes having that open-ended encounter – which does not necessarily become resolved when you have captions anyway, particularly in this instance for what is quite a large-scale installation, makes demands on you as a viewer. We wanted to keep attention on the visual possibilities but also basically ground the photographs in relation to their news story or catalogue caption, if viewers wanted to work from that perspective. The large boxes were made to provide a temporary exhibition surface but also in response to the Tramshed building, the 1950s colour scheme and geometry connect tentatively with references associated with the post-war period – Charles’ heyday – but they also play with modernist sensibilities that add an awkwardness to how these photographs are seen.
This is the second time that you have produced an exhibition with material from the Charles archive, the first being ‘Without Words’ in 2011. I’m curious about what happens to the curatorial process the further you delve into the archive and become familiar with its contents: what opportunities – or limitations – does it present?
Without Words, or Heb Eiriau to anchor it in its commissioning context, was a mixed media exhibition we put together for the National Eisteddfod of Wales in 2011. There we made much of the fleeting and forgotten halftone illustration on cheap newsprint in relation to the photographic qualities of Charles’ professional work. Such qualities were often lost as newspaper images and given the use of large and medium formats we were able to draw out detail and values lost or ignored in the previous translation.
Each intervention – which is a combination of art practice and on-going curatorial concerns, or an active synthesis of our shared interests – has allowed us to explore another way of thinking about the life of a press photographer in North Wales and the Borders, and the potential of ‘doing’ history through such photographs in a way that counters the sentimentality and nostalgia that various books on Charles have emphasised. The curatorial process here is about trying to make sense of the photographs as an encounter with history but also to acknowledge how, as images, they are in some cases extraordinarily compelling as historical artefacts when seen differently. If we detach them from the specific conditions of production and consumption or from their archival narrative, it is only in an attempt to find other ways to reconnect them more intensively with social and cultural life.
Were there any practical or technical challenges in working with material held in the archive, and did you find that this had a bearing on the process of selecting images and the narratives that formed as a result?
There are always constraints. We encountered the Geoff Charles Archive mainly through the digital form. There are over 120,000 negatives held at the National Library of Wales, some of which are available in bound volumes as contact sheets – but have you ever tried selecting an exhibition from contact sheets alone? Database and online access gave us around 30,000 images to explore. The Library’s digital infrastructure, given its location in coastal mid-Wales, is extensive and recognised world-wide. Though in many similar institutions, volume over narrative through the digital seems to be the benchmark of value. We wanted to try and put ‘story’ back into Charles’ photographs, not necessarily ‘the’ story but other possible narratives sympathetic to their historical circumstances. Keyword searches online sometimes generate some extraordinary combinations of images and we also used this serendipity to assemble groupings.
There are instances in the exhibition where specific historical circumstances matter enormously such as in the film that is shown within the central cube. Here on the exterior are images suggesting goodness or redemption, that are countered with more diabolical imagery or cynical encounters with landscape concerning electricity and water
– a powerful theme framing political struggle in Wales. In ‘Water Knows No Frontiers’ (2011), http://vimeo.com/28151998 we re-edited the original video of the construction of the Tryweryn reservoir made by Friar’s Boys School in Bangor in the early 1960s, introducing Charles photographs to offer another account of the building project, the flooding of the village of Capel Celyn and the displacement of the local community.
Here the combination of 16mm Kodachrome made under a proficient and ambitious schoolmaster depicts events in a mostly celebratory fashion, as a sublime feat of engineering but a sad necessity in post-war Britain for industrial expansion, is countered by Charles’ humanism. The tension between still and moving image, between colour and black and white, between a school project and photographs taken for Y Cymro, the Welsh language newspaper, is heightened by the fact that Charles is responsible for the latter and his son, a pupil at the school, is actively engaged as a member of the film unit with the former. Our reworked visual narrative offers a point of entry into political and generational tensions within Wales around an event that galvanised support for nationalism, reminding the viewer of the complex relationship Wales has with its more dominant neighbour.
Looking back to the idea of ‘Structures of Feeling’ and also to what Allan Sekula has described as ‘traffic in photographs’ – how they are circulated, take on, and inform new meaning – how would you like to see Charles’ work operating in the long-term? What steps need to be taken to make that happen?
Sekula’s work has been important for certain interests in photography and archival practices that offers a tightly defined route into their analysis. Williams’ evocation of the factors that shape history as lived experience
, suggests what might be considered more fluid terrain to work through in order to distill how in this instance, images might be both absorbent and resistant to the effects of power, reflecting perhaps more of the actual sensibilities as well as socio-economic conditions behind the making and use of photographs.
Photography and the archive’s relationship to power is now more complicated with the rise of new media and digitisation as a means of access and organisation. The critical and artistic grounds for examining how photographs within archives can be interpreted, has broadened. However, getting this into the institutional consciousness of how to work with archives is not easy; aesthetic projects are often seen as add-ons, fleeting. But there is now a considerable body of critical literature referred to as ‘archive theory’ and the archive is a growing staple in contemporary arts practice. The challenge is to get interventions into archives as part of their working identity, where archivists and users can see how alternative frames of reference can be created that invigorate the archive and point to the potential of other approaches as valuable catalysts for history.
In terms of our continued interest in the Geoff Charles Archive and the ‘traffic in photographs’, we will make a final intervention next year as part of the centenary celebrating the life and work of Dylan Thomas. Here will be a further opportunity to look through literature to other ways of framing the archive and the ‘news’ photograph.
‘Structures of Feeling: The Photographs of Geoff Charles’ continues at Tramshed as part of Diffusion Festival of Photography until 31 May.