A Stranger Comes To Town
Postcard from Powys: Llynheilyn Lake, March 2016
Someone, it may have been Tolstoy, once claimed that there are really only two stories: "A Person Goes On A Journey", and "A Stranger Comes To Town". This was obviously intended to be provocative, but there is a debatable truth in there, and it strikes me that a similarly reductive provocation might be applied to landscape photography.
A couple of years ago I had an exhibition in Innsbruck, Austria, and on the back of it was invited to do a ten-day residency in the city. I was hardly going to say no, but I did have some serious misgivings. I had last visited Innsbruck as a teenager, hitchhiking in Europe in summer 1972. Forty-two years is a long time between visits, and although mountains are not much subject to change, cities and their inhabitants most certainly are. Not to worry, my host said, we want to see what we look like through your eyes. A stranger comes to town...
Postcard from Powys: Evening Snow at Hiraeth, April 2012
I suppose what troubled me was that virtually all of my previous photography had come from the perspective of a thorough, repetitive exploration of a well-defined "local" territory, and I had come to see this largely self-imposed constraint as a virtue. Sure, some talented stranger could parachute into "my" patch and walk away with some impressive work, but they could never really engage with the true spirit of place, would never see beyond the obvious clichés that I had stopped making years ago. Surely, the story "A Stranger Comes To Town" has to be told from the perspective of the locals, and not that of the stranger? Otherwise, it's "A Person Goes On A Journey", isn't it?
Others, naturally, see their own story very differently. Landscape photography for them is precisely about the stimulus of travel to new locations, the further away and the more exotic the better. Why photograph Hertford, Hereford or Hampshire, where 'urricanes 'ardly ever 'appen, when you could be in Oklahoma or the South Pacific, or indeed some mountainous place where the hills are rumoured to be alive with the sound of music? And who would disagree that, if you are chasing the "wow" factor, then the story you are telling probably does need to be some version of "A Person Goes On A Journey"? Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore...
Postcard from Powys: Fields near Dolau, April 2012
Postcard from Powys: Valley Fog at Dawn, April 2013
Obviously, one expects and accepts that on holiday – off-turf and off-duty – one's photographs are souvenir snaps, self-made postcards. But this divergence becomes a dilemma for me in my own work, when it comes to photographing in Wales. My partner and I have been visiting the Welsh Marches every year, now, for over 35 years; ever since, as impoverished students, we started taking advantage of her parents' holiday cottage near Presteigne. I've taken a lot of photographs there. But we're still really just fleeting visitors, holidaymakers returning for a week or two of escape, and we know a very different place to that experienced by the year-round residents. We notice the physical, economic and social changes, but have played no part in bringing them about, and do not have to live with their consequences.
And changes there have been, over those four decades. Sadly, these have often not been for the better. In many ways, the Welsh Borders are a depressed area, trying to cope with the decline in hill-farming as a way of life, a steady loss of population and employment prospects, and a disappointing inflow of income from tourism. It seems not enough strangers are coming to town, and too many young people are going on a journey. Beautiful it may be, with some of the most alluring hill-country to be found anywhere, but the region lacks obvious centres of attraction and offers too few opportunities for lucrative "outdoor leisure pursuits". Radnor's hills will never rival the Lake District.
Postcard from Powys: Hailstorm over Llandegley Rocks, March 2016
I have often wondered what it must be like to grow up surrounded by all this useless beauty, with little or no prospect of a job, and to long for the bright lights, diversions and opportunities of city life. There isn't even a bus service worth the name. It's clear that very few locals who are not engaged in farming ever venture into the hills. Indeed, a good many of the "locals" are not local at all: they are retirees from the Midlands, local government employees, New Agers, artists and, increasingly, unemployed youngsters from other parts of Wales surviving on benefits in the surplus hotel accommodation in faded Edwardian spa towns like Llandrindod Wells. There is even a small but significant population of Latin American immigrants, a sort of inversion of the fabled Welsh-speaking community that once settled in Patagonia.
But these incomers do nonetheless live there. Talking one night this Easter to the landlord of a pub who had taken over the premises just 18 months ago, having moved into Wales from Surrey, I had the unsettling revelation that in actual elapsed time he had already spent longer in the area than I had; seventy-five continuous weeks versus my sixty or so spread over thirty-five years. He might not yet have a clue about the local history or geography, and may never know very much about where he has fetched up – running a pub is not a job for anyone who values their leisure time – but he already has a greater stake in the local community than I will ever have. Does that also mean that the glorious ridge rising above and behind his pub, which I visit every year, and which he may never find the time to climb, is more "his" than "mine"?
Postcard from Powys: Bright Wet Dawn near Dolau, April 2011
No, of course it doesn't. But the fact remains that Powys is no more "my" turf than Portugal or the Pyrenees; I am a stranger in town, making a regular stop-off from this other journey I'm making. For example, after all these years, I notice I have virtually no photographs of the valley landscape, of the towns, villages, industrial estates and edge-of-town hypermarkets where people live and work; yet I have a rich backfile of photographs of those lovely, deserted hills. They do photograph so well, those hills, and fit so easily into a story I know how to tell, not least because I've seen so many other photographers telling it about other lovely, deserted places. Which may be no more than to say that I am not able to engage with the true spirit of place, or see past the obvious clichés, like that imaginary talented stranger parachuted into what is my own turf. Or, to get really reductive, that what I have accumulated is 35 year's worth of holiday snaps and postcards.
Or perhaps a hill is a hill is a hill, a beautiful backdrop to any story we choose, that belongs to everyone and no-one, but which also has its own mysterious story to tell, unfolding on a narrative timescale that is measured not in weeks, but in geological time. To the hills, we are all strangers, just passing through.
"The Hills", cartoon by Tom Gauld, used by permission