My latest Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion magazine article (this is the submitted, unedited edition – expect the print edition to probably include different photos).

A review by C. Spiby of the photographic exhibition ‘Coalfaces: A Mining community in photos – Bargoed in the 1970s’ at the Winding House, New Tredegar, Newport, Wales (to Spring 2014).

Unlike the immediacy of photojournalism, the photo essay requires a photographer to immerse himself within his subject’s community. To even hope of capturing a real sense of social documentary, he must mine the spirit of a place and that of its people. Only the best photographers achieve this. Fewer still can present art over mere representation. But that’s exactly what Kjell-Ake Andersson has managed to achieve in this humbling collection of 1973 photographs exhibited under the title ‘Coalfaces’.

Moved by Eugene Smith’s 1950’s work on the subject, Andersson spent months living in the Welsh mining community of Bargoed. He rented a room with a local miner and with his host departed for work each morning to the pit. Eventually the young Swede was accepted by his subjects, thus allowing him to capture them at their most natural. In the evening he and has family mined the pubs and clubs in much the same way, embedding himself into their trust.

The collection, very simply but sympathetically and respectfully presented in this charming museum in New Tredegar, Newport (barely miles from Bargoed itself), is a masterful example of social realism of the highest quality. Consider the composition of ‘Marleen Wilkins in the family home, serving tea’. Andersson could not have predicted how kitsch the patterns of the carpet, wallpaper and tabard would be in the eyes of today’s viewers, but it is in this detail that Andersson proves a master of construction: the patterns – busy as they are – don’t clash at all; rather they flow in perspective and to me speak volumes of grace under pressure, pride, hospitality and fortitude.

‘Interior of George Pub, Arbergoed’ is equally arresting, whereas others remind me of Don McCullin’s British social documentary work. Then there’s his character study of Les Hughes; Andersson is multi-talented. Only the rugged beguiling landscape that surrounds his subjects is missing in his portfolio.

Life is clearly not easy at all, but neither is it hopeless. In virtually all the photographs based in social settings there is laughter and a real community spirit. At home it is peace, family responsibility: the day to day graft of making ends meet. At its core, of course, are the pits, the workers and the baths – the relentless before and after shift faces. The ghost-like whites of miner’s eyes and the dirt of labour.

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The Winding House and Caerphilly Borough Council deserve recognition for bringing us this free exhibition, but also widening its appeal with a range of 1970’s commodities, National Coal Board paraphernalia (you can almost smell that distinctive odour of the NCB donkey jacket) and a selection of artefacts from the pit itself as well as Andersson’s original 35mm camera and that edition of LIFE magazine which featured Eugene Smith’s photos which gave Andersson the push to move his family to Wales.

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A real treat is the family photo album with a wider range of Andersson’s photos from his time in the area. What we might use to store of shoddy family snapshots, Andersson offers as a wider portfolio, simple and unabashed. Such a pity those included don’t feature in the otherwise well-produced catalogue, let alone in the exhibition itself.

Yes, the whole thing is crude (especially the way the photos are framed) but this only adds to the charm of an unmissable exhibition of the heritage of a nearby area, and near history.

‘Coalface’ shows what Thatcherism destroyed. The 70’s is nostalgia for my generation and beyond, but driving around on a fine autumn day trying to find the venue (not the easiest!) I couldn’t help feel that today the place seemed soulless. That sense of community eroded by out-of-town supermarkets, let alone the general malaise of modernity which has closed public houses all over the country, took Bingo out of the social club and into massive megaplexes. Andersson’s photography does that rare thing and captures the soul. And it does so in all the black of coal, and the innocent white of the wedding veil.

This FREE exhibition runs until the Spring of 2014. Find out more at www.windinghouse.co.uk – for sat nav use post code NP24 6EG

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