Some of the most striking images in ‘Serendipity’, an exhibition of photographs by Gwyn Williams, were as much because of their scale as to the subject they portray. A quintet of images, each one measuring eighty inches by forty inches, constituted a complete panorama looking away from the Cob at Porthmadog towards the rocky fastnesses of Snowdonia.
The splay of images reminded us how much of this landscape is man-made, as the Cob, built by William Alexander Madocks over 200 years ago, helped claim land from the river Glaslyn. While some of the land rising in the foreground is pockmarked by quarrying, with the sublimity and ancient rocks of Snowdonia rising jaggedly in the distance.
“All of the photographs in the show have been originated on film,” explains Williams, “and mostly printed by myself, but this one I scanned, stretched the images to give depth to the view and then they were commercially printed.
“I set out to capture the great view from the Cob. I chose one day and then each panel is taken at a different time of day, so we start at sunrise, then ten o’clock in the morning, then midday, four in the afternoon and the final one is taken at sunset.”
When he takes photographs commercially Williams is governed by other people but the work in this show was garnered by happy accident, as its title underlines. “With film I have absolute control over what I see in my mind’s eye but then I’m limited by what you can do as you develop the image and have to work within those confines, whereas with digital it’s too easy to lose the vision you had in the first place when you’re sitting in front of a computer.”
The majority of works in the show are usually quiet, unfussy studies in black and white but there is one unexpected blurt of colour, a Van Gogh array of yellow sunflowers in serried ranks, taken during a trip through France. Most of the other photos were taken closer to home, from Blackweir on the Taff in Cardiff to the Victorian pier at Penarth, reflecting a passionate, decades’ long interest in the Welsh countryside.
Certainly, the high lands and mountains of the country have long exerted a steady magnetism for him, taking him and his camera out into the clear air. “‘Old Man and the Mountain’ is an image taken a year ago, and everything came together in that really special moment. I was looking at the image one night and I suddenly realised that if you turn your head sideways you can see the outline of a head in the rocks and to date I’ve found eleven faces in this single image.” It’s a bit like finding the Devil’s likeness nestling in Sian Owen’s shawl in Curnow Vosper’s painting ‘Salem’: all down to the viewer’s perception really. But as you look at the montane image you will see other things – stipples of lichen, dark smudges of alien Sitka spruce planted in folds in the land, wind-blasted grass in thin tussocks, the dark chill of water in a high lake and defiant trees seemingly growing out of bare rock.
The shot of ‘Snowdon,’ meanwhile, was taken as far back as 1989 and is the photographer’s best selling image, printed in different light tints. The Eryri rocks, usually seen or imagined as grey and dark are in this image lighter, possessed of airiness and weightlessness, as if the landscape is hovering, floating. A talcum powder dusting of snow challenges the Zen immutability of the ancient rocks. “It’s as if the mountain reveals some vulnerability here,” says Williams.
Not everything is light, mind. “I take a very heavy camera into the field, a 5 x 4 inch monorail large format camera and I’m getting too old to be carrying it much longer.” Lugging such a large piece of equipment across open country reaps rewards, not least in the fine texture and detail in the resulting work. “There’s so much quality, so much resolution you get with film which I find is missing with digital. You cannot get the same depth and quality to the image with digital photography and I don’t see a time you ever will.”
Williams avers that “Photographs are everywhere, you see the world as a series of images.” He refers to the great American landscape photographer Ansel Adams who, in a letter to fellow photographer Alfred Stieglitz, said it was very comforting that at anytime, within ten feet of him there was enough material to keep himself going for a lifetime. Adams is a touchstone and tutor for Gwyn Williams. “He has been a mentor of mine for years, his work really started me off in landscape. Mind you, he’s too good.”
For Williams a mixture of emotion and meaning is the main determinant of a successful photograph. “It’s seeing something that means something to me. The working title for this show was ‘Feelings’ as I wanted to ask what does this photograph make me feel. Does it communicate a message?”
‘Serendipity’ was a chance for the photographer to take stock of his own work and how it’s changed over three decades, a period which has seen the rise and dizzy rise of digital technology, challenging film as a medium.
“I try to never lose track of what captivated me about photography in the first place, how as photographers we do not capture reality but rather our interpretation as seen in our mind`s eye. I have always loved working in film with all the variation of exposure and development, along with printing technique that enables me to bring to the print what I perceived when I first viewed the scene.”