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NWR Issue 103

Day Dreaming About The Good Times? Paul Reas Ffotogallery exhibition

copyright Paul Reas

Day Dreaming About The Good Times? is the first major retrospective of documentary photographer Paul Reas at Ffotogallery’s Penarth venue, Turner House. It takes an interesting, albeit partial, look at Reas' work, which stretches from his early days as a student in 1982 up to 2012.

Through his camera, Reas succeeds in capturing the dignity of working-class people. He is not one for pitying the poor worker, nor does he sanitise the past. There is a frankness to his work, which itself reflects the often straight-forward attitudes in such communities (as in the one where he grew up).

Emphasising this, greeting you as you enter Turner House are four photographs of working-class people in their work environment, one of which portrays a young man in his early twenties holding the severed heads of two pigs.

Having grown up in a working-class mining district in Yorkshire, Reas intuitively understands what is happening in such areas, whether at home or in the Welsh Valleys. He comes from the outside with an insider’s eye. He is therefore able to capture scenes ‘as is’ with dignity and respect, working from the outset with none of the baggage certain ‘outsider’ documentary photographers bring; that sense of wallowing in the misery of the working class before moving on to the next project.

While each photo and each collection provides an insight into its subject, the context of pieces relating and contrasting to each other here is emphasized. This dialectical approach presents Reas’ photos of working miners (Desmond’s Mine, 1983) alongside images from just a few years later, of closed mines turned into part of the heritage industry (Flogging A Dead Horse, 1989-1993). This strongly accents what Reas disdainfully sees as ‘the leisure industry... appropriating working class history.’

On the floor above, his work for the advertising industry in the Nineties (Editorial and Advertising) are juxtaposed with scenes of working-class women in factories actually making things (The Valleys Project, 1985). Consumption on the one hand, production on the other.

In the most current display (From A Distance, 2012), this contrast is self-contained. In between photos of Elephant and Castle residents facing uncertainty and change, are images of incense pots from the local market which promise to remove such insecurity.

Perhaps it is just personal experience colouring my view, but I found the latter From A Distance section to be, ironically, uncertain in its purpose. While containing some fine photographs, the collection on the whole lacks the straightforward insight of Reas’ earlier work.

Yet for all the contrast and insight on display, perhaps the most telling picture is from the series I Can Help (1985-1988). Cataloguing the rise of consumerism and a new middle-class boom, this very much captures a time. This photo sees a family shopping for a child’s duvet cover. Yet what strikes the viewer first of all is the sight of the father smoking a cigarette. Indoors.

This single image is as informative of the shift in the UK as those of the mines. Due to a concerted government effort, not least in Wales, the social prominence of cigarettes has been drastically reduced so that they are now widely regarded as being poisonous and aesthetically unpleasant.

Day Dreaming About The Good Times? is a powerful retrospective that captures a distinct sense of what it was like to experience and exist in the aftermath of the 1980s (through which we are still living), for better or worse.

Exhibition runs until 10 May, Turner House, Penarth

Craig Thomas is a contributor to New Welsh Review online


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