Wednesday, 12 November 2014

"Turner would turn in his grave".

The recent interest in the work of J.M.W. Turner with a major exhibition at Tate Britain and the much acclaimed Mike Leigh film 'Mr. Turner' starring Timothy Spall has brought back a memory.
'Ty Bach Under a Tree, near Tregaron, Ceredigion, 1984'
From the exhibition 'Great Little Tin Sheds of Wales'

I have written before about exhibiting one's work and how, once it is in the public domain you must expect brickbats from some quarters. Maybe I have been lucky in that respect but the number of times my work has been subjected to vitriol by a serious critic over the years has been, thankfully, small. Some creative people pretend to dismiss and ignore criticism as 'unimportant' or  'irrelevant '. Of course it depends on the context for the criticism and from where it is coming. Serious, informed comments by people whose opinions you may respect is to be welcomed sometimes. Again, I'm lucky in having a circle of intelligent friends and colleagues who dispense help and advice as a body of work progresses.  By the time the work is published or exhibited, I am reasonably content that I have been as critical as I can about my work and have taken on board the valued comments from these individuals. While not dismissing other, later opinions, I can usually be rational about them and not become overly depressed about any that may be less than complimentary. 
'Tin Cottage with Slate Roof, Pembrokeshire, 1984'
From the exhibition 'Great Little Tin Sheds of Wales'

However, you may get, as I did, early on in my exhibiting life comments that rock you backwards but when viewed rationally are quite laughable.

My first one-person exhibition was of work I made in Cardiff before I moved to West Wales. Traditional documentary street photography and although some images showed a measure of deprivation in parts of the city which might not to be everyone's taste, it was well received. As I mentioned in a previous blog work from that was acquired by the Arts Council for their collection. 
Portmanmoor Road, Cardiff, 1969
After the move to West Wales my attention turned to the landscape that I was now surrounded by. Partly as a learning curve to deal with this genre of photography that was new to me, in terms of my personal photography at least, my attention focussed on the man-made aspects of the new environment I found myself in. The part of West Wales I live in contains many small farms and smallholdings that eke out a subsistence living for much of the population. Financial necessity had dictated that many of the utilitarian buildings are fashioned from re-used corrugated iron and these, for me, stood in the landscape as totems of the history of this land and of those who had inhabited and worked it for generations. 

The body of work that finally emerged appeared to catch the public imagination and I received many gratifying comments and also the knowledge, from these comments, that many people were now seeing their environment in a different way. Isn't that just the purpose of much documentary landscape photography? I was satisfied. Even today, some thirty years after this exhibition opened, people come up to me to point out a shed they have seen somewhere that caught their attention.
'Spratt's Bonio, Rhycymerau, Carmarthenshire, 1984
From the exhibition, 'Great Little Tin Sheds of Wales'

However, there were some dissenting voices mainly from those who really didn't understand and had very blinkered views about culture and the landscape.

One of the many venues that hosted the exhibition was the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery in Swansea. At the same time, in the adjoining gallery room was that year's Swansea Festival exhibition, 'Turner in Wales'. A fine collection of the landscape master's work on his various tours through Wales. Oils, watercolour sketches and some drawings in notebooks. The local paper, the South Wales Evening Post, wrote a piece about the two shows. My show received three quarters of a page complete with images, while Turner got a few paragraphs. I was delighted until I read the headline and looked closely at the pictures. They purported to show members of the public (actually they were posed and set up) pointing at my prints and shaking their fists in mock outrage! The headline proclaimed, 'Turner would turn in his grave!' Priceless! A few members of the Welsh language cultural establishment had taken offence at my portrayal of these structures in the landscape and would have preferred rolling hills, sheep and daffodils! 
'Great Little Tin Sheds of Wales' exhibition catalogue
Never mind, the show toured for over two years within the UK and many prints were sold. Enough that I was able to fund the building of a studio on the land behind my home. I was laughing all the way to the bank. If there is a moral to this tale it is just what I highlighted earlier, take advice from trusted, knowledgeable people and do not be swayed by ill-informed criticisms.