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The Traveler who Enters a Strange Country: Bruce Davidson's Iconic Photographs of Cymru

American photographer Bruce Davidson is perhaps best known for his series of iconic photographs depicting the lives of teenage gang members in late 1950s Brooklyn; one of which was later used as the cover for the Bob Dylan album, 'Together Through Life'.

But the revered Magnum Photos photographer also produced another series of photographs that are equally as captivating. While serving with the US Army in Paris in the mid-1950s, Davidson asked his Welsh sergeant where it was that he’d send his worst enemy. "Cwmcarn, Wales" was his response.

So when in 1965, Davidson was commissioned to photograph Caernarfon Castle for a magazine, he saw this as the perfect opportunity to visit the mining village— albeit located at the opposite end of the country. It was during this visit to the southern coalfield that Davidson produced some of the most poignant and evocative photographs ever taken of the country.

"I thought it was so beautiful [...]” remarked Davidson, “But also devastatingly awful."

The collection contains some forty photographs in total; divided almost equally between black-and-white and colour images.

What is most striking about the collection is Davidson’s ability to capture the quiet dignity of his subjects in the face of tough and unforgiving living conditions.

Symbols of cleanliness pervade Davidson’s work; in the image of a woman scrubbing her front step and the pavement outside her home; in the tender portrait of a miner bathing himself in a tin bath by the fireplace as though engaged in an act of ritual ablution. On either side of him stand two dark figures, who help create a pleasing symmetry. There's also the recurring motif of crisp-white clothing; draping from a clothes line or in the form of a bride’s wedding dress.

But although these photographs are replete with physical tokens of cleanliness, Davidson’s work also captures its more symbolic expression too, namely the notion of purity. Not merely as the condition of being free from dirt or other contaminates, but purity as a transcendental and spiritual quality; as a freedom from the corrupting forces of a hostile world, as innocence; especially the innocence of youth.

The theme of purity and innocence occurs repeatedly throughout the collection. In this image of a coal-stained miner holding his infant child. The father wears dark clothing, his child on the other hand, is dressed from head to toe in white.

The high-contrast, tenebristic quality of the photograph emphasises the chasm between the innocence of youth and its subsequent loss in adulthood.

In another photograph, we see a young girl, illuminated against the dark backdrop of a cemetery, unconcerned, perhaps even blissfully unaware of the import of her gloomy surroundings. For the young girl, this is just another playground, as good as any other.

Then there’s this ethereal, oneiric photograph of a white horse set against a barren landscape. Commenting on the photograph, Davidson himself described the pony as being “absolutely beautiful— it’s like a unicorn”.

But for some perhaps, the most enigmatic photograph in Davidson’s collection is this curious scene of a young child, pushing a pram up a steep hill; a teddy bear and doll sat inside as passengers. In this instance, Davidson made the deliberate aesthetic choice to capture this ephemeral moment in colour— not so that he could capture the soft pink hues of the doll’s dress nor the child’s golden hair, but rather, by his own admission, to capture the delicate red wisp of smoke, caused by sulphuric acid, that billows from the chimneys of the steelworks in the background.

"A lot of people think it's a boy but it's actually a girl”, remarked Davidson, “I don't think you'd find many boys in a mining town pushing a baby carriage like that. They wouldn't stand a chance."

Recalling his visit to Cwmcarn, Davidson remarked fondly that he had ‘found his Wales’.

It is ironic that it is through the lens of an outsider that we are afforded what is perhaps the most intimate and familiar glimpse into this episode of our nation’s history.

In the word’s of esteemed photographer Bill Brandt:

“It is part of the photographer’s job to see more intensely than most people do. He must have and keep in him something of the receptiveness of the child who looks at the world for the first time or of the traveller who enters a strange country.”
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