“A lot of the work seems to be about the construction of the American identity,” Drake comments, and the work sited in the Wales Millennium Centre is a particularly apt example of this. You’ll find two contrasting projects from Jona Frank; High School, a layered set of portraits exploring the tribal cliques and personalities that are tried on for size during these years, and Right, where she photographed students of a staunchly Republican Christian private school.
Clementine Schneidermann’s I Called her Lisa-Marie confirms that the Elvis legend is alive and well – from Memphis to Porthcawl, where an annual festival is held honouring the King. You’re never entirely sure whether the images are from Tennessee or South Wales, and as Drake says, “them becoming Elvis or surrounding themselves with memorablilia was a way people who’ve had quite tough lives, whether that be in South Wales or in Memphis, could transcend that through the glitter and kitsch of the Elvis phenomenon.”
Ffotogallery’s own space plays host to ‘And Now It’s Dark’, gathering the work of American heavyweights Jeff Brouws, Todd Hido and Will Steacy. Presenting an ambiguous vision of nocturnal American cities, the work highlights the revelatory effect of the presence of light in darkened spaces. Brouws and Steacy’s work points toward the underlying decay of the American city, made visible at night under brightly-lit neon signs. Hido’s photographs are more suburban and hint at the latent dangers and perhaps, pleasures of the night.
Besides the work being exhibited, the festival is running a number of photography-related events suitable for all audiences. Book launches and symposiums cater to the faithful, educational talks and workshops allow children to get involved and portfolio reviews offer the chance for young photographers to get their work seen by notable curators and professionals.
Wales is becoming something of a magnet for British and European photography students, with the acclaimed Documentary Photography course at University of Wales, Newport joined by flourishing institutions such as Trinity St David Swansea and Aberystwyth University. For Drake, Wales has always been a natural venue for photography.
“Photography has played a role in Wales since its invention in the 1830s when William Henry Fox Talbot made some of the world’s earliest photographs in and around Swansea and Margam. Eugene Smith, Philip Jones-Griffiths and Robert Frank’s images of the South Wales Valleys provide some of the most iconic representations of coal mining communities. That legacy perhaps explains the enduring interest Welsh audiences have in photographic images – both contemporary and historical.”
America, both as an idea and as a site for images, is perhaps overrepresented in the cultural sphere and at first glance is an odd fit for a Cardiff festival, but Drake disagrees:
“I did a project on Dylan Thomas’s time in New York last year and I realised there’s something about Welsh writers, artists, musicians etc. where they look West [to America]. It was true of Thomas, of John Cale when he went off and joined the Velvet Underground, and of W.H. Davies [the writer who spent time in 1890s America living as a hobo]. It’s not an accident that they end up in New York or Pennsylvania rather than Paris or London.”
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor notwithstanding, Wales and America are unlikely cultural bedfellows. While this bond between 3 million and 300 million is not the most prominent or prized relationship either nation has, with work from the likes of Julian Germain, Arthur Tress and Melissa Moore on show, Diffusion hopes to inspire audiences to look a bit closer.
Diffusion: Cardiff International Festival of Photography 2015 will be exhibiting around the city until the 31st October. Find more details here.
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