Fables of the Faubus

Paul Reas

Introduction Loose Footing

The men who sit at the bar in the pub I’ve taken to visiting finish work early on a Friday. By six in the evening, their brick and paint crusted jeans are woven around stools in the warmth of a bar that will numb the winter cold of the half built site they’ve worked on all week at the edge of this northern town. It seems such an easy roll into the night – with work put to rest and money, drink and home stories mulled over in turn. Whilst I work through my own thoughts, I sometimes imagine few such complications will ever foil them– as strong as they seem in their bruising banter and as numbed as they become from the steady rounds that taper into shorts, whilst the TV screens above them bring news updates of war, lies and something that means something to someone somewhere else. It’s Friday. It’s over.

When Primo Levi’s novel the Wrench was first published in 1978, he surprised readers by moving away from the dreadful themes of conflict and inhumanity for which he had become so widely known, to consider Fausonne, a rigger who earned a living on construction sites. The narrator, Levi, a mere storyteller, measured Fausonne’s talked up exploits and tales of life being lived so loudly, so fully, against his own worth. Levi was a witness, someone who watches, listens and transcribes but who may never feel the internal tensions of labour or understand enough of the concerns that those on the inside might hold. When I first read it, I was conscious that the same anxieties recur through the brief histories of documentary photography – veering, as they do, between experience and belonging and the compassionate distance of observation and detachment. From James Agee’s guilt and self-doubt as he takes the shelter of dustbowl families who have little, to the troubled offloading of Chauncey Hare, half a century later, whilst photographing Interior America, the uncertainties are well established. Hare’s book might yet become the key turning point for a kind of photography that prevails even now, recognising –as it did- that photography of work needs to go far beyond simply showing what we do and instead, it needs to try -and no matter at what cost to describe something he for one could no longer ignore…what work does to us.

As uncomfortable and incomplete as it may be, photography has kept a close watch on work and working lives in ways that reach back to its earliest uses. From the evolution of 19th century London, with Mayhew’s ‘deserving and undeserving poor’ to its current siren screaming flow, photography augmented journalists in their discovery of the poor quarters of the growing capital; from the plotting and construction of the post-war housing reservations of Kirkby to Paul Reas’s Buttershaw and beyond, photography has always attended and recorded – it’s even policed. It was commissioned to celebrate the cutting of the first earth and the benign events that distracted from soulless routines –and, as dreams soured and the promise of new worlds disappeared as fast as those companies seeking cheaper land and higher profits did, it would return to evidence, as it so often does, the disasters of a very domestic attrition, with tarnished ideas, homes that implode and the fraying remnants of what writers still call (- though it’s a stretch to remember when they were) ‘communities’. ‘Dreams…’ to borrow from the short story writer Raymond Carver, ‘are what you wake up from…’

It’s perhaps easy to understand -even excuse- the limited histories that photography has inspired, accounts that see a Ship’s launch celebration whilst the working processes are rarely shown. Photography, and those who live from it, it seems, would be prone to note the exceptions and the exotic and all too rarely the exertions of a working day. When the Worker’s Illustrated News adopted its new name, in Germany in 1924, the forerunner of so many picture magazines called for closer accounts of working lives and the means for workers themselves to record them. Edwin Hoernle’s ‘no camera without a Proletarian eye’ marked a moment of self-affirmation which, whilst short lived, would advocate approaches that went beyond the checks and balances of the industrial photography more usually deployed, towards a vernacular, a place of self determination and a kind of photography capable of speaking from the interior.

The very potential for a more immersed, emotive rendering of working lives seems better served in recent years. Perhaps this was what Bruce Bernard was doing when he included Toby Glanville’s portrait of a Plasterer’s young mate in his Phaidon survey, Century. A young man, paused, plaster-speckled and shirtless in a part-renovated house had been photographed in such a way that, for Bernard, the picture had the reach of an X-ray. If you looked closely enough, he seemed to infer, you’d see the boy’s very make-up - even his future. Good photography can suggest where we’re heading long before we reach there.

In the mid 1990’s I heard Paul Reas introduce his photographs by first showing a photograph of himself as a bricklayer. Taken decades before and standing by a low wall, the picture must have provided a rare interruption from a working life that would see him work in the north of England before following the itinerant trails of his contemporaries build and earn in a new Europe. To move towards photography must have led to a recalibration on so many levels. Leaving the dialects of the building site, with its noise, its physicality and abrasions, Paul Reas would draw on his own experiences, share affinities with the heavy industries he made work about and engage with the craft of storytelling at a time when the orthodoxies and dynamics of documentary itself were being rattled, rejected and revised.

And change isn’t easy. How do you come to terms with what happens when the foundations you’ve laid in life no longer mean enough, when working for the Friday pay packet is just the drag it is and all the bold talk in the portacabins you thaw out in wear down to the frustrations and surrenders they so often are? Stale biscuits, stale news and spilt milk on stained tables, with each scrawled mark and blemish so familiar because you take the same seat at every break time. It can’t be easy, as you sit with men who started as young apprentices and who are now weeks from pensions, to feel all this is taking us nowhere fast. God knows, the anger it can fuel -and perhaps the spirit it can kill. But some find the strength to step out of routines that tire our minds, that prematurely age us, that can even maim us…and to do all this after Thatcher and her look after your own selfish vision broke down all it could in regions that resisted her callous dismantling of manufacturing industries and their workforces…all this, in a time in which it would be easier to do nothing, to say nothing, to be nothing.

Paul Reas was moved to do something, to make something of worth and he and his contemporaries consciously exploited the subjectivity implicit in documentary practices. They dismissed the played out subservience of earlier picture stories in favour of multi-vocal authorship and narratives that were as complicated and layered as the worlds they were responding to were themselves. When Peter Mitchell visited Quarry Hill in Leeds to photograph the last days of the housing estate as workers began its dismantling, he moved door to door to gather the cuttings and family pictures kept by residents who would eventually leave. In doing so, he created a rare and tender archive that, by proxy, grew to be an account as imperfect and beautiful as our lives can be. How different the joyful birthday picnics at the foot of the tower block looked from so many of the gratuitous accounts of working class lives that gathered over the last century. Mitchell knew the value of these kept fragments – so remote as they were from the official designs and aspirations against which he placed them when consolidating his book Memento Mori. Perhaps because they show the details, the breaths instead of the screams, the embraces instead of the breakdowns, the life affirming instead of the newsworthy, they mark a territory so underplayed in photography that, when they do appear, they become precious, magnificent appreciations of a working class life we have all but lost in this age of moral panics, civil fracture and suspicion.

At the threshold of an era of digital development, Paul Reas was photographing with the kind of insight that had moved him from the sure but well accounted structures of the Welsh coal fields to the communities who peopled the component parts industries that now precariously sat upon them. In recognising such changes, his photographs have built a bridge between the work of the hand – with its craft and industry, its learning and evolution, to the work of the head, with an emphasis on surface, profit, brand and the short lived technologies that circle around cheap labour forces only to close and relocate with the slightest breeze. How do we photograph work now that what we once recognised as such is hardly there? As Paul Reas migrated from the black and white Valleys to the new-build monotony of out of town retail parks, he would begin to make pictures that conveyed something about new dreams being sold, the retail opportunities and aspirations, the quick fixes and final days of sales. The regions he was moved to photograph in had seen skills replaced with service and security with, well, don’t they call it flexibility?

Promises were harder to fulfil than proclaim in the new start new dawn new towns, populated as they were with residents from the faltering inner cities. Through the late 1980’s and 1990s, as regions like my own resisted the ‘managed decline’ that was planned for them, Paul Reas photographed the carnival of heritage that created pantomimes across former regions of industrial labour. We can all sing the song now – industries close, redundancies bring insecurities, new jobs and uncertain months veer from fallow to feast, short contracts, privacy clauses and corporations shepherding photographers away from their peripheries because they tell us they even own the views now. The photographers who engaged with such worlds had to find a new language to articulate the very quiet breakdowns and tensions that were as much psychological as physical and find a response to signs that –if you’re busy making repayments, or if you’re anchored to the malevolent docility of cable TV packages –it would be all too easy to miss and probably impossible to feel.

I believe Paul Reas felt things. As he photographed former miners in their reconstructed landscapes, the shuffling sightseers in the Beamish heritage park and spat fire with his camera at the likes of us who paid our money, were told how things used to be and then went to look for cheap cuts of meat and ready meals in the supermarket freezers on the way home. He must have felt it too in the life sentences passed on middle-aged men and women selling endless cheap furniture in soulless stores near the ring roads of so many Raintowns. Britain was already fucked and the chattels we were encouraged to sign up for and keep close came at us with the honey of advertising and the tripwires of credit. How angry must you feel, how clear must your intentions be to be wary of the lucrative majesty of industrial assignments when it’s so easy to perpetuate a kind of photography that simply applauds and flatters. And how clear minded must you be to make observations as gauche, as perplexing and as cautionary as responses to those worlds should be? Paul Reas went on to make sustained series of photographs about declining industry and and their consequences that have few close parallels. Julian Germain’s remapping of Consett and Bart Sorgedrager’s relentless archive of European factories and workers in the last months before closure seem fitting company in a shallow pool. Each are purposeful, singular, forthright and clear sighted and each made by photographers relating something they found impossible to ignore at a time when it would have been so easy to look the other way.

Perhaps more will eventually be understood about this immersion and the formative experiences that sensitized Paul Reas to make the work that he did at a moment when working processes in Britain were changing right in front of him. When the potter Emmanuel Cooper came to see me in the early 1990s, he was progressing his book People’s Art around the same time. He was looking for work shaped by the rituals, languages and preoccupations of the regions that had compelled them. If he had lived to see the success of his book he may have thought to add a chapter that included the likes of Paul Reas and I - mid 20th Century nomads in a land that isn’t Eden, helplessly shaped by our homes and labours, by the revelations that came with an escape to college and, as ever, the urgencies of money and work -along with the nouse that gets us by when sometimes it would be easier to fail. He might have thought of how we’re wilfully burdened by our adolescence, by the experience of work, by upbringings that are imperfect yet well meaning and by the abrupt awareness we share that this is not a rehearsal or an entitlement, it’s a second chance and one that comes with a hunger to build on, but never quite temper, the earlier lives we moved away from.

These are the thoughts I sometimes work through on a Friday as the twilight turns the North Welsh hills indigo beyond the pub’s southern window and I try and figure out what I recognise in these men as they talk each other through what really matters. Paul Reas would recognise something here too and know the rhythms of work and release that those sitting in front of me are close to putting behind them for another week. He had shared the same company, but would eventually leave behind the uncertainty of a world we both knew for the uncertainty of life as a working photographer and, with the integrity, anger and hope of a man who knows how to build the foundations of a new life, he would make a ritualistic trip to the Yorkshire coast, cast his tools into the North Sea and start all over again.

Ken Grant

August 2018

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