A Cardiff photographer who discovered thousands of old photos of Cardiff, then set out on a mission to identify the people in the images and the mystery photographer behind them, is publishing a book about his extraordinary project, “Cardiff Before Cardiff”.
Two years ago, Jon Pountney was renovating Warwick Hall – a recording studio and art space off Whitchurch Road – when he discovered more than 1,000 photo negatives and 300 prints of images showing Splott, Butetown and Adamsdown in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The photos were taken by a Keith S Robertson, but Jon had no idea who Keith was, how the photos came to be there, or who the people in the images were – but he wanted to find out.
He said: “People were e-mailing me from this piece in the paper, saying ‘that’s me’ or ‘that’s my brother’.”
As Jon began to piece together the puzzle of the images he’d found, he also went back to some of the places in Keith’s images and took his own version of the photographs – sometimes featuring the people who had been in the originals, or members of their family, who had got in touch with him.
As the project gathered pace, the Wales Millennium Centre contacted Jon and said they wanted to do a slide show of Keith’s images in the summer of 2011. Again, the response to the pictures was huge. But, despite his efforts, Jon had still been unable to track down Keith.
Then, in August last year, Jon walked out of Warwick Hall to find himself standing face-to-face with man whose pictures had become a major artistic project for him.
“I was coming out of the studio on day and he was just there. I knew it was him straight away,” Jon said.
Keith had been living in Cardiff all these years, but had given up photography. Jon reunited him with his work, and the two have since worked closely together as their pictures were exhibited side-by-side at another exhibition at Wales Millennium Centre, and to create this new book.
Trying to sum up the project ahead of the book’s release, Jon said he was drawn to Keith’s photographs because “when you look at Keith’s photos, you feel something you can’t define”.
He said the best explanation he had was that they embodied “saudade” – a Portuguese word meaning a “nostalgic longing” for something that you love, but know will never return. He said the Welsh word “hiraeth” – “a longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness, for the Wales of the past” – also described how the photos made him feel, and that he had tried to capture this in the photos he recreated, years after Keith’s originals.
The new book, which goes on sale tomorrow, includes Keith and Jon’s “before and after” shots, and a selection of Keith’s images, with words by writer Alun Gibbard. But this will not be the end of the story.
Jon said: “The book is a really big milestone which I set myself, but now I’m meeting up with a production company about doing a documentary about it for TV, and I’m doing my own documentary about it for the web. It’s such a visual story, so next year, fingers crossed, we can tell it on film.”
“Cardiff Before Cardiff” is published by Y Lolfa and available in bookshops from Thursday December 13, priced £12.95, or online.
John will also be signing copies of the book in WH Smith on Queen Street on Thursday December 20 from 4pm-5pm.
Below, Jon writes about what the project has meant to him, and you can see a selection of Keith’s images from Cardiff Before Cardiff in our slide show.
“As I write, Saturday 24th November 2012, in a cosy Cardiff cafe, Milgis, the rain thrashes down on the neon puddle reflections of the myriad take aways of City Road.
I have lived not far from this street since 1996, and having moved to Cardiff from rural Warwickshire, have always been hyper-aware of the crush, bustle, and ugly beauty of this arterial road, and the wider city. I’m here to cast an eye over a paper copy of my first book, Cardiff before Cardiff, and wonder how this prosaic capital of Wales has given me such a wonderful gift.
As a student I was a painter of imaginary city scenes, inspired by the music of The Smiths and Suede, and through the artwork of those bands, developed a love of documentary photography. Ian Berry, Don McCullin, and Bruce Davidson were the Holy Trinity of a make believe kingdom of back streets, motorway fly-overs, belching chimneys and industrial decline, all in grainy black and white.
So now imagine the scene – I’ve taken over an almost derelict artists’ studio in November 2010, and sorting through a building’s-worth of detritus I find a big print of two Mod lads stood by a window.
Looking at the charcoal blacks and crisp whites, and the municipal 50s street light reflected in the window behind the boys, I felt almost as if it were me that had taken the picture.
Over the coming weeks I found numerous prints and 3 huge files of negatives. The pictures were amazing. A Triumph Toledo, its nose cropped bravely, against a shabby wall. A pub landlady, smiling proudly behind the bar, almost moving and polishing pint pots. A butcher and wife, peeking from behind a macabre row of pigs heads. A man in a white shirt, with a shrewd and worldly face, standing in a darkened garage next to his Ford Cortina. These pictures were cinematic; the people in movement, as if able to step off the paper. And running throughout, a rich vein of community, smiles, winks and laughter.
A couple were stamped with ‘Keith S Robertson’ on the back. I googled the name to no result. A few pictures I digitised and posted on Tumblr; the blog I named Cardiff before Cardiff, a title that came to me as soon as I found the first pic. This was the Cardiff before the Bay, before urban regeneration, before the ‘consensus of decline’, a city that couldn’t guess its immediate future. So it was out there, and the first thing I wanted to find out – who was Keith?
The blog was picked up by Ed Walker, a writer for Media Wales, and he asked to do a spread of the pictures in the South Wales Echo. The response was immense, and Keith’s brother soon contacted me. He hadn’t seen Keith for years, but was thrilled to see his pictures again. Keith it transpired was also a talented painter, and an amazing painting I had found in the studio of Marilyn Monroe was by him. An intriguing picture of Keith was being built up, and I couldn’t help but see parallels in inspirations between us.
So that’s the start, and the rest is covered in the book, beautifully written by Alun Gibbard. The last two years have proved that fact is stranger than fiction, and I have lived it! Maybe it was fate that decided I was to find those amazing photos. They inspired me to step out into the streets of Cardiff and make the work I’ve always wanted to. My pictures are side by side with Keith’s in the book, and I couldn’t be prouder.
You probably want to know if I found Keith? Well I did, and much more besides. I re-united him with his work, and incredibly, with a daughter he hadn’t seen in years. Like I said, fate decided it.”