Caught by the River

Merthyr Tydfil, early '70's – The photography of Robert Haines

Brian David Stevens | 1st March 2014

Brian David Stevens marks Saint David’s Day with a look at the people of the Welsh Valleys, caught by the camera of Robert Haines.

The Welsh village of Heolgerrig lies just off the Head of the Valleys Road to the west of Merthyr Tydfil, it was here in 1971 that 19 year old photographer Robert Haines made a set of images. Haines’ pictures show the people formed by this landscape, an incredible cast of characters, Maggie Soap, two Mad Malcolms (one just ‘mad’ the other a ‘mad axe-man’) and Tommy Gravedigger. At the time there was little interest shown in the pictures, and they resided in a cardboard box until they were unearthed in 2008. With the passing of time something had happened to these ‘ordinary moments in the lives of ordinary people’, they had become extraordinary.

They have a lighter touch than Robert Franks’ pictures of Wales shot in the 1950s, they cross generations, some of the ways of life had not changed for hundreds of years. Heolgerrig was a very close-knit community with Welsh the first language. It was a mining community where most of the men worked underground and life seemed to revolve around the pub and the chapel.

The captions Haines provides flesh out the bones of the pictures, and are an utter joy, for example for his picture of Bill Baldy:

‘He was nearly seventy. He drank rough cider in Ye Old Express and rolled his own from the nips of used cigarettes which he recycled from the ashtrays and stored in a little tin box – Mintoes he called them. He would quote the Iranian poet Omar Khayyam “Let us be happy, Time is passing by. There is no return, when you go you are gone.” And he would drink every day until he was legless. He would drink anything and claimed he once drank Brasso. “I’ve never fucking worked and I never fucking will,” was his motto.’

One photograph for me stands out, Old Mr and Mrs Jones and their family.

Haines’ caption reads:

Old Mister Jones is sitting on the far left and Old Misses Jones is holding the baby. The family were Romany Gypsies who sold their caravan and settled in a house off Bethesda Street. They are descendants of the Famous Romany King – Abram Wood. His grand-daughter was Alabaina Wood , who married a Mr Jones from the Lleyn. Unusually, she kept the surname of her husband for her and her family. Although, the family was known by the nickname of “Alabaina”

It’s an incredible photograph, the whole family, lost in thought, lost in their own worlds, it’s a quiet picture, it pauses for thought and exhales in silence. A wonderful moment captured perfectly.

Robert Haines Photographs can be seen here
and details of a film about the work can be found here

Brian David Stevens
Drifting Camera blog
and on twitter