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Thursday, 28 November 2013

Picturing Powys: Iain Wright’s Royal Commission Photography for the Pevsner Architectural Guide

The Chancel of Brecon Cathredral
   NPRN: 96574

The Pevsner Architectural Guide to Powys is the last in a series of county guides to the architecture of Wales. It updates and extends its predecessor, published in 1979, as the first of the series. These Buildings of Wales volumes followed hard on the heels of a Buildings of England series, begun in the 1940s by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, and published between 1951 and 1974. Regarded as indispensable for the architectural traveller, the books set out to capture the architectural character of a county through a gazetteer of significant buildings accompanied by an introductory essay.

This is a big ambition for Powys, which covers a quarter of Wales and comprises three historical counties each with a distinctive identity of its own. The book makes a generous selection of buildings in a narrative sweep that  not only assigns a place to the architectural set-pieces and fine buildings, but also to the regional architectural traditions that perhaps more than anything else capture the character of the county. Together with the introductory essay, the photographs must convey this narrative, binding together architectural themes that might otherwise be lost in the detail of gazetteer.

The photographs in the book therefore form a single sequence arranged chronologically rather than geographically. They are intended to draw attention to buildings that have their own place in the story of architecture in the county, but which are also representative of broader themes.  They trace the development of building traditions from the earliest times, and highlight the work not only of architects, but also of the many un-named craftsmen whose skill enriches all our landscapes and townscapes.

Romanesque Tympanum at St Padarn’s Church,Llanbadarn Fawr, Radnorshire
   NPRN: 236

In the selection for this exhibition, for example, we see the inventiveness of twelfth-century stone carvers and sixteenth-century carpenters, of late seventeenth-century plasterers and twentieth-century stained-glass makers.  We see religious faith manifest in the tiny rural churches of Rhulen and Capel-y-ffin that seem to belong only to their immediate community, and in the simple interior of Maesyronnen chapel. By contrast, in Brecon’s soaring thirteenth-century priory church, in the gothick of Trefecca College, and the gothic revival church at Llangasty Tal-y-llyn, architecture reflects connections to much wider communities. The unique theatre of Craig-y-nos also reaches out to a world beyond the county: in plan it is a miniature Bayreuth.  We see architectural experimenters – from the unknown builder of Glanclydach cottages, to Henry Hanbury-Tracy trying out concrete at Gregynog, to rammed earth used stylishly in the WISE building at the Centre for Alternative Technology.

All this is a considerable challenge for the photographer. Iain had to translate the chronological list of sites into something that made logistical sense on the ground, creating vast maps plotting sites from north to south, west to east. He trawled maps and aerial photographs for additional information that would help him plan ahead – on orientation and sight-lines, for example. He had to track down contact details for every property, or cold-call and hope for a welcome. Iain has worked out some short-cuts – undertakers, for example, usually know who to talk to in churches and chapels. He was given this assignment in one of the wettest summers of recent years – he saved the interiors for rainy days. Not just the weather, but also the time of day is critical for exterior work. Iain always arrives on site early to give maximum time to catch the best light, or simply to set up the shots, but inevitably there are compromises – where conditions limit the choice of viewpoint for example.

Most of the interiors needed to be lit, and it can take up to five hours for a single shot such as a complicated (and dark) church interior.  Even a font takes an hour and a half, and Iain spent two days in Brecon cathedral for just eight shots. Power is not always available for lighting – the ornate interior at Llangasty Tal-y-llyn had to be done from a single socket on the pulpit. Cables and lighting units have to be positioned so that they can easily be removed from the shot in the post-production process if necessary – forward planning is essential.
All the work is tripod mounted, which makes it possible to produce composite images by layering in Photoshop: windows and interiors were usually done as separate frames. Using software to balance interior and exterior lighting can take several hours of patient work.  All told, Iain covered 120 sites in 20 days, by which time he had driven about 3,000 miles. This was followed by three weeks of post-production work. He uses a Canon IDS Mk III, with 12,000 watts of lighting, including two mains operated units and five transportable units. The tripod has 4-inch metal spikes for grass, with rubber feet to protect carpets and floors.

This work was done on behalf of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales. The images here, all those in the book, and others taken during the course of this exercise are all in the National Monuments Record, and available to view through coflein

Iain has worked for RCAHMW for 35 years. He is a fellow of the British Institute for Professional Photography.

“Picturing Powys”: an exhibition of Iain Wright’s Royal Commission photography for the Pevsner Architectural Guide will be on display from 30 November until mid-February 2014, in the Pen’rallt Gallery Bookshop, Heol Pen’ralt, Machynlleth.

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