Llandeilo Photographer (1866-1940)
Victorian and Edwardian photographs, usually taken by an unsung local professional photographer, have undoubtedly influenced our perceptions of the past. The vast collection of photographs taken by Llandeilo photographer D. C. Harries, and bequeathed to the National Library of Wales in 1976, take us back to a time when flocks of sheep could be herded through village streets; when butter was 8d a pound; and the motor car was the greatest of novelties. With more immediacy than a history lesson, such photographs show us what we have lost and what we may have gained during the century of frantic progress since then.
So writes Iestyn Hughes, curator of the photographic collection at the National Library of Wales, in his brief selection of photographs by pioneer Llandeilo photographer D. C. Harries (born 1866).
The equipment in an early photographer's studio was formidable indeed. As well as the massive cameras of the day, he would need to keep painted backdrops for subjects to pose in front of with a variety of costumes held in stock for them to wear. In the vast collection of D. C. Harries photographs bequeathed to the nation at the National Library of Wales there are many examples of athletes and sportspeople posed in the studio. In the portrait of an unknown boxer (below) the standard backdrop painted to represent the view from a stately home appears eccentric for a sporting photograph today but was the convention of the time.
One of the most surprising portraits from the D. C. Harries collection is of a man dressed in Native American costume, complete with a most elaborate chief's head-dress (see below). This bizarre photograph no doubt had meaning to its sitter, though we are left to ponder the incongruity of the magnificent Native American dress worn by a white man with patent leather shoes! This portrait in fact shows the ingenuity which the commercial photographer of the Victoria and Edwardian era often showed in pursuit of trade. The costume, which would have been kept in the studio for sitters to wear, reflects the craze in the late-Victorian period for the Wild West Show of Buffalo Bill (William Cody). Not only did Cody tour his show all over the USA with an entourage numbering as many as 1200 people plus horses, buffalo, elk and deer, but he also took the spectacle on extensive world-wide tours. He first established his Wild West Show in 1882 and recruited several famous people to perform in the show including Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickock and Sitting Bull. The show included re-enactments of Custer's Last Stand, Native American attacks on stagecoaches and cowboys showing off their skills. Some of the Native Americans in his troupe had actually fought against Custer for real and had gone to Europe with Cody to escape retribution from the US government.
In 1887 Cody's show toured Europe and gave a special performance in London in front of Queen Victoria and the Royal Family. The Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) was so impressed that he saw it three times. Cody and his team also appeared in France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria and Belgium. He also toured extensively in Wales: in 1891, 200,000 paying spectators saw the Wild West Show at Cardiff's Sophia Gardens in just a week. His show was back in Cardiff in 1903, but no place seemed too small for Cody, for his show visited Pembroke Dock on 14 th May 1903. The show, a massive tableau of the Wild West containing over 500 horsemen began its performance with a procession from Pembroke railway station led by Buffalo Bill himself. Among the star attractions was a display of horsemanship featuring Native Americans, sharp shooting exercises and various displays by South American gauchos, Bedouin tribesmen and Russian Cossacks.
Newspaper coverage was extensive, and public interest was frenzied wherever the Wild West Show turned up, and was no doubt the reason why D. C. Harries kept a Native American suit at his studio. The rail network now linked all cities and most towns, so even those living in rural communities like Llandeilo could travel to see these shows on which future Hollywood western movies would soon be modelled, while newspaper reports and photographs would have stimulated the imaginations of those who couldn't get to see the real thing.
These photographer's shops were once a common sight in British high streets; even small towns had a studio, sometimes more than one, and they chronicled every important event in the life of a community. In the days before cameras became affordable and commonly available, the local photographer was on hand to record all the important stages of a person's life. The baby reclining on a cushion would soon give way to the toddler; the schoolchild, then the teenager, possibly the college graduate, would in the fullness of time appear framed on the mantelpiece. Soon the individual would have a wedding, and the cycle would start all over again, as every important event was captured on celluloid for the family album. Portraits, family groups, and the countless occasions, great and small, of your life were commemorated by this beady-eyed stranger, whose lens missed nothing, whose eye saw all. The town's photographer would often double up as the photo-journalist for a local newspaper, capturing major cultural, sporting, and news items as well, so that in a working life he could amass a huge collection of photographs which in time would mutate from mere snaps into important historical documents. When individuals die all memory of them eventually dies with them, but well-kept photographs, especially if the negatives are preserved, can bring the dead back to life for us. Evocative sepia prints from the Victorian and Edwardian era are now witnesses to history, but even polaroids from a boozy wedding or holiday, complete with red-eye, may also one day have a historical value their original subjects couldn't have envisaged.
The eventual fate of these photographic collections once a studio closes down is usually a sorry one indeed. After gathering dust and damp in attics and storerooms their destined resting place is more often than not a landfill site when later generations clear away their clutter, unaware what treasures they're consigning to destruction.
Fortunately the collection of Llandeilo's longest serving photographer, D. C. Harries, has been preserved for posterity by a thoughtful son who, when he donated several thousands of negatives to the National Library of Wales in 1976, did the nation a massive favour indeed. More than fifty years of plying his trade in rural Carmarthenshire had resulted in a collection that is now one of the largest in the National Library's photographic archive.
In 1996 Iestyn Hughes, curator of the National Library of Wales' photographic collection, published a tiny selection of 100 prints from this vast collection. Even in such a small selection the variety of subjects that D. C. Harries photographed is breathtaking, ranging from country scenes and portraits of the immensely rich local gentry families, to industrial subjects, sporting occasions, and many, many more. D. C. Harries in fact had three shops - one in Llandovery, one in genteel, fox-hunting Llandeilo, and another one down among the coal mines, tinplate works and quarries of industrial Ammanford, so both ends of the social spectrum, with all points between, are represented in his wonderful legacy to the nation. We reproduce, with the author's kind permission, the introduction to his fascinating selection of D. C. Harries photographs.
The following is from D. C. HARRIES - A COLLECTION OF PHOTOGRAPHS by R Iestyn Hughes, 1996, National Library of Wales
Technology and mass manufacture have made the taking of good quality photographs very easy and relatively cheap. Auto-everything cameras, high definition films and ultra-fast high street processing mean that the layperson need know nothing whatsoever about the medium he or she is using. Point, shoot, leave the film at the chemist for thirty minutes and then take delivery of the finished image. No wonder photography is taken so much for granted. Even for professionals and dedicated amateurs, much of the technology used throughout the process of producing an image is now beyond their control.
Has this ultra-easiness of taking and making images made us all inspired photographers? Hardly. While our 'snaps' might now be sharper and more colourful than before, very few of us have the photographer's eye and manner, or the knowledge and skill which allows control of the finished product down to the finest degree. In this small volume we look back to a time when, armed with crude technology, it was the photographer who took complete control.
The photographs by Mr. D. C. Harries of Llandeilo are testimony to the labour and skill of the turn-of-the-century local professional photographer. The impression we have in our minds of late Victorian and Edwardian life has been shaped to no small degree by the photographs which have survived and transcended the generations to become part of our lives and experience today. What were at one time scenes of purely local interest have, with the passage of time, become representative of an entire way of life and period in Wales and beyond.
D. C. Harries and Sons were one company out of many, but unlike the majority of photographers who laboured during the first part of this century, they ensured that their life-work was to become a legacy for our time and beyond. We are indebted to their foresight in bequeathing Mr. Harries's negatives to the National Library of Wales for posterity. The D. C. Harries negatives form one of the largest parts of the National Library's vast Photographic Collection, which documents life and photography in Wales from the days of the earliest photographs right up to the present day.
It is generally accepted that, after a long period of gestation, 1839 is the 'birth date' of photography. This was the year that Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre had released to the world details of his daguerreotype process. Using a simple camera and lens, he was able to capture a hidden or 'latent' image onto a silver coated metal plate. By developing the plate in mercury vapours and fixing the resultant positive image with salts, the photograph was born. The daguerreotype image looks quite different from the photographs we know today and each is unique, there being no negative involved. In England, at the time the daguerreotype was announced, William Henry Fox Talbot was working on his own photographic invention, the calotype process. The calotype uses a coated paper to capture the scene, and when developed and fixed, provides a negative image from which many positive copies can be produced. The image is however very indistinct in comparison with the fine detail found in the daguerreotype, but it is this negative/positive process which is the foundation upon which modern photography has been built. Wales can be proud of its contribution to the development and practice of photography. Welsh men and women were amongst the earliest pioneers of the medium as it emerged from the realms of scientific experiment to become a practical application. One of the most notable of these early practitioners was a Swansea clergyman, the Reverend Calvert Richard Jones. Calvert Jones was an avid, almost obsessive calotypist, who was friendly with John Dillwyn Llewelyn - the pivotal figure in a group of early photographers known as the 'Swansea Circle', and with Fox Talbot himself. Llewelyn's wife Charlotte was indeed a cousin of Fox Talbot, and sister to Christopher Talbot of Margam. Aptly enough, the earliest dated example of a photograph from Wales is a daguerreotype of Margam Castle, produced by Calvert Jones in 1841. Llewelyn's daughter, Thereza Mary Dillwyn Llewelyn was also a fine photographer, and one of the earliest women practitioners. The early photographers mostly saw their practice as the application of science to the artful rendition of nature, rather than as a saleable craft, though Fox Talbot himself ensured that his process was well defended by patents, and was notoriously litigious. Indeed, while claiming to be the arch advocate of photography, he did much that was to fetter the development and employment of the medium in Britain.
Up to the mid 1850s, the practice of photography was confined to a very select few professionals and well-to-do amateurs. This situation was to change radically, when in 1851 a technological development made photography a cheaper and more practical proposition. It was in that year that Frederick Scott Archer announced a new photographic process which he did not attempt to patent, and which could therefore be used freely without practitioners having to pay any licence fees. The wet collodion process promised and delivered much. It irresistibly combined the best elements of both the daguerreotype and calotype, by providing a highly detailed image which, based on a negative/positive process, could be copied innumerable times. It succeeded in combining these virtues by using a glass plate negative coated with a 'collodion' mixture. Just as the process gained in popularity, Fox Talbot claimed that it was covered by his calotype patents, and demanded very large licence payments for its use. He was eventually challenged in court on this account, and lost his case.
Studios sprang up all around the country as a new breed of photographer, intent on making a decent living, took up the baton. Very often these photographers, enticed by the hope of rich pickings, learnt their craft 'on the job'. While the daguerreotypist and calotypist had artistic leanings, the new breed was regarded more as artisan than artist.
The wet collodion process demanded long exposure times - often of several minutes - and the resultant images, though capable of being of very high technical quality, were often necessarily contrived in terms of composition. The cameras were very bulky and the processing of the plates and the printing, usually onto albumen paper, rather tricky. This discouraged the majority from taking outdoor scenes, or documenting their sitters in their natural context, though an important minority did accomplish this with stunning results.
Many variants and styles were developed from the wet collodion process. One notable derivative is the ambrotype, a 'poor man's daguerreotype', which used the bleached negative on a black background to give the impression of a positive image. These negatives were placed in cases similar to those used to hold and display daguerreotypes, and were sold to the sitters for around a shilling.
It was the development of the carte-de-visite from the late 1850s which helped make photography truly popular. By means of a multiple lens camera, and other technological advances, it was possible to record many small images on a single negative plate. These would be printed, cut and stuck onto a 4" by 2" card, thereby creating a classic 'calling card'. Photographers would sell carte portraits of notables, and by the 1860s the Victorian public collected them avidly. Another format, that of the larger cabinet card also became popular, and for many years the cabinet was synonymous with photographic portraiture.
It was during this era of frantic development and expansion that John Thomas of Cellan in Cardiganshire started his own photographic business in Liverpool. Having worked as a travelling salesman of cartes-de-visite, he was aware of an untapped market for photographs of personalities and scenes relevant to Welsh life. He not only worked from his studio base, producing thousands of cartes-de-visite, but notably travelled the length and breadth of Wales, photographing all kinds of scenes and persons, especially those with nonconformist connections. Three thousand of his best negatives were purchased by O. M. Edwards for use in his magazine Cymru. These negatives, an insider's view, were later donated to the National Library of Wales where they were printed and bound into accessible volumes. These now provide us with some of the finest images available of late Victorian life in Wales. John Thomas's work spanned the era of wet collodion, through to the next major development, that of the 'dry plate', which was invented during the 1880s by Dr. R. L. Maddox. The gelatine dryplate was much easier to store and process than the wet plate, and most importantly, dramatically reduced exposure times from a few minutes to a few seconds. During much the same period, a new and improved printing medium - gelatine bromide paper - was also devised. The advanced process drew a new generation into the rich photographic tradition, amongst them D. C. Harries of Llandeilo. David Harries (the 'C' was not part of his name, but added to differentiate him from other David Harrieses in Llandeilo at the time), was typical of the late Victorian small-town photographer. Like Thomas, he owned a small studio which was used for formal portraiture, but also travelled the district documenting the life and times of his close-knit Carmarthenshire community. At the age of around twenty-two, he established his first studio in 1888 in Carmarthen Street, Llandeilo, which winds steeply up from the main thoroughfare. Today this street houses the Cambria Archaeological Trust, Labour Party offices and a few small businesses, but still retains some of the character felt in Harries's photographs of the town. His Carmarthen Street business was one of around one hundred and forty-nine listed in Kelly's Directory for South Wales for the year 1914. This fateful year marked the peak period for the traditional photographer; the effects of the First World War, new technology - which put the taking of photographs within the reach of the common man - and the later recession, caused a gradual decline in the call for professional photographic services.
The first photographer to be noted practising in Llandeilo was not Harries, but one Henry Howell of Carmarthen Street. Though Howell later practised in Lampeter, it is likely that Harries took over his business and premises in Llandeilo. In 1884 Howell was one of sixty-four photographers in the South Wales area. By 1891, Harries had his business there, and was one of seventy-seven practitioners. He was still at Carmarthen Street in 1895, now one of ninety; in 1901, one of a hundred and twenty-five. By 1914 he had moved to better-sited premises on the main thoroughfare, Rhosmaen Street, and had a small studio in Hall Street, Ammanford, and was one of one hundred and forty-nine. By 1923, the number of photographers had declined to one hundred and sixteen, and by 1926 the Ammanford premises had been forsaken, and the number of photographers listed had dropped further. Unfortunately there is very little documentary evidence concerning Mr. Harries and his family business, though thankfully a very large number of negatives have survived, bequeathed to the National Library of Wales in 1976. These photographs to some extent 'provide their own testimony' as to the life and work of D. C. Harries & Sons, and of course, give evidence of the way of life lived by the people of Llandeilo district for a period spanning well over fifty years. The photographs however are not parochial in appeal, as they have a universal quality that transcends mere locality and touches all our pasts. They are a relevant and poignant indicator of life and of the human condition, and can teach us all, and be enjoyed by anyone.
From the evidence of the photographs, Mr. Harries's studio was typical for the latter part of the Victorian period. It was a room equipped with a framework structure capable of displaying a painted backdrop, a number of 'props' such as potted plants, artistically gnarled wood stumps, pastiche pallistrade, bicycle, toys, and of course, the camera. Close by would be the darkroom, where the 'black art' of developing and printing images would take place. Studio designs generally remained unchanged until the First World War, though the Harries establishment was slow to change even after that time.
While the studio camera was very large, the smaller 'field' camera liberated Harries and his contemporaries from the confines of the studio. The charming photograph below showing Mr. Harries with three sons surrounded by cameras amply illustrates the cumbersome nature of the glass-plate apparatus of the time.
Photographs taken outside the studio used these field cameras. Harries had four sons, and his business in due course became known as 'D. C. Harries and Sons, Photographic Artists' of Llandeilo and Llandovery. It was the last surviving son, Hugh Newton Harries, who bequeathed the huge collection of old glass negatives to the National Library. When Library staff visited the premises in 1976 they were astounded by the number of negatives which had been retained. They were packed into every nook and cranny of the studio premises as well as a nearby outhouse. Some from the outbuilding in particular, had been standing in tall piles for so long that they formed solid blocks, and others were severely damaged by dampness. However, such was the number that thousands were still found in good condition. The most interesting of these have been printed-out and bound into volumes which can be browsed at the Library.
DC Harries Collection (The National Library of Wales)