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Colette Campbell-Jones on Stories from Underground -- Part Two

Histories -- Colette Campbell-Jones
A number of years ago I met Colette Campbell-Jones at the Photo Alliance Our World Portfolio review in San Francisco. I was immediately drawn to her work – Campbell-Jones' work translates oral histories from South Wales into visual images – not only do these images contain historical context with a personal twist, but they are hauntingly beautiful images full of emotion. The coal mining industry is not a subject I had thought of as interesting, but after meeting Campbell-Jones I have found myself fascinated. It is my opinion that truly great art is capable of shedding a new light on the overlooked.

I have asked Campbell-Jones to tell us more stories – this time about the origin of Stories From Underground.


Anne Kelly: What were your first impressions of Wales? What were your experiences with the people there?

Colette Campbell-Jones: Nothing I had ever heard concerning coal mining communities had prepared me for my first several trips to the Welsh coal mining valleys. My husband grew up in those valleys and while I had learned a lot from him, I had not been able to imagine how the place or the community would feel. One of my first impressions was that everyone in the village – family, friends, people in the wider community – all treated each other as if they were one extended family. I was struck by the quality of infectious emotions surrounding me. I later learned that much of the culture is structured around intense and positive emotions – keeping each other's spirits up. Valleys people have a distinct way of speaking – they joke and tease a lot to connect and feel good as well as make a serious point. They are very good at clearly yet subtly communicating something to one person in the room while keeping it from those to whom they do not wish to communicate. There are lots of aspects of the culture that are "coded." Not surprisingly, the people are keenly observant. I think that is a feature of being very "close," coming from the same place as that uplifting "communal/community sense." More so than anything I could have imaged, the valleys people really extend themselves to you and will do anything for you, once they know or accept you. I have quite a bit of experience with the tight knit communities of career military families, which this seems similar to, though I think it may be even stronger.

AK: Was this a subject you had any interest in before going to Wales?

CCJ: Actually, I am embarrassed to admit that I knew very little about coal mining communities and most of what I thought I knew was incorrect. Like so many people outside of these closed communities, I was informed by the media, documentaries and visual histories that have often portrayed mining communities in limited ways. We tend to associate these communities with poverty, exploitation, and ignorance. While these aspects are enormous, it is inaccurate to define the totality of the community by these terms alone.

Colliery Choir -- Colette Campbell-Jones
Astonishingly, there are few representations of the community's positive cultural adaptations as a response to centuries of hardship, adaptations that are sources of richness, strength and accomplishment. I wouldn't have had any interest in a subject that I viewed (according to my previous cookie-cutter assumptions) as a place where " people would only want to leave, to be upwardly mobile." I had been poorly informed before meeting my husband, and despite all of his talking about the place, I still could not have imagined the depth or complexity of valleys culture. Not only did the community survive over the centuries, it developed into a strong and vibrant culture that holds secrets, like pearls, about how to live with grace and pride under unimaginable conditions. They rejected the identity assigned to them by the wider society and defined themselves by their own values. Learning about their celebratory institutions in the colliery choirs, brass bands, sports, theater, and so on, made me pause at my uncritically examined assumptions. Underneath the trappings of mining culture are psychological patterns functioning in ways that are shared with other cultures that have survived oppression and there is much wisdom about the human condition in that. I also learned that many of the new professional class living in the Welsh Valleys have gone to other places and returned to make their homes and raise their families where they grew up, out of choice, because of the culture and, of course, the beautiful valleys.

AK: Do you consider yourself a storyteller?

CCJ: I think I'm a good listener more than a storyteller. I have been mesmerized by so many of the stories of the Aunties and Uncles, extended and "extended-extended family," by all people I've talked to, the retired miners and all those still working down the pit. I perceived multiple levels of meaning in their stories and I placed them into broader historical and archetypal contexts. I suppose this is where their subjectivities as story-tellers and my subjectivity as an artist meet. My work always reflects my own internal process of trying to really understand, deeply.

AK: Your work has a striking dark tonal range. How do you achieve this look?

CCJ: Well, much of the work was photographed at night requiring very long exposures (using film the exposures were between 15 minutes and 6 hours). Originally I made silver prints that made for really rich blacks and great tonal separation. It was a beautiful look and had an other-worldly feel. The main reason I switched this project to digital compositing was to push the idea that that the trees were enchanted, always in the background as ancient dark forces waiting to consume an individual or the whole community the moment one's guard is down. I decided to extend the dark tonalities and to use it metaphorically for the entire body of work, emphasizing emotional spaces. Also I wanted to cue in the viewer that these stories exist in time and "out of time," coming from real events in linear time, but belong to " eternal time" in a state of remembrance. Just like myths and legends, everything about the Welsh coal mining valley is archetypally charged. Many of the photographs completely changed tonally, daytime shots became nighttime and visa versa. I was going for a kind of twilight, where perception is altered.

Abyss #3 -- Colette Campbell-Jones
I also wanted to differentiate this work from earlier, iconic photography that has pretty much exhausted the topic of Welsh coal mining. Using a dark tonal range on a mat paper makes the surface resemble coal and I also like that it raised the question whether they were charcoal drawings or photographs. This ambiguity was a real challenge to accomplish. Digitally, is hard to get the rich blacks (d max) while expressing all the subtle shades of gray within a very restricted tonal range. I spend a lot of time exploring different printers, papers, and techniques to get the look I wanted. It's important to be able to see everything happening "in the shadows," which provides a visual link to concepts of "pre-conscious" or "below consciousness."

Colette Campbell-Jones in a coal mine
AK: You used to paint. Do I feel this has influenced your process?

CCJ: I really do think of painting and drawing as being on one end of a continuum with photography on the other. The close relationship between the two mediums in art history has always intrigued me. I absolutely love the illusion of realism that the photograph provides – there is nothing like it. With drawing and painting I know its fiction. I am as excited about the intimate connection between drawing/printmaking and the camera as I am about the connection between "reality" and fantasy in the psyche. It seems that these relationships mirror one another. I am not attempting to be a painter using digital technology, but I do want to add more subjectivity to a photograph that still maintains "a purchase on the real" in the digital age. The ambiguity of it is a kind of parallel process to the perceiving mind, both engage me in questions of "what is real?"

Tell us about your process.

CCJ: My process evolved over time and it can appear a bit convoluted. I call it a "hybrid" process because I use film, construct digital composites, and I make paper collages. The collages are important because in an otherwise very technical workflow, it is the phase that allows unconscious material to slip into the work. This process gives me access to the relationships between formal, symbolic and conceptual connections as well as relationships between levels of meaning that I would never have discovered while working in the state of mind that's necessary for the more analytical parts of my workflow. The end product is an archival pigment print from a digital composite.

Colette Campbell-Jones and friends in a miner's shower
I make high resolution scans from film negatives, print out quick digital work prints and put them all up on my wall for editing. Then I start making the paper collages by cutting out sections of the work prints and recombining them on my wall (I use magnets to manage the pieces). I spend a lot of time looking, re-combining, daydreaming, thinking about shapes, meanings and ideas. This is why its necessary for me to make the paper collages – I'm changing direction a lot here, sometimes I need to build to get to something else and its more fluid to do it as pieces of paper than take the time to make it digitally. When I get to a stopping point, the collage functions as a kind of "map" that I use when I return to the computer to construct an image from the archived scans. When the image is finished, I produce a work print and experiment with printing choices to make it look like its both a drawing/printmaking image and a photograph.

AK: Your images contain historical information, emotional storytelling and are beautiful. How did you achieve this?

CCJ: I hope I can answer that... To be honest, it's in the cutting up and recombining of my work prints that I am able to build an image with multiple layers. In one of my early photo classes I studied with someone who was really gifted at sequencing images. I loved how visual meaning is constructed though the arrangement of photographs. My collaging is just an extension of that process. This way of working is different than having a firm idea in your mind and building exactly to match that idea. I work back and forth, responding to the patterns I see and testing how they translate on different levels or in different forms. I could only combine history and emotion with the aesthetic I use by responding to what I see on my wall. I couldn't do this if I were constructing only from my idea. It's allowing all the input to percolate – the mixing of the photographs and cut up pieces, with conscious and unconscious material. I never know going into it how its going to look when its finished.

AK: You're interested in psychology, how do you use this in your work?

CCJ: I have a degree in clinical psychology and I worked as a counselor in a teaching hospital for many years. The program's orientation was "depth psychology" and a number of the therapists were actively involved at the SF Jung institute. Working at that program I gained an understanding of how unconscious psychological processes work and shape our sense of reality. I was also exposed to using archetypes and mythologies as frameworks for organizing patterns of experience. I am fascinated with perception. Those ideas became the lens through which I see the world. I think that way automatically now and it very much effects my work. Almost everything I do comes from that orientation and since I began constructing photographs I'm better able to express those ideas.

Colette Campbell-Jones
From my earliest trips to Wales, before I started making photographs, I thought about the place, the people and the history, archetypally. I can imagine how in a thousand years this chapter of coal mining might fit into the larger Welsh cannon of legends and tales concerning identity and cultural transcendence.

AK: What's next?

CCJ: I am currently working on a project using highlight tonalities that reference Asian ink drawing and print making processes. The project imagines the escalation of climate change over time and space. I am interested in how a small change in the initial conditions of a complex system, such as climate, can have cascading effects with unexpected consequences. It will be a series of vertical murals and each one is titled after a physics equation that atmospheric physicists are currently using in climate modeling. I have been traveling for this project and I'm excited about it. The working title for this body of work is Sensitive Dependencies.


See Colette Campbell-Jones' work from her Stories from the Underground series here.

Read Part One of this series, where Campbell-Jones' discusses the stories behind four of her images, on photoe-eye Blog here.

Part Three, more stories from underground, can be read here.