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Mametz

Aled Rhys Hughes

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ISBN-13: 
9781781723289
Publication Date: 
Monday, July 4, 2016
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‘A sensitive, allusive photo-essay about the interactions between landscape, memory and time’ – Planet

 

Mametz​ marks the centenary of the Battle of Mametz Wood, the most significant battle in World War I for Welsh troops.

Over 4,000 soldiers of the 38th Welsh Division were killed or wounded there in July 1916. For the past five years photographer Aled Rhys Hughes has visited Mametz each July to make images that are entirely about Wales even though they are located in France. The result is a series of 49 striking colour photographs divided into seven sets of seven images. They cover images of actual trees from the war (some ‘embracing’ artillery shells), battlefield detritus, and military mementoes. Also included are images of places of modern pilgrimage and remembrance (including some poignant contemporary expressions of grief), place names and an evocative section on ‘twilight: the dangerous time’.

This artistic commemoration is entirely fitting for a battle recorded by artist Christopher Williams and authors Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, who fought there. The battle was also recorded in detail in Up to Mametz by Llywelyn Wyn Griffith and In Parenthesis by David Jones, who was wounded in action.

And It is commemorated locally by Welsh memorials in the church, a Welsh language road sign in the village, and David Petersen’s dragon sculpture at the official memorial. Aled Rhys Hughes has discovered intangible connections to the battle, a hundred years later: in a landscape which still retains a memory of the offensive.

His photographs are accompanied by a ‘timeline’ of the battle, a period map, and an essay by Jeremy Hooker on the photographs and their relationship with the landscape and the men, now long gone, who took part.

Mametz​ is a moving and inventive act of commemoration.

REVIEWS

Review by Richard Edwards, Planet

Monday, November 7, 2016

Mametz, by photographer Aled Rhys Hughes, is a sensitive, allusive photo-essay about the interactions between landscape, memory and time. Inspired by In Parenthesis, David Jones’ incomparable account of the life of an infantryman on the Somme, Hughes has spent the last six years visiting Mametz Wood on the anniversaries of the battle, taking as his credo Jones’ plea to ‘Keep date with the genius of the place.’ The result is an evocation of not just the battle, but of the power of collective memory.

The book is organised around headings such as ‘Confrontation’, ‘Twilight’, ‘Shells’, ‘Crosses’, ‘Objects’ – a slightly pedestrian note in an otherwise imaginative exploration. ‘Confrontation’, which opens the book, is subtly evocative, using the sharply defined border between wood and field to suggest the opposition of dark and light, death and life, the hidden and the visible, past and present. One image, of a cluster of tall, copper-coloured dock weed marching towards the dense wood, evokes profound vulnerability and fragility. The section on unexploded shells is a study in how time erodes identity, the shells often indistinguishable from roots. By Hughes’ own admission, the most challenging images are the four on ‘Twilight’, creating a dark, Rothko-like, psychological dimension of not-knowing, an encounter with the unseen.

This well-produced book concludes with an essay by Jeremy Hooker that underscores the historical, symbolic resonances of both the battle ad the way the landscape of Mametz has etched itself into Weksh memory, and draws out the visionary core of Hughes’ work. Mametz is a moving act of remembrance and homage.

 

Review by Michael Nott, New Welsh Review

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

‘The name of Mametz Wood,’ writes Robin Barlow, ‘perhaps like that of Aberfan or Senghenydd, is embedded deep in the Welsh psyche, immediately conjuring up images of needless loss of life, bravery, chaos, and self-sacrifice.’ On the morning of 7 July 1916, the 38th (Welsh) Division began its first major engagement of the Somme offensive: capture Mametz Wood, the largest wood on the Somme battlefront, from the elite Lehr Regiment of Prussian Guards. Over 400 casualties were sustained on the first day. Come 11 July, the Welsh had partially taken the wood, and were relieved the following day by the 21st Division.

Aled Rhys Hughes’ Mametz is a fascinating collection of photographs. Beginning in 2009, Hughes visited Mametz Wood on or around 10 July for the next six years, in the hope of creating photographic studies that, as he notes in the book’s Foreword, ‘are a suitable commemoration of the men who took part and the land over which they fought.’ Underlying the project is David Jones’ long war poem In Parenthesis (1937). Jones fought at Mametz Wood with the 38th Division, and his poem, begun ten years after the end of the war, combines what Jeremy Hooker calls, in his illuminating essay that accompanies Hughes’ photographs, ‘the immediacy of terrible experience with a vision of ultimate meaning in the form of religious myth.’ It is in this light, Hooker argues, that the beauty of Hughes’ work emerges.

The photographs are arranged into sections entitled ‘Confrontation,’ ‘Places,’ ‘Shells,’ ‘Twilight,’ ‘The Wood,’ ‘Totems,’ ‘Crosses,’ ‘Flags,’ ‘Objects,’ and ‘Visitors.’ The photobook itself is a confrontation of sorts: through Hughes’ photographs, we as viewers confront the history of Mametz Wood. The opening photograph places us front and centre, approaching the trees as the 38th Division had done 100 years ago. The photograph is carefully framed: there is no sky to be seen, only the tall grass underfoot and the dark threshold of trees in the distance. If to us it is a foreboding scene, what must it have been like, Hughes asks, for those confronting the wood in the midst of battle?

Wandering among the trees, we see shells protruding from the earth like tree stumps. We see crosses tacked to the trees, and Welsh flags strung along their branches. In the ‘Twilight’ section we see very little at all: eerie shapes and silhouettes that, as Hughes writes in his Foreword, echo one part of Jones’ In Parenthesis: ‘[the] wood became only a darker shape uncertainly expressed. Your eyes begin to strain after escaping definitions.’ Hughes’ work places the viewer at the heart of the wood, while remaining sensitive to its history. To Hooker, Hughes ‘comes close to revealing the significance of Mametz Wood by acknowledging his distance from the events that made it famous.’

Echoes of ‘In Parenthesis’ recur throughout the photobook, and for this reason we should consider Mametz in the light of the relationship between poetry and photography. While Hughes’ photographs are not explicitly paired with extracts from Jones’ poem, the manner in which the poem informs the photographs draws our attention to how ideas of loss and memory, and themes of landscape and war, are represented in both art forms. An instructive photobook to read alongside this one is Robert Crawford and Norman McBeath’s Simonides (2011). The book pairs McBeath’s black-and-white photographs with Crawford’s translations of Simonides’ epitaphs into Scots, creating resonances between the visual and verbal representations of loss and remembrance.

Something similar occurs in Mametz. Perhaps the most startling aspect of it is Hughes’ decision to photograph in colour. This is not, it must be said, a departure for Hughes: his previous two photobooks, Môr Goleuni/Tir Tywyll (2004) and Rhyw Deid yn Dod Miwn (2008) are also in colour, as is much of his other work. Black-and-white photographs, while often more tonally evocative, tend to contain an overwhelming sense of pastness: look, for example, at Fay Godwin’s photographs in her collaboration with Ted Hughes, Remains of Elmet (1979). While ‘remains’ was dropped from the title of the reissue Elmet (1994), Hughes’ poems implied some kind of regeneration and future that contrasted with the memorialising function of Godwin’s images. They were photographs of what was left, not what might be to come.

Mametz startles, then, when we consider the relationship between photography and war. A focus on the past was not, it seems, Hughes’ sole intention in Mametz: the project was not merely a means of looking backwards, but of reflecting on our processes of remembrance. Mametz Wood itself, while associated in the Welsh psyche with the battle, continues to exist: Hughes photographs the surrounding cornfields and the wood, regrown around the artillery shells that once bombarded it. Colour, in this context, affirms Hughes’ desire both to commemorate and regenerate. In photographing the colours and shades of Mametz Wood as it exists today, Hughes creates an evocative, insightful, and positive memorial.

 

Michael Nott is writing his PhD thesis on ‘A History of Photopoetry’ at St Andrews University. His essay on the field in Wales, ‘Slender Underpinnings: Welsh Photopoetry and the Collaborative Imagination’, is published by New Welsh Review, summer 2015.

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