I made a dash from London to my hometown of Cardiff over the weekend, to see Diffusion, the inaugural Cardiff International Festival of Photography.
It seems that no self-respecting city is without a photography festival these days – from Arles to Brighton, Bamako to Belfast, Liverpool, Lagos and Los Angeles to Zagreb – you could probably continually travel from one to another around the year without having too many days off. So it’s something of a surprise that there hasn’t been one in Cardiff before now. But the cleverly titled Diffusion is a welcome addition, and it looks like there’s every chance it will become a major event to both rival and complement more established festivals.
Running throughout May, Diffusion asks the very broad question ‘and where is photography now?’. This allows for a diverse range of exhibitions and events without an immediately obvious overarching theme – although, as Cardiff is the capital of Wales, and this is the first incarnation of what will hopefully become a regular event, it was perhaps inevitable that a good amount of the work on show is photography of, about, and inspired by Wales, by Welsh or Wales-based photographers.
Every good photo festival needs a physical focal point and this one is no exception. The centrepiece of Diffusion is the Tramshed, Cardiff’s answer to the derelict trainsheds of the Rencontres d’Arles. The former garage for the city’s 19th century trams and trolley buses is housing a number of exhibitions for the next month, including a retrospective of Welsh photojournalist Geoff Charles’ work from the mid 20th century, and The Valleys Re-Presented, a group show featuring work by David Bailey, Philip Jones-Griffiths, John Davies and David Hurn amongst others.
Also like every other major photo festival, there are a number of venues for the 20-odd exhibitions spread across the town, from the city centre to the former docks of Cardiff Bay and the leafy headland of Penarth. From the old library, St David’s Concert Hall and the National Museum of Wales in the heart of the city, to the chocolate-box Norwegian Church (where Roald Dahl used to worhship) and the above-a-taxi-office Third Floor Gallery in the bay, the venues are as diverse as the work on show; Helen Sear, Sebastian Liste, Elin Høylands and Edgar Martins are among the many photographers on show.
But if the physical soul of the festival is the Tramshed, it’s intellectual core is Ffotogallery. Established in 1978, Ffotogallery is the national development agency for photography and lens-based media in Wales, and Diffusion is in no small part down to its director, David Drake. Speaking at the festival’s keynote symposium The Photograph, Drake said that part of the reason for putting on the festival was precisely because of all of the other photography festivals he’d attended – and criticised – over the years; he decided it was time he put his money where his mouth was and put one on himself. He also says that he didn’t want to run a photo festival that was solely about the digital revolution that has redefined the medium over the last decade – so the symposium was unashamedly focussed on big questions about ‘collecting photography, curating it, and the conundrum of photography’s ambiguous place in contemporary art’.
There may be an inherent contradiction and tension here – much of the work on display in Duffusion which falls more into the category of social documentary more than it does into contemporary art. Many of the symposium participants also talked about the fact that “we’re all photographers now”. In his lyrical, wandering, keynote address to The Photograph, the celebrated photo-artist Richard Wentworth declared that although he photographs almost everything obsessively, he has no interest in photography itself at all. In a round-about way, what he meant was that he agreed with Daniel Blaufuks statement, that the role of the photographer now is to ‘click less and think more’.
But, whatever the case, it’s fantastic to see so much fascinating photography on display in the place where I grew up. I volunteered for a while at Ffotogallery about 20 years ago, when the idea of city-wide photography festivals was virtually unheard of, and the transformation of Tiger Bay, from derelict industrial port to desirable waterside destination was only just beginning. Cardiff today is transformed, almost unrecognisably different. The Bay waterfront cafes, theatre and bars are a delight, although you only have to walk a street or two away to see dilapidated buildings that are still empty, two decades on. And, a mile down the road in the city centre, many of the streets have been pedestrianised, and gleaming shopping centres built, but the weekend revellers are hen and stag parties from Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle, rather than just the rugby clubs from the valleys of the 1980s and 90s.
Drake says that another reason for doing the festival now was just that city was ready for it. It’s the right size, big enough to support the idea, but still small enough that it was reasonably straightforward to get everybody on board with it. I think Diffusion is a triumph, reflecting the transformation of Cardiff itself in many ways. It simultaneously reflects the tradition of photography and the history of the city, and embraces the challenges of change that both face. South Wales might not be able to compete with the south of France, even if the sun has been shining for the opening weekend; the sunlight in Cardiff is more usually diffused by the clouds. But maybe for the next few weeks that light will be a little clearer. As the slogan on the festival tote bags says, ‘I Loves the ‘Diff’. I’m from there, so I’m biased – but I recommend you go check it out.