Cardiff Before Cardiff – A book by Jon Pountney on the re-discovery of Photographer Keith S Robertson

Cardiff Before Cardiff is a intriguing book about the re-discovery of an unknown photographer called Keith S Robertson, who created a tremendous body of documentary photography in the late 70s and early 80s in Cardiff. Jon Pountney was the man who re-discovered Keith’s body of work whilst he was renovating a building in Cardiff, he was struck by the quality of the work and how Keith managed to depict the vibrant atmosphere of the people of Cardiff at the time. In response to finding this treasure trove of photographs Pountey decided to react by shooting Cardiff for himself.

Last week we were able to talk to Jon Pountney’s about his fascinating discovery:

“As I write, Saturday 24th November 2012, in a cosy Cardiff cafe, Milgis, the rain thrashes down on the neon puddle reflections of the myriad take aways of City Road. I have lived not far from this street since 1996, and having moved to Cardiff from rural Warwickshire, have always been hyper-aware of the crush, bustle, and ugly beauty of this arterial road, and the wider city. I’m here to cast an eye over a paper copy of my first book, Cardiff before Cardiff, and wonder how this prosaic capital of Wales has given me such a wonderful gift.

  As a student I was a painter of imaginary city scenes, inspired by the music of The Smiths and Suede, and through the artwork of those bands, developed a love of documentary photography. Ian Berry, Don McCullin, and Bruce Davidson were the Holy Trinity of a make believe kingdom of back streets, motorway fly-overs, belching chimneys and industrial decline, all in grainy black and white. So now imagine the scene- I’ve taken over an almost derelict artists studio in November 2010, and sorting through a buildings-worth of detritus I find a big print of two Mod lads stood by a window.
  Looking at the charcoal blacks and crisp whites, and the municipal 50s street light reflected in the window behind the boys, I felt almost as if it were me that had taken the picture.
 Over the coming weeks I found numerous prints and 3 huge files of negatives. The pictures were amazing. A Triumph Toledo, it nose cropped bravely, against a shabby wall. A pub landlady, smiling proudly behind the bar, almost moving and polishing pint pots. A butcher and wife, peeking from behind a macabre row of pigs heads. A man in a white shirt, with a shrewd and worldly face, standing in a darkened garage next to his Ford Cortina. These pictures were cinematic; the people in movement, as if able to step off the page. And running throughout, a rich vein of community, smiles, winks and laughter.

  A couple were stamped with ‘Keith S Robertson’ on the back. I googled the name to no result. A few pictures I digitised and posted on Tumblr; the blog I named Cardiff Before Cardiff, a title that came to me as soon as I found the first pic. This was the Cardiff before the Bay, before urban regeneration, before the ‘consensus of decline’, a city that couldn’t guess its immediate future. So it was out there, and the first thing I wanted to find out- who was Keith? The blog was picked up by Ed Walker, a writer for Media Wales, and he asked to do a spread of the pictures in the South Wales Echo. The response was immense, and Keith’s brother soon contacted me. He hadn’t seen Keith for years, but was thrilled to see his pictures again. Keith was also a talented painter, and an amazing painting I had found in the studio of Marilyn Monroe was by him. An intriguing picture of Keith was being built up, and I couldn’t help but see parallels in inspirations between us.

So thats the start, and the rest is covered in the book, beautifully written by Alun Gibbard. The last two years have proved that fact is stranger than fiction, and I have lived it! Maybe it was fate that decided I was to find those amazing photos. They inspired me to step out into the streets of Cardiff and make the work I’ve always wanted to. My pictures are side by side with Keiths in the book, and I couldn’t be prouder.

 You probably want to know if I found Keith? Well I did, and much more besides. I re-united him with his work, and incredibly, with a daughter he hadn’t seen in years. Like I said, fate decided it.”