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The Singing Hills – Ed Brydon

I am a freelance photographer based in Farnham, Surrey in the UK. I was born in Chester to an Irish mother and English father, and after living in Solihull for three years, my family moved to Ynys Môn (Angelsey) when I was nine years old. In my teenage years I attended boarding school in Hereford before going back to North Wales for sixth form, subsequently attending Cardiff University and the University of Birmingham for undergraduate and postgraduate studies. After graduating I moved to New York where I lived in Manhattan, Brooklyn and then in Westchester for fifteen years. It was in New York that I met my wife, who is from Long Beach, NY, and our two sons were born over there. We moved to the UK in 2018.

I’m telling you all this because in many ways, all of the history, the places I’ve lived and the connections made to them, inform and manifest in my photography.

Photography and writing are what I do; it is not a career, it is a life. I am constantly thinking about it and coming up with new ideas, projects, things I want to do and how to do them. Receiving a ‘Many Voices, One Nation‘ commission from the Welsh Parliament and Ffotogallery last year to continue the work on the project featured here gave me a huge boost in confidence.

Unfortunately, my timing was off; I decided to go freelance in January this year, handing in my three month notice at work just before we knew the potential for COVID-19 to turn into a pandemic. 

Share your journey to photography with us.

Photography wasn’t always my life. My undergraduate and postgraduate courses were in science – I had wanted to be a doctor but didn’t get any interviews and, in the end, didn’t get the grades required at A-level anyway.

I still wanted to leave that door open though so I found a place to study human anatomical sciences at Cardiff. During that course, my head was turned by viruses – these tiny packages of genetic material that can cause such havoc on people, plants and animals.

Changing tack slightly, I decided to do a Master’s degree in Immunology and Infection at the University of Birmingham, followed by a PhD studying how cells respond to influenza virus infection. After my PhD I went to pursue post-doctoral work in an internationally recognised flu lab in New York. 

It was in New York that I met my wife, Alli. She was studying towards an MFA in poetry at the time and suddenly my life, which had been all science and sport, was opened up to the arts. I started to experiment with writing, drawing, and painting in my spare time, but it was photography that stuck.

The first present I gave Alli was a photograph I had made of dawn breaking over Eryri (Snowdonia) on the day I left to live in New York City. Her pest-control guy saw the photograph in her apartment and asked where she got it. When she told him and gave my contact, he called and asked for two prints. I was flabbergasted. The boost it gave me at a fledgling moment in my photographic life has always stuck with me.

I kept making tentative steps towards photography from then on, going through the usual phases of making pretty pictures, travel photographs and exploring candid street photography. 

In truth, these were merely snapshots and I was not really sure what I wanted to say with my images. It wasn’t until I discovered documentary photography and connected with the concurrent shows of Walker Evans and Bill Brandt’s photographs at MoMA, adjacent to rooms with works by modernist and abstract expressionist artists, that I realised that working in a “documentary” style was what I wanted to do.

As I said earlier my background informs the topics I am interested in, which encompass personal connections to place, the land and natural environment, and how those are changing. I’m also interested in topics relating to science and health, and how these overlap with people, place and nature.

Tell us about ‘The Singing Hills’. What was your motivation behind making the work?

The work I am presenting here under the working title ‘The Singing Hills‘ is about the connections between people and place.

It features people of North Walian heritage in central New York and Vermont, as well as the places their families emigrated from and, where known, familial relatives in North Wales. The project is deeply personal given my own emigration from North Wales to America. It is, in some ways, about my own journey.

There are elements of mythical Welsh storytelling throughout the project, influenced by ‘The Mabinogion‘ and the tale of the Welsh prince Madog who, it is said, reached America more than three hundred years before Christopher Columbus. In fact, there are legends of a Native American tribe that speak a language similar to Welsh, though this has not been proved either linguistically or genetically to my knowledge. 

How did you come to find out about the existence of the Welsh community in the US?

I was very interested in where New York city’s water, food and dairy came from and because of that I was following several farmers on social media. One of them, Lorraine Lewandrowski, tweeted about the Remsen Barn Festival and mentioned Welsh heritage in rural NY as well as welsh choral singing! The accompanying picture showed a barn with a red Welsh dragon on it. I was stunned. I had heard about the Welsh community in Patagonia, Argentina, but did not know of a sizeable Welsh-identifying community in America, let alone New York and somewhat close to where I lived. I then found out that there was a huge amount of immigration from Wales to America throughout the 1800s and early 1900s.

In 2015 I took my family along on a research trip to Remsen for the festival. There we met many wonderful people with surnames like Roberts, Davies, Humphreys and Jones. It really hit home how Welsh the area was when we stopped at a local cemetery. As I got out and saw more familiar Welsh names, I also noticed the places they came from: Pwllheli, Caernarfon, and other towns in North Wales. It was this particular connection to North Wales that struck me.

While working on the project, were there any moments that stood out to you?

Working on this project was filled with shared experiences and places, however, the biggest coincidence came most recently. While photographing a lady called Kathy in Poultney, Vermont we were talking about one of her relatives who lives on Ynys Môn, not far from my father.

During the conversation she casually mentioned that this woman’s niece was a funeral director. I had to stop for a moment and check the name because it was the same as the woman who had presided over my mother’s funeral in 2018.

This year, during the time in August when social distancing and travel rules were relaxed enough, I returned to North Wales and met with Kathy’s relative, Ellen, at her home on Ynys Môn. Her niece was there also, and it was indeed the same person. It was an extremely emotional moment.

Recommend us something you’re currently reading, watching or listening to.

There’s a theme that will emerge, which is about place and people’s connections to it. A lot of my reading and listening is helping me to reconnect to the UK after fifteen years away, particularly Farnham and the South East of England where I have never lived before.

I tend to chop and change podcasts quite regularly but the two that have stuck the most this year are ‘Poetry Unbound’ by On Being studios, with poems read and illuminated by Pádraig Ó Tuama, and ‘The Stubborn Light of Things’ with Melissa Harrison. 

I’m also currently reading Melissa Harrison’s ‘Rain: Four walks in English weather’ in order to give me the motivation to go for “daily exercise” walks during the November lockdown.

This is in my reading pile along with William Cobbett’s ‘Rural Rides’ and ‘In Pursuit of Spring’ by poet Edward Thomas, both of which cover the ground where we live. I should also mention that I read ‘Homegoing’ by Yaa Gyasi this year, which was breathtaking.

In terms of television I don’t watch a lot but we recently binged ‘Staged’ on BBC iPlayer and have just finished watching ‘The Queens Gambit’, which we also really enjoyed—the visuals are stunning.

For films, I was particularly taken by ‘Rome’ by Alfonso Cuarón, and ‘Jojo Rabbit’ by Taika Waititi.

Finally, tell us about a piece of art that has influenced you.

There’s a lot of photography and art I could mentioned here but if I had to say one it would be ‘Jockeys before the race’ (1879), a painting by Edgar Degas that is in The Barber Institute of Fine Arts. The Barber Institute is on the campus of the University of Birmingham, but in my four years there I was so focused on science I didn’t ever go in. It was only on a trip to show my wife the university in 2016 that I finally took the time to visit it.

The painting was a revelation for me because it freed up my understanding of composition. I needed to see that painting because I tend to be very formal in composition. I just stood there staring at it, marvelling at the way Degas deliberately chose to paint the starting post right through the horse’s head in the main foreground and overlap the horses and riders behind. There is no separation between each element, but it works because of the layering and latency in the painting. It is like a snapshot photograph, and perhaps a challenge to the burgeoning practice of photography in the world at the time – though Degas himself was, by 1895, using photography quite regularly. / @edbrydon

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