The Curious Moaning of Kenfig Burrows
“Keep shifting your position in relation to your subject,” photographer Sophy Rickett often advises her students. In terms of practical photographic techniques, it seems like sound advice: move around the object you’re photographing, take multiple exposures, variations on a theme. It also acts as a guiding principle for how Rickett approaches the ostensible “subject” of her latest book The Curious Moaning of Kenfig Burrows, Thereza Dillwyn Llewelyn, a little-known Welsh artist and astronomer active at the end of the 19th century. Throughout this lyrical and poetic photobook, which combines Rickett’s own words and images across 80 elegant pages, the photographer and writer circles around the subject of her research like a constantly moving stream of water, allowing narrative fragments to float to the surface before they sink away again.
Thereza Dillwyn Llewelyn was an extraordinary woman from a family of photographic pioneers—her mother’s cousin was Henry Fox Talbot. She grew up at Penllergare House in Glamorganshire, Wales, where her father built her an observatory for her 16th birthday from which she took some of the earliest known photographs of the moon. Her uncle lived a few miles away at Margam Castle, near the landscape feature that gives its strange name to the book: “From that high up position overlooking the bay, they would know when a storm was approaching from the sound of the wind whistling up from Kenfig Burrows, a ‘curious moaning’ that was, according to her uncle, Kenfig Burrows ‘talking’ to Margam Mountain.” Rickett was struck by this image of “a landscape in dialogue with itself, the way it evokes the physical contours of the valley, the geological terrain.”
Rickett was initially commissioned, along with seven other artists, to produce a work that responded to the context of the John Dillwyn Llewelyn Collection and Penllergare Valley Woods, which were in the process of extensive restoration. She became interested in Thereza’s significant role in creating many of the photographs of Penllergare currently attributed solely to her father John. Her project became a small act of historical revision, writing Thereza back into the landscape’s history. Her research led her to visit these sites of Thereza’s childhood, and to delve into the archives of her images and journals at the British Library in London and the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.
The text, written primarily in the first person by Rickett, tells the story of how the project unfolded, from early meetings with trustees tasked with managing Thereza’s legacy, to Wikipedia searches and trips to car parks, mixed with Rickett’s childhood memories and other tangential recollections culled from archival research. Its format resembles a dialogue, suggesting the give and take at play here—between the past and the present, between Rickett’s own life and photographic experiences and Thereza’s, and between the book and its audience.
Pages of text are faced with related photographs, taken by Rickett over the course of the project. Some connect clearly to the story being told, others are more obscure. Like the text, the ostensible subject matter of these images is strikingly varied, ranging from the landscape around Thereza’s Victorian home to a pair of used archival rubber gloves. There are also detailed close-ups of a woman’s body, and even a subtly beautiful shot of a dead dog in a carry-all bag, found near Rickett’s London home while she was pondering the project.
Following this meandering journey can be disorienting, but it also brings moments of distilled beauty, echoing the clarity of the artist’s monochrome photographs. The high print quality of the images in the book conveys deep, rich shades of black, most notably in shots of the night sky or the fossilized ear bone of a whale. Her prose and imagery are both allusive and elusive, slipping away from conclusions and direct comparisons. Rickett writes, “I keep changing my mind about how I should be looking, what I should be looking for.” Nevertheless, recurring themes and characters emerge: ears and hearing loss; landscape and rock formations; archives and memory; Thereza Dillwyn Llewelyn herself and Jennie, a trustee who helped facilitate Rickett’s research.
In the center of The Curious Moaning of Kenfig Burrows, there is a double-spread image entitled Tree (divided), Margam Mountain (2019). It is a ghostly photographic impression of a tree which is splitting down the middle—perhaps from being struck by lightning or roughly handled by a storm. Its branches appear to be pulling in different directions, but its root remains strongly fixed in the ground. This is representative of the project as a whole, where a central impulse continues to grow from the root, while the resulting ideas branch off in every direction, occasionally splintering off into something seemingly quite different, but never quite separating from its origins.
Towards the end of the book, in an illuminating interview with photography writer David Campany, Rickett explains, “I became interested in creating my own access points to the history, ones where misunderstanding, disagreement and chance were as productive and meaningful as the official accepted version of events.” Rickett’s alternative ‘access points’ succeed in opening up the narrative of Thereza’s life and work to the reader.