Searching for Thomas – In the footsteps of a Photographic Pioneer

Cellan based photographer Simon Tune has recently completed the first part of a PhD project retracing the footsteps of the 19th century Welsh photographic pioneer John Thomas of Cellan.

In 1853 when he was just 15 years old John Thomas set out from his home in Cellan on a 140-mile journey to Liverpool.

Not only did Thomas overcome the challenges of that initial journey, surviving the difficult transition of rural to urban living, but he thrived as an important photographic pioneer.

Once he had learnt photography Thomas repeatedly returned to Wales over a period of almost 40 years travelling its length and breadth with his camera. He gathered a unique photographic record, taking the very first photographs in many rural locations.

Simon began his PhD project at Aberystwyth University in August 2021…

“I am inspired in my work by people from history, so it felt like serendipity that such a wonderful character as John Thomas came from Cellan. I realised that I could travel the same route to Liverpool, photographing the one journey that John Thomas, as a boy, was unable to document.”

“The photography took about a year and a half to complete as I did the journey in sections. I walked further than John Thomas who had walked to Newtown in Powys before catching a canal boat and later a train. Once I reached Newtown, I continued walking for the entire length of the Montgomery canal and part of the rail journey. I only finally got on a train in Gobowen in Shropshire.”

With more walking in Liverpool where Simon tracked down John Thomas’s original studios and grave in Anfield Cemetery, he covered more than 120 miles on foot…

“This journey unlocked a wealth of revelations. This was not a copy of Thomas’s methodology, but rather a contemporary digital photo process influenced by the past and grounded in the present, whose overall sentiment is nostalgic.”

An exhibition showing the work to-date is currently on at the School of Art in Aberystwyth and will remain open to the public until 10 November 2023. There are also plans for the publication of a book on the project next year and a return journey.

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Simon Tune Photography Exhibition - Aberystwyth University [Oct 2023]
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