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Essay – ‘Into The Light’, The Visual Artist’s News Sheet, March/April 2021.

March 23, 2021

Into the Light


Three recent and forthcoming exhibitions are showcasing significant collections of photography, which individually and collectively foreground the medium’s archival function in recording the shifting Irish cultural landscape over the last 50 years. These important bodies of photographic work variously document Dublin’s inner-city streets and the fading traditions of country life – from pilgrimages and processions, to holidays and dances – as well as landscapes ravaged by the conflict in Northern Ireland.

All three exhibitions are accompanied by new publications, reproducing extensive bodies of photography as seamless sequences of imagery with their own narrative agency. Each book includes specially commissioned essays, which help to anchor the photographs in their original time and context, while also chronicling their contemporary resonance and circulation.

Northern Light

‘Northern Light’ ran at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) from 1 December 2020 to 14 February 2021. This was the third in a series of exhibitions at IMMA, showcasing photographic works from the David Kronn Collection. Previous exhibitions were titled ‘Out of The Dark Room’ (20 July – 9 October 2011) and ‘Second Sight’ (2 August – 9 November 2014). Dr Kronn is anIrish-born American paediatrician, with a specialisation in medical genetics, who has been amassing an exceptional private collection of modern and contemporary photography over the past 25 years. The collection now comprises more than 1100 photographs and is a promised gift to IMMA. Annual bequests of works will continue until the entire collection is housed in the museum, while long-term plans include a purpose-built visitor centre.

‘Northern Light’ had a particular focus on photographic works documenting the conflict in Northern Ireland. As described by the curator, Seán Kissane: “As the United Kingdom prepares to leave the European Union in 2021, it is an opportune time to reflect on the shared history of Ireland and the UK; 2021 also marks the centenary of the partition of this island and the civil war that ensued.” A pertinent inclusion in this regard was Donovan Wylie’s photographic series, ‘Lighthouse’ (2017-18), which documented distant lighthouses from the opposing coastlines of Britain and Northern Ireland in the wake of Brexit votes in Westminster – prescient images in the context of recent calls to instate a border in the Irish Sea. Also presented was Wylie’s 2004 series, ‘The Maze’, which records the demolition of buildings at the Maze Prison and his 2007 series, ‘British Watchtowers’, which documented the surveillance towers that once existed along the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Among the photographs in the collection which bore witness to the Troubles, violent protests and militarised landscapes are recurring motifs. However, given Dr Kronn’s professional specialism as a paediatrician, he wanted to trace the impact of the conflict on children. Renowned photojournalists like Ian Berry, Chris Steele Perkins and Philip Jones Griffiths, showed children playing under the observation of armed soldiers or becoming involved in street shenanigans. Others, like Bruno Barbey and Don McCullin, documented scenes of escalating violence, with youths throwing stones and petrol bombs. When covering the Battle of the Bogside, Gilles Caron produced a now iconic colour photograph of a child wearing a gas mask and holding a Molotov cocktail.

‘Northern Light’ was accompanied by a fully illustrated exhibition catalogue, published by IMMA, which was edited by Seán Kissane and includes introductory texts by Dr David Kronn and Christina Kennedy (Head of Collections at IMMA) as well as an excellent contextual essay by Pauline Vermare, Cultural Director at Magnum Photos, New York.

The Light of Day

A major retrospective of work by Irish photographer, Tony O’Shea, is being organised by the Gallery of Photography Ireland. The exhibition was originally scheduled to run from April to May 2021, but has since been postponed until Autumn, due to COVID-19 public health restrictions. Spanning four decades of O’Shea’s work, from 1979 to 2019, ‘The Light of Day’ is accompanied by a new book of the same name, published by RRB Photobooks, featuring reproductions of 90 black and white photographs. The book is produced in an edition of 1000 – including 100 copies with a signed, limited edition silver-gelatin print – and features an introductory essay by Irish writer, Colm Tóibín, who first encountered O’Shea’s photographs as editor of In Dublin magazine in the late 1970s. In those days, Tóibín often set O’Shea assignments to capture everyday life in the city, including a particularly candid series, taken from the upper deck of Dublin buses. Tóibín also contributed to O’Shea’s first book, Dubliners (London: Macdonald Illustrated, 1990).

O’Shea’s photographs collectively document a wide spectrum of Irish public life – from civil rights marches during the conflict in Northern Ireland, to scenes of turf-cutting, religious celebrations and sporting events in rural County Kerry, where O’Shea was born in 1947 and lived for 20 years. O’Shea’s ‘Border Roads’ series from the early-1990s documents several ‘Days of Action’, when border communities came together to clear ‘unapproved’ roads in rural areas that had been blocked by British security forces with large concrete slabs. These moments of reopening were marked with celebratory processions, which were recorded by O’Shea. ‘Border Roads’ also features in the David Kronn Collection and was exhibited as part of ‘Northern Light’.

However, O’Shea is probably best known for his photographs of north inner-city Dublin, which capture youths on the streets of Smithfield and housewives shopping in markets, as well as significant moments in social history, including a divorce referendum protest in the mid-1980s outside Dublin’s GPO. As described by Tóibín: “In these hard-hitting, eloquent pictures he has captured the many complexities of a country undergoing profound change”.

Martin Parr: 40 Years of Photography in Ireland

Also chronicling the dramatically shifting Irish cultural landscape over four decades, a forthcoming touring exhibition will showcase the extensive archive of acclaimed British documentary photographer, Martin Parr, who first visited Ireland in 1979 and lived in County Roscommon from 1980-82. The exhibition, titled ‘Martin Parr: 40 Years of Photography in Ireland’, opens first at Limerick City Gallery of Art in late February and coincides with a new book, From the Pope to a Flat White: Ireland 1979-2019, published by Damiani.

While I find the front cover slightly jarring and the title unnecessarily reductive, Fintan O’Toole’s intellectually robust introductory essay, ‘The Lure of Pleasure’, offers narrative accompaniment to the scores of fascinating photographs reproduced within. The photographs appear in a seamless chronological sequence, commencing with documentation of pilgrims attending Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland in 1979, and concluding with contemporary shots of global tech hubs and hipster coffee shops, located around the gentrified Dublin Docklands. The book not only gives an indication of the imagery we can expect to encounter in the forthcoming exhibitions, but also a sense of the themes that might underpin their presentation.

A range of images document gatherings in rural communities in the early-1980s – from religious observances, cattle fairs and horse races, to dances in rural ballrooms. Shot in black and white, they have a natural archival appeal, which seems to firmly situate them in the distant past. However, as described by O’Toole: “Parr’s shift from black and white to colour in the mid-1980s exaggerates and dramatises a shift that was of course more gradual and complex”. I find these colour photographs particularly seductive, perhaps due to nostalgic associations with family albums, which habitually archived special occasions, summer holidays and trips to the seaside. Parr’s images show things that no longer exist, like Ballymun tower blocks (since demolished) or the Butlins holiday camp (now a Direct Provision Centre). They articulate the recording of social history for posterity, something that is absent from his contemporary images (self-consciously punctuated with of-the-moment fashion and signage) whose retrospective visual appeal will no doubt accrue over time. Parr’s exhibition will tour to the following venues (dates may be subject to change):

  • Limerick City Gallery of Art (25 February – 2 May 2021)
  • Gallery of Photography Ireland (26 June – 5 September 2021)
  • Roscommon Arts Centre (16 September – 5 November 2021)
  • McMullen Museum of Art, Boston (28 January – 28 May 2022)
  • Belfast Exposed, Northern Ireland (July – September 2022)

Joanne Laws is Editor of The Visual Artists’ News Sheet.

[Featured Image: Tony O’Shea, Painted pony, Smithfield, Dublin 1989, courtesy the artist and the Gallery of Photography Ireland]

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