This is the text of a talk I gave accompanying my exhibition of Irish Landscape at Culturlann Belfast in August 2015.
Photography is a new medium to me. Normally I express myself verbally or in text. I have been doing that for decades, and I have acquired an ease in doing it, and I am surprised by the differences in how I emerge as a person in the different media, verbalising and image making.
Verbalising brings my cynicism forward while there is no cynicism I think in the photographs. Some might even say they are sentimental and could do with a bit of a harshening up.
Verbalising is a projective medium, it’s a forward assertion of oneself, an engagement in an argument whereas taking a picture is a responsive act, passive, even reverential, for all that pointing a camera at someone can feel to them like an intrusion.
My first camera cost me 15 shillings, I think. It was blue and made of plastic. It had a detachable flash gun and a little package of replaceable flash bulbs which melted when they went off.
The camera fascinated me and had two immediate purposes.
One was that it was a toy. It was an amazing and beautiful toy. As a teenager I was too cool to have actual toys; this was long before the age of serious gadgetry. Implements, vehicles, accoutrements had to have jobs to do. You couldn’t justify enjoying them just by virtue of their making big flashes, or feeling nice in the hand the way it seems you can do now.
The love of a gadget for its own sake was emerging though. The Kodak Instamatic had just been released and it was small and compact and just dinky. All of its close up pictures were off centre because the viewfinder was so far from the lens and you could always tell an Instamatic picture in someone’s album by the skewed centre and the pallid saturation. Not that any of us would have used the word saturation back then.
I don’t know why I didn’t buy an Instamatic. Maybe I thought bigger was better. Maybe my camera was cheaper. Maybe someone had said, sure they’re no good, they do everything for you.
But still, my secret was that my camera’s beauty and its separate flash gun were part of its appeal. A camera makes clicks. I think boys like toys that click. A camera, like the old box camera, which made no appeal to the senses, in itself, might not have lured me into the hobby of photography.
When people critique new camera models on Youtube or review sites, they often comment on the physical features, the feel of the body, the sponginess of the button, the neat click or otherwise of the settings ring, none of which, I suspect, would have mattered much to Cartier Bresson, though I may be wrong.
And it is clear in the advertising of cameras and photographic equipment still, as marketed to mature professionals, that the feel of them, the tactile thingy, the buttery movement of the focusing ring, the neat snap of the lens hood into place - these are all important, aside from the consideration of how suitable the camera is for the job it has to do.
And what is that job?
Going back to my first camera in 1966, the job was simply to make a record of the faces of people.
I had a summer job in D Devine and Sons in the fruit market. I had made new friends and I was leaving them at the end of the summer and I had the idea that I should photograph them, or someone had that idea.
And it excited me, because leaving that place and those people would not seem so final and abrupt if I had a photograph of those I was leaving behind.
And they would know that I had that picture and that occasionally I would look at it and think of them.
They would be part of my ongoing future in a small way.
I might forget them and yet find the photographs years later and be fondly reminded of them.
There was novelty in the idea because no one in our family took photographs in 1966. There are very few pictures of those childhood years. But there were older photographs around the house at home, and they were all of this same essential type; they recorded faces and poses. I had opened drawers in my parents’ bedroom and found these small glossy square snaps, as they were called, or snapshots, black and white pictures, or sometimes fading sepia images of a young woman in the 1940s, to judge by her coat and hat, or of a young man sitting on a little untethered cart, smiling.
There was always another person’s presence implied in these pictures, that of the photographer, the person being looked back at, the one who had said, “Say “Cheese”.’
These were not accidental glances into the past; each image had been situated, set up, directed, contrived. And we would look at them now and say that they had been done clumsily, with a stiffness that whole generations have since overcome.
People were all more amateurish at posing then and had to be guided towards the semblance of a smile.
We didn’t just have to learn to be photographers, we had to learn to be subjects, though now small children know instantly how to pose, they are photographed so often. It can be hard to get a natural off-guard shot of a child now, for they recognise instantly that they are being photographed and they change.
Most of us were slower learners then. I remember once a photographer just turned up at our door one day about 1957 and offered to do a picture of a group of children out playing in their cowboy suits and the novelty of it was enormous.
Now, of course, the police would be called.
These old pictures in the drawer fascinated me, not because I knew the people in them, mostly my mother and father and their families, but because the background to the images, and the clothes the people wore suggested more information than the mere recording of faces intended.
There was one pic of someone on the old Carrick a Rede rope bridge.
The person who took it had no idea of who it would evolve into a tourist attraction, or how Health and Safety would intervene. Much of the context we read into that picture now is shaped by our own knowledge and curiosity.
Yet there is no recording of anything without context.
There were other photographs in our lives then. Once a year, or less often, the school would summon a photographer. He would come to the school to take group photographs of the pupils assembled in the playground - which is what we called the school yard before it evolved into a car park.
Everyone had to stand very still while the photographer moved across the front of the group taking two or three shots that would stitch together. There are stories of some children being able to appear twice in the same picture by moving along between takes, but no one in our school would have risked that.
When we got these, either in the school magazine or offered for sale, we would spend time going though all the little heads and identifying them. And we would have the framed personal one on the mantelpiece for a time, or give it to an aunt.
The school photographer also took individual head shots.
And the interesting thing about the school picture was the removal of context. Usually the background is completely plain. The child is stiffly posed in a school uniform and that’s it. It’s as if the purpose of the picture is to separate the child from context rather than to locate her or him in one.
And this seems to go along with an idea that education lifted the child out of the social context and made him or her different, more formal. And even in the removal of context we see a value imparted, a presumption that the school owns the child more fully than the street or the home does.
And the parents would see the picture for the first time when the child brought it home.
My mother always seemed a bit annoyed by these pictures perhaps precisely because she had no input into them other than the half crown or whatever she had to pay for them. If she’d been there she’d have told me to cover my teeth. She made me self conscious about my teeth for years until I discovered that a big toothy smile is my best look.
While I saw the pictures in the drawer as little windows into the past, I wasn’t particularly thinking that my own pictures of the girls in the office upstairs in D Devine and Sons would serve the same function in my own future.
Yet, if I only had that camera and those pictures still, what might they not say?
The pictures would show me the styles of dress in the mid ‘60s among young Belfast women, their hair styles and their shoes, the makeup they used. Their postures would reflect confidence or maybe not. We would see subtleties perhaps in their interactions with each other that the fifteen year old boy enjoying the flash would not have picked up at the time. And we would see something of their interaction with him, their evaluation of him, whether they were humouring him or whether they were as awestruck by the camera as he was.
We would see something of the architecture of the office, the glass partition dappled like the windows on bathrooms so that passers by couldn’t look in or be clearly seen and distract the girls from their work. And that would tell us something of the values of the time, the thinking of employers. There was no open-plan office spacing in those days.
I was excited by those pictures when I got them. I could carry those girls around with me in my wallet. That’s all I had a wallet for, for I had no money. I could show them to my friends, tell stories about them, show people, “that’s Marian, that’s Kathleen”.
And others would comment on them. ‘She’s nice; the one with a bob’ whatever a bob was, but that’s how you learn. ‘She’s too old for you anyway’. ‘Oh that’s thingy, I know her sister.’
‘That’s Marian. She’s the one I fancied.’
‘Huh, she’s far too good for you.’
‘Oh aye, she was with some fella at Romano’s last week.’
‘I’ll put in a word for you.’
I was not able to continue much with photography for a few years after that because I had no money. Every film had to be left in with the chemist and collected and paid for a few days later when the prints arrived.
And it was an occasion in the family when they did, for everyone would huddle round to flip through the prints to marvel at some of them, bemoan the failure in others. Probably the flash didn’t go off. “That’s your finger in front of the camera, you twit.”
“Oh you blinked.”
My interest in photography was awakened again when I was working as a junior journalist on the Sunday News. I often worked alongside photographers on stories. There was a strict union rule that a reporter didn’t take pictures and photographers didn’t write copy but I was struck by the fact that two of the other reporters on a small team were themselves keen amateur photographers. It would have been heresy to say that a rounded journalist could do both jobs, yet a reporter had to learn to think of stories in images as well as words.
The sub editor would have started out as a reporter but had to crop pictures to fit in the page layout, had to have an eye for design, a sense of how the gaze moved across a page, of how a picture was best deployed to serve the angle of the story.
And any time you pitched a story to the news editor you would be asked what picture might go with it.
So the photographer was seen as the technician who got the picture onto film, but the reporter also had to think pictorially too.
And the photographer had to be as sharp as a reporter in comprehending the angle of a story in order to provide the appropriate images. So the roles were not just as separate as the union rules implied.
I was new to this but I was seeing skilled professionals at work and learning about their equipment.
This was at a time when the standard tools of newspaper journalism were evolving. The older photographers still preferred bulky twin lens reflex cameras using large square format film similar to the one I had used in my wee cheap camera.
With the Twin Lens Reflex, you looked down into a square viewfinder on the top of the camera, or up into it if you held it over your head. One lens provided your eye with an image and the other sent the parallel image, not exactly the same image, to the film. And the film was rolled on with a spool lever at the side of the box.
The younger photographers preferred the 35 mm film SLR, Single Lens Reflex camera. These were nifty. The one lens did both jobs of sending an image to your eye through the viewfinder and to the film. The trick was achieved with a flopping mirror that sent the image through a prism to the eye. Press the shutter and the mirror flipped up to let the light at the film.
The old hands sneered at these. They didn’t like the fact that you were never actually looking at the subject at the moment at which the picture was taken.
If you were taking someone’s picture you might not notice a blink at the moment you pressed the button, but with a twin lens camera you would have a continuous view of the subject through the parallel lens.
These photographers would go though dozens of shots for one picture.
Their skill was not in conceiving an image, setting it up and catching it in one. It was in firing away and then going through the contact prints afterwards to find what worked best, and then letting the sub editor crop it.
Some serious photographers I know regard all that as cheating. For them the art entails composition in the viewfinder, knowing what you are looking for and knowing that you have got it.
A wedding photographer who had to do thirty takes of the cutting of the cake wouldn’t get asked back for the next wedding in that family.
I bought a cheap little camera which had a fixed wide angle lens and allowed you to focus by guessing the distance. There was a ring with a sequence of images from a single head to a group of heads to a mountain peak. I quickly realised this was far inferior to the jobbies the photographers on the paper were using but I couldn’t afford one of them.
One day I was looking in the window of a second hand camera shop in North Street Arcade and saw the Zorki 4.
This was a rangefinder focusing imitation of a Leica. I tried it out. It had a screw-in lens, a Jupiter f2, whatever that meant, but the rangefinder focusing intrigued me. You knew you were in focus when a ghost image in your viewfinder overlapped with your clear view of the scene. This was another toy that could be justified by its being more efficient for the job, what ever the job was.
I hadn’t decided what I wanted to take photographs of, but this would get me sharper, in focus, non fuzzy ones.
Orwell, I think, somewhere cites a cartoon in which a boy tells his father that he wants to be a writer when he grows up. What do you want to write about? Nothing in particular, I just want to be a writer.
Well, that’s where I was with writing then and it is also where I was with photography. I wanted to do them but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with them. And I think that despite the sneering joke, most writers and artists of other kinds have inclinations towards their medium before they have any clear sense of how to use it, before they have the experience to express much of value through it.
That year I also bought a Zenit B, another Russian camera. This was an actual SLR though you had to just judge by your eye when you were in focus, and I started developing film in plastic drums of stinking chemicals, though never as cleanly and sharply as the chemist could have done for me. I was near to giving up anyway because my films never looked as good as those that hung in the photographers’ dark room at work, but I was learning - well playing - and enjoying myself.
This was the time of the early Troubles. Once I was accosted by a big thick Provie (IRA man) for carrying a camera in the street. I opened it to show them there was no film and he poked the fabric of the shutter and said, what’s that? I pressed the button and it bit his finger. That he was startled doesn’t say much about how he would have held his nerve under fire.
Then a bomb blew the bottles and thermometer off the bathroom window sill into the bath.
I was invited to use a dark room in the lower Newtownards Road, and after dropping off one of the guys on the Shankill (a road through a Protestant area) we got followed by a car and shook it off in Turf Lodge and staying safe became more important than taking pictures.
Maybe if I had had a more evolved sense of purpose in my photography i would have taken risks for it.
My initial fascination was with the camera as a tool which was flexible in its application, long before I had any clear sense, if I have it yet, of what I could best do with it.
I assume a young painter similarly loves just fondling the texture of the brushes and canvass, smelling the paints, first grows familiar with the tools through play before beginning to deploy them seriously.
The beginning of a photographic interest for me was the exploration of the potential of the camera, the discovery that an elementary picture could be taken in different ways, for instance with the background blurred or sharp, that the blades of a helicopter could be made to whizz or stand still, depending on shutter speed.
Journalistic photography in those days was elementary. Most pictures taken were of people standing and posing. There was an embarrassing moment in 1972, a month after a bad bomb when the paper was running a feature on the aftermath and sent a photographer to take pictures of some of the bereaved. One of the pictures he came back with was of a man standing behind a bar, pouring a bottle of beer and smiling.
Much of the local press photography of that time was done with only the next day’s paper in mind and without a sense that it would have historic value. And since few were concerned to preserve it, much of that work is lost.
Some of the pictures of the time did find an afterlife.
There is the famous one of Joe McCann crouching with his M1 Carbine by the burning bakery in the Markets area on internment week, taken by Ciaran Donnelly.
Another is, I have been told, used in training at Sandhurst. It captures a bomb blast in the half second before the dust erupts. The photographer was lining up the shot, in Royal Avenue, knowing a bomb was about to go off, and was just lucky enough to be jarred by the blast and to press the button.
There was some active photo reporting, that is documenting the event of a moment, though not for posterity but for the next day or for sale to foreign media.
There wasn’t much of it really. I met one photographer who had worked out exposure settings for night time fires and petrol bombs, how far you could boost a film by over-developing it. Kodak Tri X at 400 ISO was regarded as fast film then.
At one union meeting, reporters were rebuked for insensitivity to the risks photographers took. ‘I’ve yet to see a photograph being phoned in’, one said. But the cuttings files show that photographers rarely got close to the action. In late ’72 the photographers on the News Letter refused to go into west Belfast and we had to hire freelances to photograph the new army bases established after Operation Motorman.
The paper also wanted to get some sexual interest. Much of this was provided by agencies which had models. These weren’t very elegantly air-brushed. There was one of a woman reclining in a bikini. She had a very slight paunch and it was levelled out with a felt tip pen, filling in part of it.
You couldn’t see the pen marks when the picture was in the paper. Quality photography was not an issue. Paradoxically, the photographers would argue about whether the 35 mm film was good enough for reproduction in newsprint, yet by the standard of quality the paper worked too, you could trim the fat off a woman with a pen and no one would notice.
What this type of photography showed me was another purpose to the medium, apart from providing a record of events.
In our small way, our photographers were doing what visual artists had been doing for thousands of years, if we go back to early sculpture; they were pandering to erotic curiosity.
Some of our photographers were keen on this kind of work.
It fitted with a pre feminist culture. Often I would write the caption and every woman in a picture was ‘the lovely ..’
We did a little feature on a zoo keeper’s wife who nursed a baby bear and a baby leopard. She was ‘the lovely Maire.’
IRA women pictured in a feature about a pirate radio station were similarly, and of necessity, ‘lovely’.
The preservation of the erotic image goes back to pre neolithic sculpture, little stone images of naked women like the Venus of Willendorf, through stone carvings for churches like the Sheila na Gig, the Hindu temple carvings of Khujarahao.
Yet go back further to the cave paintings when people first tried to record a world around them in colour and form and it is not the naked female that preoccupies them but the animals they hunted, the bulls at Lascaux, and the hunters themselves. Of course only a small number of these have survived and they may not be representative of the wider culture. We don’t know what the lost and forgotten images were.
People were recreating images of things that were important to them perhaps as an aid to memory, to instruction, a reinforcement of imagination. In the older cave paintings we assume that something magical was in mind, a sense that if an image was dwelt on the thing itself would become real.
And is it so different from having a photograph of your loved ones on the wall at home?
We don’t keep photographs of those we love just to be reminded of what they look like. We are not going to forget that, at least not while they are alive and close to us.
Often people at work will have a framed photograph of their spouse and children on their desks. It is not as if, in a day’s work, they are going to struggle to recover some recollection of an intimate moment.
This shows up in newspaper work too. We might have imagined we served to inform people of the state of the world, tell them things they did not know.
Curiously people were often more inclined to buy a newspaper and read about events and see pictures of them if they had actually been there themselves.
The most exemplary surviving expression of that understanding is the Ulster Tatler. It works on a principle that was important to all newspapers once, that ‘a name is a penny’. Everyone named in a newspaper or pictured in it would buy several copies for friends and family.
Something about making the record of our existence formal or tangible endorses us.
People see the photographer taking their picture as paying respect to them.
The Tatler simply photographs people at events. You go to a book launch or a play or a formal dinner and the Tatler is there to pose you and capture your smile. The news content is only that you were there. This recognises the simple power of the photograph as homage.
So the record is more than a record.
It is about sustaining an intimate connection. It is a way of being with the person when not with the person.
And we do this even with the dead.
We are not so different from the cave people.
Nor from the superstitious who fear that their soul is captured in a photograph. Don’t we presume as much when we keep a picture of a lover in sight through the day, not so much that we have deprived them of something, but that we have retained something of them?
And in much the same way that we recall people, we recall places, seek to reconnect with them. There is a huge amount of nostalgic song in Irish culture, The Green Hills of Antrim, The Forty Shades of Green, The Flower of County Down, Galway Bay.
We glorify and sentimentalise place to awaken and reinforce our own hankering for it. For we want to feel the pain of estrangement. We prefer that to unfeeling forgetting.
What I had wanted was a photograph of my friends. That was the starting point. But then I discovered other desires arising from the fact of the camera and its technical elegance and potential and from the very art of photography.
There are photographers, of course, for whom the subject matter is all. A police forensic officer wants clear images of crime scenes and a camera gets that, so it is a tool for a job, like the camera that catches you speeding.
But some of us, perhaps most of us, come to develop an interest in photography itself. We are looking around for new ideas of what to photograph because the technology and the art have become part of us.
Like one writer writes because an important story is to be told, and once it is told and the job is done feels no need to write again, another becomes a writer in the process and when left stuck for a subject to write about feels bereft and depressed, so a photographer itches to be out with the camera, finding images even when nothing yet but that desire demands that anything be recorded.
I have taken thousands of photographs in recent years.
I learned some of the techniques of photography by photographing flowers and birds in the garden and sharing these on social media, to discover that a lot of people liked them and commented on them but also that a lot more people were already doing this and doing it better.
And I asked myself, what is the point in me doing this if it has all been done already? Is it possible that the art of photography is exhausted.
I look at what the academics are doing and the work that appears in galleries and in the British Journal of Photography and I find that pictures rarely tell their own stories unaided, that they need accompanying text before they start to explain themselves.
I also find that much modern photography is bleak and dystopic. Within the best of this is the social and political observation, which is essentially photo-reportage.
What you rarely see is a beautiful picture taken for its own sake, and perhaps there is good reason for this, the sense that the world has enough of these already, of postcards and coffee table books and nice pictures which could hang in your living room.
But has the world had enough poetry or enough painting and sculpture too?
I have come to think that the contrast between narrative or explained photography and the stand-alone sufficient image is like the difference between prose and poetry.
And that the higher ideal is a picture which people will look at without needing textual explanation before they will be moved by it.
I want to create the scenic image that people will look at and like without being quite able to articulate why they like it, not an image that will evoke words and comment from them, advance an academic line of thought about the purpose and evolution of photography.
That ideal is a picture which does not have to be underpinned by an academic theory.
I am also unashamedly a romanticist when it comes to landscape pictures. I want people to have a sense that landscape is more than just nice and familiar, but that it calls us back to something, that the world’s beauty, it’s appeal to the human eye, is not an incidental by-product of evolution but has meaning for us.
Yet I am aware that the Irish landscape has been so thoroughly seen and shown before, that we are so conditioned into seeing it in certain ways that we may be blinded against seeing it differently, unable to see it freshly.
The landscape artist may be accused of a nostalgia for peasant roots, of a celebration of Ireland as an idea that is dangerous, of pitting the numinous against the pragmatic and losing sight of the economic value of land.
One guy on Facebook joked that I was endangering tourism by showing so much cloud.
The tourism office in Mulranny has been sharing my picture of the bay to attract tourists.
Go into the gift shops of Ballycastle or Derrybeg and you will see lots of pictures of Fair Head and Errigal, going back to the John Hind postcards and the Shell ads.
And yet even the familiar horizon looks different every day because the weather changes and the clouds reshape themselves constantly in the sunlight.
All landscape is wreckage. Muckish and Errigal, Fair Head and the Mournes are the remnants of upheavals that preceded us and which would destroy us if they recurred. Blown out by forces from within the earth, scarred and polished by ice, no design or purpose determined that landscape should move us.
That is perhaps the most trivial and incidental outcome of the erosion and crumbling of a planet’s surface.
We came along and made the cracks and leaks our refuge and our home, like vermin in a scrapyard, as the mosses, insects and slugs did.
Then when we built our cities and removed ourselves, and left it to others to grow and package our food, a strange thing happened. We turned back and looked at the land on which we had thrived and saw that it was glorious.
We saw that the wreckage interacted with the sky and the sunlight to create mesmerising images for us, and for no practical evolutionary purpose we could imagine, other than, perhaps, to call us home.
My landscape pictures try replenish an idea the modern artists have discarded, that the beauty of the earth and sky awaken our sense of wonder and that we need this to be fully human.
This is not the kind of thing they tell you in a newspaper office or in a university.