Photography that sees beyond surface drama of the Troubles

A new book seeks to catalogue the best photojournalism and fine-art photography of the past 30 years in the North

Fri, Jun 20, 2014, 11:31

‘Butterfly Catchers’ (1999) © Hannah Starkey Courtesy of Maureen Paley Gallery

One of the pioneers of this art-photography mode was the Portadown-based artist Victor Sloan. His Belfast Zoo, III, from 1983, is the perfect example of how art and photography intersected to produce critical images of Northern Ireland. Here Sloan has photographed a chimpanzee behind the Perspex of its cage at the zoo at Bellevue, on Cavehill. The camera’s flash deliberately highlights the Perspex and the graffitied ‘IRA’ scratched on to its surface. The Perspex itself is a reminder of army riot shields (much like the scarred shield which the soldier hides behind in Philip Jones Griffiths’ evocative image from 1973). Over the photograph Sloan has painted waving lines of blue and red, as if trying to see whether the artistic and the painterly has any place in this allegoric landscape of violence and entrapment.

‘Belfast Zoo, III’ (1983) From Belfast Zoo  © Victor Sloan Courtesy of the artist

Photographers who came after Sloan used the same strategy of seeking out the traces left by the Troubles in unpromising landscapes. David Farrell visited the sites of the “Disappeared” during the searches undertaken for the bodies of the missing. The scarred landscapes he found hauntingly tell the stories of people who cannot be seen in the photographs. John Duncan’s series of photographs of loyalist bonfires turns them into sculptural artefacts. But Duncan’s images, also peopleless, ask us to think about what place these objects have in a future Northern Ireland. Singled out for scrutiny in this way, presented blankly and at a distance, Duncan’s bonfires are typical of the best of contemporary Northern Irish photography because they use the photographic image to think and not just to show.

Northern Ireland 1973. A soldier seen through shield with dimmed visibility after repeated blows. 1973 © Philip Jones Griffiths. Courtesy of Magnum Photos.

Northern Ireland: 30 Years of Photography is an attempt to capture the thoughtfulness and intelligence of the wealth of fine-art photography that has been produced in Northern Ireland in the last 30 years. The book catalogues photographic work that is largely designed to be shown in art galleries and in photobooks. It is photography that retains a documentary mode and so remains linked to “real life”. It still photographs things that are actually there. But it does that with the awareness that we learn more by looking beyond the surface drama of the Troubles and its aftermath. If we look long enough, and with a critical eye, deeper truths and more profound understandings will be uncovered.

Northern Ireland: 30 Years of Photography, edited by Colin Graham and Karen Downey, is published by Belfast Exposed (£30). Colin Graham lectures in English at NUI Maynooth

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