Eerie echoes of my own past in photos of strangers

Most of the images in an exhibition of snaps from 30 or so families and individuals scattered around the island have a haunting familiarity


I was sitting out on a city street under the canopy of what may or may not have been a beech tree, having a conversation with a friend who was nursing a post-operative bandage and sipping tea. Rather than dwell on life’s fragility and unpredictability, I poked my limbs out into the glare, drank coffee from a paper cup and complained about the wasps.

The blisteringly sunny street was bruised under the weight of Dubliners pretending to be New Yorkers. People sauntered by in various stages of undress, saying “yo” into their mobiles, some, myself included, displaying bits of winter skin that might have been best left unfurled.

Next to us, a group of acting students had gathered around a table, long-limbed and lustrous. They gossiped about auditions in London and the odds on international stardom, until one of the more practical among them suggested that they might think about padding out their career prospects by being bicycle couriers, an idea that seemed to cast a shadow over his companions’ day in the sun.

“I’m too hot,” said my friend, although she could have done with a bit of colour, her face still a reminder of the matt grey tones of the hospital ward.


A gallery visit

We dipped into a gallery in search of shade. It’s summer in Dublin and we’re looking for shelter from the sun, I thought; another few weeks of this and we’ll be running with the bulls through the streets of Stoneybatter, living on moussaka and throwing chipped Ikea plates at the chalk paint walls.

“It doesn’t feel like Ireland,” I said.

“This does,” my friend replied, already absorbed in the exhibits we had stumbled in on.

The Photo Album of Ireland, which is at the Gallery of Photography in Temple Bar until August 31st, is an exhibition and a social history combined: a celebration of ordinary Irish lives gathered together from donated family albums and snapshots.

The show ranges from the 1850s to the 1980s, a span that takes in box Brownies, Polaroids, Instamatics and even photo-booth selfies. And although the material is gathered from just 30 or so families and individuals scattered around the island, most of the images have a haunting familiarity.

It is eerie to recognise yourself and your own past in the private collections of strangers, to see your own life and history mirrored so closely in other people’s memorabilia.

There are snaps of pious little girls in Communion dresses on the steps of country churches and sullen little boys in bell-bottoms on the broken streets of Belfast and Derry. There are grinning, self-conscious teenagers with “Purdy” haircuts. There are sharply coloured Polaroids of improbably young wimple-framed nuns dotted around convent gardens.

There are kids in pyjamas on pink candlewick bedspreads, dads in ill-advised tartan trousers and mothers suspended in some haze of youth, decorated with babies and headscarves. There are careful portraits of hopeful young debutantes with their feet turned in. One dark-haired girl, clutching a small bouquet wrapped in what might be a paper doily, reminds me so much of one of my sisters I do a double-take.

There are pictures, too, of back-combed girls on shabby couches, ready for a big night out in wedges and midi-skirts, and you feel that if you concentrate hard enough you’ll hear the 10 CC album playing on their stereo. Hell, you and those girls probably stood in the same line outside the Savoy with your first boyfriends in their denim jackets and their flares to see Jaws. Like you, they too may have spent half their teens waiting for the phone to ring.


Moving experience

There are essays on the walls next to the photographs, texts that my friend, in her delicate, patient state, stood and read carefully. “The sadness of lives and the comfort of things,” she read aloud.

The Photo Album of Ireland is a moving experience, profoundly sad in some strange way; in its accumulation of images of modest lives, powerless against time and circumstance, the frailty and mortality of us all moves gradually into focus.

We left and sat outside in the square for a few minutes while my friend caught her breath. On the bench next to us, a dark, handsome man rubbed the back of his pregnant partner. They were suspended in that moment, underneath the placid late-afternoon sun, the rest of the world invisible to them. An unrecorded shot for their family album. I wish I’d had a camera.