Above board


Dublin photographer Richard Gilligan mined the skateboarding world to capture a collection of richly detailed and informative contemporary urban landscapes, writes AIDAN DUNNE

IT WOULD BE easy to underestimate Richard Gilligan’s book DIY. That is, to view him as an insider documenting a quirky urban subculture, and one with a slightly juvenile edge to it. After all, skateboarding is essentially playing, isn’t it? And skateboarders are overgrown children?

The photographs in DIY overturn both these preconceptions and achieve much more than that as well. They are contemporary urban landscapes, richly detailed and informative, and skateboarding is the key that enables our entry into them. They reflect and aim to push the boundaries of current forms of art photography.

Throughout the 20th century, photography supplanted painting as the medium for dealing visually with, for example, landscape and current events. Photography itself was maturing, emerging from an early pictorialist tradition, and then from anecdotal reportage, the “every picture tells a story” school. It was a gradual process, but there were some decisive moments.

Among the key players were the German couple Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose approach of systematic, objective documentation, practised from the early 1960s, was enormously influential. The American photographer Stephen Shore was one of those they influenced. They met in 1973. From the early 1970s, Shore began to document ordinary American life and locations with a similarly cool, documentary eye, looking not for drama but for the opposite of drama, for the everyday, that which is taken for granted.

Shore is one of the people Gilligan cites as an influence. Born in 1981, Gilligan did a portfolio course at Sallynoggin, where the tutors, including Christine Redmond, saw his potential and recommended he apply to the documentary photography course at Newport, in Wales, then run by the highly regarded Belfast-born photographer Paul Seawright. At first dubious, Gilligan went to have a look; impressed with what he saw, he applied and was accepted.

He loved it. But on graduation he felt deflated and unsure as to how his photographic aspirations would connect with the real world. He spent a year in London, picking up freelance assignments, including, as a keen skateboarder, for Kingpin skateboarding magazine. There wasn’t much money, as he recalls, but he enjoyed the opportunity to travel and take photographs. Moving back to Dublin, he based himself in South Studios, again picking up freelance assignments and doing some of his own work.

Although he exhibited in group shows, he wasn’t managing to complete a major body of work, which is when he conceived the project that became DIY.

DIY is a relatively secretive branch of skateboarding in which groups of boarders collaborate to modify sections of the urban landscape. At the same time, Gilligan decided an MA might provide him with a framework for making that elusive major body of work, and he applied to Belfast, where Seawright was now running an MA course.

It was part-time, enabling Gilligan to keep working commercially. Somewhat to his surprise, Seawright and another outstanding Belfast photographer, Donovan Wylie, also involved with the course, were enthusiastic about his DIY project. Seawright saw early on that while it was ostensibly about skateboarding, it was really about much more. DIY reflects how subgroups form and operate within and in relation to social space and societal norms, private and public property, and how planning and development address or fail to address a population’s needs.

Often the settings are marginal: the sites of stalled developments, or the underside of the functional urban infrastructure, or the edgelands and industrial fringes. Looking at Gilligan’s images, it’s as if the skin of the city is peeled back to reveal the underlying anatomical structure. And it’s hard to see the efforts of the skateboarders as anything other than creative, culturally valid and often aesthetically pleasing.

Whenever Gilligan travelled on assignment he made a point of seeking out a DIY location. He worked with a large-format or sometimes a medium-format camera, shooting film. Not that he is a diehard advocate for analogue, but he found the process of working with the cumbersome camera slowed him down. He is, he says, keenly interested in what is called the “slow journalism” of renowned Dutch photographer Rob Hornstra (working with Arnold van Bruggen).

Following Hornstra’s lead, he originally planned to self-publish DIY. Several of his photographs were included in a group exhibition in Paris. He heard that a relatively novel publishing partnership, Stéphane Rançon and Jad Hussein, under the imprint 19/80, was interested in his work. He met them and, again to his surprise, found he had a publishing contract and, just as important, a deadline.

The Copper House Gallery is showing the grids for the book, rather than, say, framed individual prints. That may not be purely pragmatic. Gilligan says the book format is exceptionally sympathetic to photography. A photographic book can stand on its own terms as a work, rather then being a collection of reproductions, as such. He points to Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places as an early example of the genre.

There is, he adds, a nerdy fact about DIY. “When I saw the first draft, I mentioned in an email to Jad that I thought the typeface was a bit . . . thin. He bounced back an email that just said: ‘Stephen Shore, Uncommon Places, first edition.’ I replied: ‘Sold.’ ”

DIY by Richard Gilligan, with a text by Iain Borden and a conversation between Richard Gilligan and Paul Seawright, is published by 19/80, €44. The Copper House Gallery (off Synge Street, Dublin 8) is showing the grids for DIY runs until October 26th; thecopperhousegallery.com

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