Taking a broad view of our landscape
Enda Cavanagh’s experience of photographing man-made structures has given him a sharp eye for nature
ENDA CAVANAGH’S Irish landscape photographs have won awards and attracted considerable attention. Most recently his image Sands in Motion,which is a startling view of Pigeon House Road in Dublin, took an IPPA/RSA award, and his stunning panoramic view of Dún Laoghaire Baths was a talking point when it was exhibited at the RHA Annual Exhibition in the Gallagher Gallery. Now he has taken the bold step of publishing a book, Exploring the Irish Landscape,a generous collection of the photographs he rates most highly.
It’s a beautifully designed and printed publication. The plates, in both colour and black and white, have a level of detail and clarity that is exceptional. It particularly pleases him that it was printed here in Ireland, by Castle Print in Galway. The panoramic format allows cinematic double-page spreads of his photographs, which are taken with a Cambo Wide DS technical camera. Besides the Cambo he uses two medium-format cameras, his original Mamiya and a Hasselblad.
Yet another coffee-table book of picturesque Irish scenes, you may think. Thankfully it’s not so. Cavanagh sidesteps the conventional scenic approach, largely skipping the usual landmark sites and concentrating on expansive views that gain their tremendous impact from the accumulation of detail and careful composition. This is perfectly illustrated by a superb landscape of a turlough in the Burren, dominated by a foreground maze of fissured limestone and the wild stubble of winter vegetation. That view of Dún Laoghaire baths makes something unexpected out of the familiar. The baths appear like a vast archaeological site.
Cavanagh works as an architectural photographer as well as photographing landscapes and, while the buildings are photographed to serve clients, there is a certain overlap between the two strands of activity. “I think more and more the architecture work has shaped the landscapes,” he says. “I think it’s improved them actually. I find I look for structure in the landscape now and build compositions in that way. ”
He is also attuned to the role of human activity in the landscape. The incidental, often weathered, sometimes decayed signs of the human presence are there in many images: stone walls, fences, slipways, piers, stairways, worn concrete structures, corroded metal, all part of the landscape rather than optional extras.
Water certainly features prominently. In fact, Cavanagh was born and grew up in Skreen, Co Sligo, “about a mile or so from Dunmoran Strand”. When he was in his early teens, an uncle gave him a present of a camera. “I took a lot of bad photographs with that camera,” he recalls. But he was learning all the time, and he was drawn to photographing the landscape. He then went to Dublin, where he studied at Bolton Street and qualified as an architectural technician. Photography remained a sideline. “I suppose you could say it was a hobby.”
In 1993 he moved to Berlin, because he was able to find work there, and he stayed for five years, working as a technician. It was an enjoyable, stimulating time. “I loved being there, and in fact it’s still my favourite city to visit.” There he began to appreciate the complexity of the urban landscape, with its layers of history and its myriad, gritty textures. “I realised I had a feeling for urban decay. I don’t see it as something negative. There’s a beauty to the way architecture ages.”
The economic cycle that had brought him to Berlin brought him back to Dublin, as building boomed. He was very busy. “But it was difficult as well, it was stressful. I became quite disillusioned with architecture. Well, no, I mean I’m still passionate about architecture, but there were aspects to the way things were done that I found hard to take, and that soured it a bit.”
After he settled back in Dublin he stopped taking photographs. Partly because he was fully occupied, but also because he didn’t have a darkroom. Then, about seven years ago, he visited a storytelling festival on Cape Clear Island in Co Cork.
“It was fantastic. Something about being back in contact with the sea, and the whole nature of the event, the people, made a huge impact on me. From not taking photographs at all I went through about 15 rolls of film there. I realised two things, that I wanted to take photographs, and that I wanted to live near the sea.” He set about organising both. He moved from the city out to Dún Laoghaire, and he began to follow the two photographic avenues, resuming his landscape work but also concentrating on architectural photography. He’s acquired quite a reputation at the latter, and is surely being modest when he says he had many contacts to draw on. Contacts or no, he wouldn’t have built up such an impressive portfolio by now if he wasn’t really good at it.
His book is a fine summary of his landscape work to date. A welcome addition to its genre, one of its many virtues is that it’s responsive to the breathtaking beauty of the Irish landscape, while also viewing it coolly, documenting the complexity of the country rather than reinforcing old stereotypes.
Exploring the Irish Landscapewith an introduction by Shane Conneelly is published by Enda Cavanagh Photography, €34.95. See endacavanagh.com