A quintessentially Irish exhibition

 

Photographer Simon Burch looked to the most traditional of Irish landscapes – boglands – for an exhibition of stark, expressive work

BORN IN Bangor, Co Down, photographer Simon Burch worked in London before establishing his own studio in Dublin in 1996. He’s taken on many high-profile advertising commissions, jobs that entail a significant level of creative photographic content, but he’s also consistently managed to pursue personal projects along the way. And it’s one of them, in fact the longest, most sustained to date, that forms the substance of his exhibition at the Gallery of Photography and an accompanying book: Under a Grey Sky.

The work is a visual exploration, made over a period of four years, of “the most intensively industrialised landscape in the country”, the peatlands of the central plain, those desolate brown and black expanses that have been systematically harvested for fuel.

Burch’s images are quintessentially Irish – what’s more Irish than Bord na Móna? – but they are almost unrecognisable as such, if we think of the Irish rural landscape only within the established, romanticised conventions. As he remarks: “One is aware of the peat bogs, but you don’t really get an idea of just how big they are until you get out there on foot. You always seem to glimpse them from about a field or so away, beyond the more typical vegetation – maybe that’s just clever landscaping on the part of Bord na Móna.”

Getting out on foot was how it all started for Burch. One day he and his wife, Marion, drove to Co Offaly and, at a certain point, stopped to go for a walk without knowing exactly where they were.

Leaving their car and moving beyond the “typical vegetation” they stepped into quite another world – a vast, flat, dark terrain that took them aback. There was a starkness to it that could be regarded as intimidating, but: “I liked it from the moment I saw it. To me, it’s not that unlike being beside the sea, it has that elemental quality. Something really touched me about it.”

He checked a detailed map to see where they had been, then looked up other working peatlands. It interested him that there was an integral part of modern Ireland that was quite unlike the traditional view. “It was that afternoon drive, really, that made me think maybe there was a body of work to be made about it.” He got in touch with Bord na Móna. “What I wanted to photograph was on their land.

“They were very co-operative. They arranged a health and safety course for me and they put me onto a man called Pat Dooley who had enormous experience and was incredibly helpful.”

It took him some time to figure out how to make images that conveyed a sense of such a singular environment. One key was the horizon line, the position of which recurs exactly in many of his photographs, and he didn’t optically distort the view to achieve a sense of scale. “Apart from just one photograph, I think, everything is shot with a standard, rather than wide-angle, lens.”

Burch found himself favouring winter over summer, and overcast skies to sunlight – which, as you can imagine, wasn’t a problem.

As Justin Carville notes in his text for Under a Grey Sky, Bord na Móna’s term for the worked peatlands is “future landscapes”. The cleared expanses, their usable peat extracted, are regarded as blank canvases – non-landscapes. They will be put to other uses: forestry, recreation, nature reserves and so on.

But Burch’s work makes clear that they are not just empty spaces or, as they sometimes appear in photographs, landscapes in the aftermath of a battle. Apart altogether from their historical nature, they are extraordinary, visually striking environments. They also accord with some of Burch’s previous work, which displays an interest in the way modernity shapes landscapes, rural and urban, general and local.

Another pattern that emerges in his past work recurs in this project: a consideration of the space alternates with a consideration of those who occupy it. As he says: “I’m not a great one for having a rigid theme and sticking religiously to it.

Under a Grey Skycould have been purely a landscape project but, as it progressed, I thought that would be disingenuous, because all the time I was aware that there are people there, working on the peatlands and living adjacent to them. And the industry and landscape are central to their lives. So there are two sides to the story – people and landscapes.”

Some of the people who live close to and work within this hard, challenging environment feature in portrait photographs. As with his approach to landscape, Burch is not formulaic in his portraiture. The pictures are intricately and precisely detailed, the settings are workaday, often spare and functional, the individuals have a solidity and a reserve about them.

Through various emblems of work, utility and entertainment, we gradually get a sense of the range of human aspirations, framed on one side by rigorous actuality and on the other by optimistic possibility.

Under a Grey Sky is at the Gallery of Photography, Meeting House Square, Dublin until November 15