Art in Focus: Kenneth O’Halloran – The Handball Alley, Monaghan Town

These typological photographs are among the most significant artistic interpretations of the Irish landscape of our time

What is it?
The Handball Alley, Monaghan Town is one of a series of photographs by Kenneth O'Halloran documenting handball alleys throughout Ireland. Ubiquitous, derelict and rather majestic, handball alleys are a reminder of, and memorials to, a communal past.

How was it done?
O'Halloran sought out handball alleys – not hard to do, as many are highly visible, and all are well known locally – turned up and took some photographs. Generally there is a certain formality to the images, in that they are straight-ahead, matter-of-fact views, with no pictorial trickery or fancy lighting. Which is the whole point. In fact the images are mostly mundane in that they record, without fuss, segments of the everyday environment so familiar that they rarely attract attention or comment. Yet, individually and cumulatively, they comprise one of the most significant artistic interpretations of the Irish landscape of our time.

Where can I see it?
A good sample of images from The Handball Alley is included in Modern Ruins and Other Stories, O'Halloran's current exhibition at the Gallery of Photography. Other of O'Halloran's projects feature in Modern Ruins. Tales from the Promised Land is a thematic documentation of the property frenzy that exemplified the collective delusion of the Celtic Tiger. Bodies in Motion, which invites the appropriate conclusion And at Rest, is a very personal account of O'Halloran's parents' lives in Corofin, Co Clare. In fact it concentrates on his father, a man deeply immersed in the community as both draper and undertaker.

Is it a typical work by the artist?
Not quite typical. In a way it is the most abstract of O'Halloran's projects. He studied at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology, in Dún Laoghaire, and at Ulster University in Belfast. But all the evidence suggests he is in no way precious about being regarded as a "fine art" photographer. He has, for example, worked very effectively and extensively for the New York Times magazine and other publications. Whether using a smartphone or a large-format camera, photography is a key medium of our time, and O'Halloran took to it naturally and flexibly.


The Handball Alley falls within the category of typological photography. The great photographic partnership of Bernd and Hilla Becher did not invent typological photography – the systematic photographing of a particular kind of person, place or thing – but they certainly consolidated, advanced and popularised it, starting with their photographs of German industrial buildings, an epic series begun in the later 1950s. Their photographs are famously in black and white.

O'Halloran did not opt for black and white with The Handball Alley, and to have done so might have made the work an echo of or homage to the classic Becher approach. Instead he takes an existing methodology and makes a specifically local version of it.

Beyond the studied neutrality of his method – here are these objects in the Irish landscape; make of them what you will – there is an untold wealth of cultural and social history. The photographs, individually and collectively, are the key to those layers of history, and that is O’Halloran’s great achievement.

Modern Ruins and Other Stories is at the Gallery of Photography, Dublin, until May 20th