‘Ireland has been my saviour, bringing me an extra 20 years of life’

Richard Noble’s photo exhibition ‘Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’ opens on May 31st

Richard Noble: His career reached its zenith in the 1970s. In advertising, his biggest client was Virginia Slims cigarettes.  Photograph: Charlie Joe Doherty

Richard Noble: His career reached its zenith in the 1970s. In advertising, his biggest client was Virginia Slims cigarettes. Photograph: Charlie Joe Doherty

 

You might imagine that the hills of Donegal are a long way from the dizzying heights of the Mad Men advertising world of New York city in the 1960s, but that’s the journey that photographer Richard Noble has taken over the course of almost five decades. It’s been a picaresque ride, one filled with close encounters with the good, the bad and the ugly faces of the advertising industry.

The story of how Noble, Brooklyn-born and bred, found himself wending his way to Glenveagh Castle in 1970, chauffeured by owner Henry McIlhenny’s driver, says a lot about the spirit of adventure at the heart of this photographer’s modus vivendi.

“It was 1970 and the only thing I knew about Ireland was The Quiet Man,” Richard recounts, sitting in the gracious drawing room of his capacious home, Ardrumman House, where the West Ocean String Quartet recorded one of their albums. “I met Henry McIlhenny in London, and he invited me to visit him. Unfortunately, I had to be back in New York for another job. When I got back, the job was cancelled and I suddenly had two weeks off.”

Thus began Noble’s odyssey, one that ricocheted him across the Atlantic for many years, before he finally settled in Donegal for good.

“I called up Henry, which used to take about two days back then,” Richard continues, smiling at his early introduction to this unknown world. “His number was Churchill 25. Try telling that to a New York operator! So I told him my plans had changed and he said to come on over.

‘Concrete jungle’

“So when I arrived in Dublin his driver was there to pick me up. On the way up there, I slept through the Border checkpoints. I had no idea the Troubles were going on. When I woke up we were in Donegal. You have to remember I had come from the concrete jungle of New York, the noise and smells, and here is this pristine, gorgeous countryside. It’s October and it’s one of those Indian summers and that view of Lough Veagh and the castle as we were driving up to Glenveagh: I was in paradise. It was incredible.” 

Clint Eastwood: “It’s not easy to find an individual style unless you keep shooting.”
Clint Eastwood: “It’s not easy to find an individual style unless you keep shooting.”

As luck would have it, Ardrumman House, outside of Ramelton had recently come on the market. One evening, Henry McIlhenny’s butler prodded Noble in its direction, after a few generous glasses of Riesling and a feast of venison.

“I saw this house and I have to tell you, as we drove up, and I looked at it, my heart sank because I knew I was in trouble”, Richard admits, as he recalls the impact: nothing short of love at first sight. “That was it. I couldn’t believe the view, the position, the house, the fact I could afford to buy it, the peace and quiet and beauty. And I thought well, it’s not exactly a weekend retreat from downtown Manhattan, but I think I will retire here some day, and I did. Fast forward 40 years and I wound up doing that. I instantly felt at home here. And that’s why I’m still here. Every time I drive up my avenue I get that same feeling. This is my haven.”

Noble’s career reached its zenith in the 1970s. Having made his living in the heady world of advertising, where his biggest client was Virginia Slims cigarettes, his real love was portrait photography, and his portfolio is bursting with images of everyone from Bob Dylan to Clint Eastwood, Cher, Pierce Brosnan and Bruce Jenner.

‘Tears to my eyes’

Irving Penn was my idol,” Richard offers. “He did portraits and still life as well as fashion. I also liked W Eugene Smith. He specialised in photo journalism. His pictures were so powerful. His portrait of Tomoko Uemura [a Japanese woman bathing her daughter, severely disabled as a result of mercury poisoning] still brings tears to my eyes.”

Inevitably, Noble’s motivations for taking pictures have changed over the years.

“The portraits I took while I was working in advertising were usually actors and models directed and choreographed to sell a product”, he explains. “Now I take portraits to capture the heart and soul of my subjects. It’s a much more personal and intimate experience for myself and the sitter.”

Richard Noble’s photo of Cher: “The only thing I regret was not doing more pictures for myself and entering the art world of photography.”
Richard Noble’s photo of Cher: “The only thing I regret was not doing more pictures for myself and entering the art world of photography.”

Noble’s portrait photography is the subject of a forthcoming exhibition which opens in the Regional Cultural Centre in Letterkenny on May 31st. Titled “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”, it chronicles his “star” pictures (of which his portraits of Jenner and Eastwood are particularly striking, as are his images of Liam Cunningham and Saoirse Ronan), as well as a number of intriguingly Carravagio-esque portraits of local people, some of them in 18th-century costume.

“These are some ‘period’ images I recreated from different eras,” Richard says, barely concealing a smile as he recounts the impossibility of persuading older locals to pose for the camera (despite the fact that they are in possession of the most intriguing visages).

Many were taken in a different time, when photographers were well-rewarded for their vision. What advice would he offer to emerging photographers today?

“Try to discover what subjects you like to photograph and turn it into your passion,” he says. “It’s not easy to find an individual style unless you keep shooting. Just keep shooting and it will come. It’s not the quality of the picture as much as the content. Don’t get sidetracked with the technical aspect. Make sure the image is really worth capturing and speaks to the viewer.”

Art world

As he savours his 76th year, Noble is finally seeing his work attract a degree of public interest in Ireland. He’s hopeful that this exhibition may lead to other opportunities to show his work nationally and internationally.

Richard Noble: “Now I take portraits to capture the heart and soul of my subjects.” Photograph: Charlie Joe Doherty
Richard Noble: “Now I take portraits to capture the heart and soul of my subjects.” Photograph: Charlie Joe Doherty

“The only thing I regret was not doing more pictures for myself and entering the art world of photography,” he muses. “I hope to make up for that now.”

He certainly has no regrets about his decision to put down roots in Donegal at the tender age of 27, almost five decades ago.

“Ireland has been my saviour,” he admits. “I’m sure it bought me an extra 20 years of life. By the time I retired to Donegal, I was over 22 stone, smoking like a chimney and drinking nearly a bottle of whiskey every day. The pressures of success can be very self-destructive. So I put my cameras away and I didn’t take a picture for nearly seven years. I needed to completely cleanse my head and eyes of that commercial life. I started to garden and create little magic spaces around the property. I found it soothing and relaxing and I discovered that being close to nature was the answer.”

And as he strolls through these magnificent gardens of his own making, he marvels at how his return to photography was as serendipitous as his love affair with Donegal.

“One day a friend convinced me to pick up a camera again,” he recalls. “I was reluctant but I did it anyway. It was very exciting. The hiatus gave me that same feeling I had when I had first discovered photography and I’ve been excited ever since. I blame Donegal for that!”

Richard Noble’s photographic exhibition “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” opens in the Regional Cultural Centre in Letterkenny on Friday, May 31st

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