Turning the camera on Father Browne

Frank Browne is perhaps Ireland’s most famous photographer, the Jesuit whose images of the Titanic became front-page news. David Davison’s portrait brings into sharp focus the man who caught Ireland on camera

Fr Frank Browne in Venice in 1904 and photographed by Fr Michael Garahy in1939

Sun-wrought with magic of the skies
The image fair before me lies:
Deep-vaulted brain and sparkling eyes
And lip's fine chiselling.
O miracle of human thought,
O art with newest marvels fraught –
Apelles, Nature's rival, wrought No fairer imaging!
(Pope Leo XIII, Ars Photographies, 1867)

Frank Browne’s introduction to photography came as a result of the poem written by Pope Leo XIII. Frank’s Uncle Robert, Bishop of Cloyne, perceived that by means of this poem the Pope had endorsed photography as an art form. Encouraged by this he gave his 17-year-old nephew a camera in 1897. It was timely, as Frank was about to set out on a European tour, prior to commencing his studies for the Jesuit priesthood. The pictures he took on this trip reveal a nascent talent that would lead him to become the most gifted Irish photographer of his generation.

Browne had to surrender his camera on entering the Jesuit novitiate and it was not returned for two or three years. There are few photographs from the early period of his 17 years of study, but those he made at the very beginning of the century demonstrate an increasing visual sensitivity and a sophisticated use of camera and film. Whilst pursuing his studies in Italy from 1902 to 1905 Browne had few opportunities to take photographs, but he did study paintings by the Italian Masters.

Whatever complex influences he had absorbed by this stage were to result in his remarkable document of the fateful voyage of the RMS Titanic. Browne was fascinated by the new technologies of the time, and one can imagine his excitement on receiving the ticket that would take him from Waterloo station in London to Queenstown (Cobh) in his native Cork via Southampton and Cherbourg. When the Titanic sank on April 15th, only four days after Browne’s left the ship at Cobh, the photographs he had taken on the initial days of the voyage were immediately in demand from newspapers around the world, and he became famous overnight. His photographs were unique, and their journalistic approach conveys the drama of the journey from Waterloo, and continues up to his point of disembarkation. They are images that remain in demand to the present day.


On his return from active service during the war, Browne completed his studies and took his final vows in February 1921, whereupon he was appointed Superior at the prestigious Jesuit church of St Francis Xavier in Gardiner Street, Dublin. It was during this period that he began his documentation of Irish life in earnest, but he was hindered by his deteriorating health, caused by the injuries and especially the gassing he had suffered during the war. In 1924 the Order sent him to recuperate in Australia where his lungs recovered, enabling him to return to Ireland the following year. This journey greatly increased Browne’s photographic opportunities. He documented the long sea journeys. In Australia he travelled widely, availing himself of the hospitality offered by numerous Jesuit establishments, and took some of his finest pictures, despite the difficulties he encountered developing film at high temperatures.

The gelatine coating of films at that time was very soft and would swell and separate from the base at temperatures much above 20°C, so Browne devised a system for developer cooling by wrapping the bottles in wet cloth which helped him to produce the desired result. The range of images he produced during this trip demonstrates that by his early forties Browne had reached the peak of his creative powers. They also testify to his particular interest in people and their day-to-day activities and his alert eye for anything humorous . These themes were to inform his work throughout his life, along with his enthusiasm for mechanical and architectural subjects.

Frank Browne might appear to have lived two parallel lives, those of priest and serious documentary photographer, which might have been the source of conflict; but in his case they were closely harmonized. He was a charismatic man and could establish a rapport with most people. His charm can be keenly observed in his photographs. He is clearly at home with the rich and powerful, but equally so with the very poorest of roadside dwellers and everyone in between. He could put his subjects at their ease and photographed them all; perhaps his photography helped him to communicate with people.

For much of his life he was a popular preacher at week-long missions in parishes all over Ireland. These often culminated in a candlelit service in the church, some of which Browne photographed from the pulpit). During the day he was free to visit the people of the parish and observe the commercial and recreational activity of the region, and he always had his camera at the ready. He shot several rolls of film every week of his life, developing them on return to his base at Emo Court in County Laois, where he had a well- equipped darkroom. When he was working further from home he had to find other ways of developing his film. One of the children in Mr. FR Kitts Blowing Bubbles remembers the family bathroom being monopolised by Browne for the purpose of developing his films in Donegal.

Browne photographed at a prodigious rate, averaging four pictures per day up to the last years of his life. Despite the Jesuit vow of poverty, he was able to use so much film because of the help provided by the Kodak company, which supplied him with free film for life after his Titanic pictures hit the headlines. He had slides made by Kodak and quite probably met George Davison, managing director of Kodak Ltd and their largest European shareholder. Davison was also a distinguished avant-garde photographer and he possessed a highly developed social conscience, a quality he shared with Browne. This may have inclined him to lend some encouragement to the photographer’s enthusiasm. Frank also wrote regularly for the Kodak Magazine. Whatever the reason for the company’s generosity, Browne certainly had a very fruitful relationship with Kodak. Robert Lassam, a chemist with Kodak for many years and later in charge of exhibitions, remembered Frank Browne and said they had made exhibition prints from his negatives. However, although Browne received free film the same did not apply to free printing paper. Printing photographs was costly in terms of both time and money and consequently many negatives remained unprinted.

During the 30 years of his greatest photographic activity, Browne was involved with the Photographic Society of Ireland and the Dublin Camera Club. Through these memberships and in the pages of the photographic journals he could observe the changing artistic movements within the world of photography. Initially he was enthused by pictorialism, a dominant influence from the 1890s until the 1930s, which persisted in Ireland for many years longer than elsewhere. The subsequent movements of cubism, vorticism and Neue Sachlichkeit (“new objectivity”) were to have little influence in Ireland, but modernism was more enduring, and in images such as the impressive portrait, Head of Man, Aran Islands Browne shows himself as a true modernist.

The concept of photography as an artistic medium was important to Browne and he played a major part in the introduction of the Salon movement to Ireland. The Salon tradition of exhibitions was established in England by the Brotherhood of the Linked Ring. This group was dedicated to the promotion of artistic photography, and George Davison of Kodak was a founding member. In their exhibitions no medals were awarded; the prize was to have a picture hung in the show. The Linked Ring fizzled out early in the twentieth century, but its spirit was continued in Salons around the world.

Browne’s photographic productivity may have been impressive before 1930 but from that time until the mid-1950s his output was remarkable. He was interested in most subjects – apart from the insides of public houses, there being no such pictures in the collection. There are, however, fascinating images of people outside these establishments, the best of them being Waiting for the Holy Hour to End. Browne made regular trips to England to visit his sister, who had married an English doctor in Birkenhead, near to Liverpool and its ferry service to Dublin, with whom he frequently collaborated on photographic outings.

Having an English base and the facility to stay with his Jesuit colleagues in various locations around the country enabled Browne to produce a significant series of pictures depicting English life. He was particularly fond of East Anglia, where he spent time indulging his love for medieval churches, their woodcarvings and wall decorations. During the 1930s he made a series of photographs of the churches of East Anglia and recorded several villages and their occupants. The British Museum appreciated his specialist knowledge of church architecture in combination with his skilful photography and they paid him sufficient to meet his expenses.

During the Second World War Browne applied to serve as a chaplain, but due to the administrative delay resulting from the establishment of an Irish Jesuit province, he was too old for service by the time the regulations were sorted out. During these years he made a series of photographs capturing many aspects of Irish life, showing a degree of empathy and understanding that no other photographer’s work can rival.

In the late 1940s he extended his interest in architecture to the Irish country house.

He sold the idea of an article entitled House of the Month to the Irish Tatler and Sketch magazine, and both wrote the text and supplied photographs for the articles. The fees he earned increased his financial contribution to the Jesuit Order, and to this day his photographs continue to bring in worthwhile revenues for the Jesuits’ charitable work.

His photographic commissions did once lead him into controversy. In 1950 the Irish Minister of Health proposed the Mother and Child scheme to provide healthcare for mothers and children. Browne provided all but one of the illustrations for an introductory brochure that was never circulated because of the furore caused by the proposal, with the opposition being led by the Archbishop of Dublin. The political consequences were severe even though the measures proposed would today be considered insufficient. Nonetheless Browne was pleased with his work, and he probably privately supported the proposal. He kept a copy of the brochure in his trunk along with his photographs and negatives.

When the collection of pictures was rediscovered in 1985, critics compared Browne to Henri Cartier-Bresson, despite the fact that the latter’s work postdated Browne’s. And when Browne’s Dublin pictures were exhibited at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, French reviewers likened them to those of the great photographer Robert Doisneau. Despite the frequent publication of his work during the 1940s and early 1950s, by the time of his death in 1960 he had faded from the public consciousness, but he has since experienced a reputational resurrection. There is now a permanent exhibition in the Glasnevin cemetery visitor centre, and his valour is commemorated at the annual war memorial ceremony.

Frank Browne: A Life through the Lens, edited by David and Edwin Davison, is published by Yale, priced £30

The Frank Browne exhibition will be shown at The Lexicon in Dún Laoghaire from August 5th-September 30th