How newspaper photographers manage to get any images at all is a mystery to most of us. They work under sometimes chaotic, sometimes overly controlled, conditions in a bid to capture the present as it rushes, bouncing and jostling on a stream of invisible protons, towards the past.
Yet they pull it off over and over again, the daily miracle of storytelling without words. It’s partly a matter of technical mastery: light and sharpness and composition are the basic ingredients of a good newspaper photograph. But a great newspaper photograph is all about people.
Nothing illustrates this better than Eric Luke's glorious collection of pictures from four decades of work as a press photographer, Looking Back: The Changing Face of Ireland.
It contains politicians and poitíin makers, steam rallies and stunt motorcyclists, farmers and fiddlers. There are familiar faces and new faces and faces so old they might be carved from time itself.
This is not an elegy to a vanishing Ireland, however, but a celebration of Ireland at work and play. Rocking along with Phil Lynott and Freddie Mercury. Struggling up the slippery slopes of Croagh Patrick. Baking brown bread on Tory Island. Selling horses and shooting movies.
Some of the most striking photographs are of children: a youngster scrambling up a bus stop on Pearse Street, a newspaper-seller in Mulligan’s on Poolbeg Street, the exquisite study of Luke’s own son Jack.
The sombre side is by no means excluded. The shot of the writer Francis Stuart laid out in his home in Co Clare is a showstopper in every sense of the word, while the section on the North records scenes and emotions that, decades from now, will still be devastating – and are all the more poignant, given that they come just pages after an image of a smiling Queen Elizabeth with then president Mary McAleese on a visit to the war memorial garden at Islandbridge.
Photographs, wrote Susan Sontag in her study On Photography, are about significant details. Eric Luke has assembled a treasure-trove of such details in this beautiful book.
Looking Back: The Changing Face of Ireland is published by O'Brien Press (obrien.ie/looking-back).