Renowned lensman of 'respectful approach'

Bill Doyle: THE WORK of photographer Bill Doyle, who has died aged 85, reflected his inquisitive nature, his broad range of …

Bill Doyle:THE WORK of photographer Bill Doyle, who has died aged 85, reflected his inquisitive nature, his broad range of interests and openness to new experiences.

Known as Ireland’s Cartier-Bresson, he fully subscribed to the renowned French photographer’s doctrine of “the decisive moment”, the art of being in the right place at the right time, with fast reflexes.

Interested in photography from an early age and largely self-taught, he became a full-time photographer in his early 40s. Throughout his career he favoured a Leica camera, although he also used a Rolliflex with its longer-format negatives; he worked mostly in black and white.

He never used a motor drive. “It’s too noisy, and anyway I only take the one picture. It’s all in the speed of the draw.”


Gallery of Photography director Tanya Kiang said Doyle produced some of the finest photographs in Ireland, “finding elegiac and poetic moments in everyday gestures of life, depicting both ordinary and well-known people with the same gentle, respectful approach”.

Irish Timesphotographer Matt Kavanagh, with whom he shared an interest in jazz, recalled Doyle's unique vision and also his love of the arts, from cinema and theatre to poetry, sculpture and painting.

Born in Dublin in 1925, Bill Doyle was the son of Jack and Brigid Doyle. He first lived in Charlemont Street before the family moved to Marino. After attending the Model School in Marlborough Street he studied at a commercial college on St Stephen’s Green.

He enjoyed his first job, working with a firm of ship’s chandlers, but the second, selling insurance, was less to his liking.

He always took photographs with a sense of purpose. He was, he explained, a “one-shot photographer”. This was partly out of necessity: “I wasn’t earning a lot, and film was expensive.” It was a discipline that stood to him in later years.

A member of both An Óige and The Ramblers, in the years after the second World War he travelled in Sweden, Norway, Spain and Portugal.

He particularly enjoyed hostelling in Spain and Portugal. In Madrid, towards the end of the 1950s, he visited the Prado, where the work of Goya, Velásquez and other Spanish painters left a lasting impression on him.

“I didn’t know why,” he said. “It only occurred to me later that they were all social painters, they painted the society around them and they would appear in their own paintings.”

Another artist to impress him was the American realist Edward Hopper, one of the first painters to depict the reality of big-city life.

“That’s what I was trying to do in my photographs, to get the way people are living, the way society works.”

A mid-1960s trip to the Aran Islands yielded some shots which he entered a few years later in the Daily Telegraphmagazine Photographer of the Year competition. He was amazed to be declared the winner, given that he was up against formidable professional competition. The win prompted him to join the professional ranks as a freelance.

A friend with a photographic studio on St Stephen’s Green invited him to work with her, and he quickly mastered the crafts of the studio photographer.

Referring to his subject matter at the Dublin Arts Festival in 1975, he said: “I feel a certain responsibility to record the timelessness that still exists in this country; there’s humour there and timelessness as well.”

His books include The Aran Islands: Another World (1999), Images of Dublin: a Time Remembered (2001)and Bill Doyle's Ireland (2007). To ensure top quality reproduction, he had the images printed by Hetty Walsh, who was also responsible for the prints in his retrospective at the Gallery of Photography.

His work was exhibited in Australia, Germany, Japan, the UK and US, and is included in The Moderns exhibition currently at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Last year he travelled to Poland for a showing of his retrospective in Bielsko-Biala.

Delighted with the recognition his work was accorded in recent years, he is the subject of a short film by the Gallery of Photography which is nearing completion.

Ultimately he believed what was most important for a photographer was not ideas, or even a camera, but luck. “Luck is just so important. And I’ve been lucky.”

Predeceased by his wife Tina, he is survived by his daughter Lesley and brother John.

Bill Doyle: born August 31st, 1925; died November 24th, 2010