Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Clowning about in Galway | Excavating an archive from Summer 1994

This is not really an archaeology post, so feel free to ignore!

A few years back, I came into possession of a USB negative scanner. I kinda bought it on a whim from a friend and, once it had arrived, I thought it was going to be another gadget that 'I must get around to using', but would be destined to sit there gathering dust. Part of my regret in buying it was focused on the fact that I had no real idea where my surviving collection of negatives had migrated to over the years. They were probably in the house ... somewhere. I had a memory of seeing them several years previously, but where they were now was anyone's guess. No more than an hour later I moved a cardboard box that had been sitting happily and unobtrusively in the middle of my office floor and found - much to my surprise - that it contained pretty much my entire surviving archive of my non-archaeology photography. I took the coincident appearance of the negatives as a sign that I should scan them and make them available in some format. I've basically started with the most recent (at the beginning of the folder) and am making my way back, scanning as I go. In some ways it is quite like an archaeological excavation, peeling back layers deposited on layers. Instead of various shades of brown silty-clay filling a variety of pits and ditches, it's a lever-arch file of (broadly) chronologically deposited negatives and contact prints. From what I can see, it spans the period from sometime in 1993 to the summer of 1994. Going back through these is as much an exercise in personal excavation as it is one of reminiscence. Rather than archaeological artefacts of bone or pottery, these record the personal artefacts of the people in my life, the places I lived and the subjects I found aesthetically appealing. The physical quality of the material is also variable - some images are terribly dark and largely unusable as I experimented with a home darkroom for a while - this was not the roaring success I had hoped! Others have scrawled notes, giving a variety of detail on locations and subjects, though this does seem to fade out as time progressed.

The reason that my carefully catalogued collection of negatives spans this particular period of 1993 to 1994 is that it represents a time in my life when I was obsessed with becoming a great photographer. I finished my BA in archaeology in 1991 and was ... drifting. I'd had a few archaeology-related jobs, but a year or so spent in Belmullet, Co. Mayo was relatively well-paid and allowed me to buy some decent equipment and the job got me out into the countryside to take photos and improve my skills (I still have the ridiculously expensive Manfrotto tripod that I bought during this phase). By 1994 I was nominally back in university 'working on my Masters'. This was a convenient untruth and was much more palatable than admitting that while I was reading everything about ringforts I could get my hands on, I wasn't exactly doing it in a structured way and I certainly wasn't doing any actual writing. The collection of hand-annotated maps and notes under my bed was thick with dust and neglect and did not resemble a viable research endeavour in any real sense. Throughout, I was taking photographs and was rarely seen without at least one camera to hand. As I was serious about my photography, I largely took black and white with occasional forays into slides (but only ever called them 'transparencies'). To underline my innate seriousness about all things photographic, I bulk purchased my B&W film in 30m lengths and rolled my own. Thinking back on my appearance at the time - I was an apparition in an old vintage tweed jacket, giant ginger beard (occasionally with braids), a dubious taste in millinery & waistcoats, and was regularly found sporting a tipped Café Crème cigarillo. Today I'd probably be castigated as an 'hipster' ('angelheaded' or otherwise) ... but that was just Galway in the mid 90s ... any assembled gathering could boast half a dozen guys on the same end of that particular bell curve. The only discernable difference was that I was more socially awkward than most. And I wondered why I found it difficult to meet women?

In 1994 renowned Portuguese choreographer Madalena Victorino was invited to come to Galway as part of the city's Arts Festival. She assembled a cast of local would-be actors, dancers, and passing tourists and informed them that they were not going to be transformed into a troupe of black-clad, white-faced, red-nosed clowns. They were instead going to be transformed into a troupe of black-clad, white-faced, red-nosed soulful clowns ... in bowler hats. As far as I can work out, the performances started out around The King's Head pub, but centred on the intersection of Cross Street and Quay Street and involved mime, music, and waving bed sheets. This was followed by a short procession down to the River Corrib for theatrical lamentations while peering into the water below. I'm not sure how many performances they did, but they turn up on all or parts of four rolls of B&W film, along with a handful of surviving transparencies colour slides (I'm pretty sure I took more than three, but that's all I can find). During one of these performances I realised that I was standing right beside the well-known (and remarkably talented) photographer Joe O'Shaughnessy. I didn't think particularly much of it until the following day when one of his photos appeared on the front page of The Irish Times. It was almost identical in every respect to one I'd taken at the same time ... with the exception that his was better in every respect ... focus, framing, just the right moment ... perfection! This is why his photographs appear on the front page of the IT and mine have only been seen by a handful of people in 25 years. It was around then that I realised that - with vast practice and dedication - I might eventually become a decentish photographer, but I'd never be the type of 'great' I thought I wanted to be. Instead, I decided than my future lay in archaeology ... make of that what you will! Twenty-plus years later, I only own 'entry level' cameras and the only thing I'd consider to be specialist or 'high end' equipment is my beloved Manfrotto tripod. When I put my mind to it, I can even occasionally capture something interesting! But what we have here are the efforts of a 23 year old, with his head filled with Robert Doisneau, Henri Cartier-BressonDiane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Dorothea Langeand Robert Mapplethorpe, desperate to find his own 'vision'.

Except ... looking back on these now, I see that what has developed into my personal approach to photography was already there ... I just didn't realise it yet! These days, the driving force of my photography is about repetition and reiteration. Simply put, I reckon that anyone with any degree of ability can point a camera at an interesting scene and push the shutter release. With skill (and luck) the result will be a 'good' photograph (however one might define that). But what if you come back a second day? Will you still find something exciting and worthwhile to capture then? How about on day three ... or day 20? How would you feel photographing the same subject a decade later? Over 20 years that's where my photographic philosophy has gone ... for me it's a test of creative endurance. Can I still conjure the personal strength to be enthused about the subject? Can I find something new to to see in it and to say about it? And the biggie: Will people still be interested? Admittedly, as a hobbyist, the last point is not a huge concern, but personal enthusiasm is difficult to sustain if you're the only one interested! Here, I came back to the same subject over, maybe, three days, trying different shots, exploring different vantage points (including hanging out the windows of the Ryder Son & Co. Accountants offices, much to the bemusement of Mr Ryder Senior). At the time it was no different to similar quests by others - to take that one 'perfect' shot that captured not just the event, but went beyond that and embodied the spirit of the city in festival. Few photographers ever manage to produce such images - even the very best - and I was never going to be among their number. There are no 'perfect' images in this collection. But, to be honest, two and a half decades later ... some of these aren't all that bad!

Joe Shaughnessy & I stood side-by-side photographed these two performers. His shot was remarkable and ended up on the front page of the Irish Times. Mine did not & there's a reason for that.

I hope you like them too ...

Apart from the colour of the beard and the lack of smoking (over 12 years now), the only thing that's really changed is that I'm too fat to fit into my waistcoats ... I still carry a couple of cameras wherever I go & I'm still a hipster at heart!

In writing up these notes I'm reminded of a story told by my good friend Prof Howard Goldbaum. He photographed the 1967 anti-Vietnam War march in Washington and captured an image of a protester holding a flower in front of a group of soldiers with bayonets affixed to their rifles. It is an excellent image and should be better known. However, just a few feet away stood Marc Riboud (protégé of Henri Cartier-Bresson) who took an image of the same woman, flower, soldiers, and bayonets that not only captured the essence of that day in that place, but is considered to be one of the defining images of protest and one of the best photographs ever taken. You may compare the two side-by-side here.

I do genuinely adore my Manfrotto tripod. It has been at the centre of many of my photographic adventures – including ones where I’ve questioned my own judgment and sanity for attempting to haul it up mountainsides. Manfrotto tripods have a great reputation that justifies their hefty price tag. Part of that status comes from the solidity and sturdiness of their construction. They may not be the lightest thing you can haul about, but they’ll stay put in anything short of a hurricane. What I would like to note here is that this robustness extends beyond the purely photographic and that a Manfrotto can also be wielded as a defensive weapon. Once upon a time I was set upon by an aggressive drunk who attempted to kick his way through the door of my flat. Like a complete idiot, I reckoned that the best course of action was to open the door and attempt a rational discussion. This did not go well. My would-be attacker (enraged at my audacity at turning out the light in my flat & thus plunging him into darkness in the communal hallway) grabbed at me, succeeding in ripping all the buttons off my waistcoat (it was the 90s after all). As he pushed me back into my flat, I reached out and grabbed the first thing that came to hand … Manfrotto be thy name! If you know me in real life, you’ll be quite aware that I’m no fighter, so you’ll have an idea how much genuine fear it took for me to swing that thing. To the best of my memory, it took only a couple of blows that found their mark (more by luck than judgment) and my attacker was put to flight. It may not be foremost in the Manfrotto advertising strategy, but their tripods can certainly  be wielded defensively! 

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