Before he moved to America, John Russell from Whitegate took hundreds of images of daily life in Ireland, writes Marjorie Brennan
JOHN Russell’s photos of Ireland in the early 1980s depict a very different country from today, where pubs lined the streets of towns and villages, snotty-nosed children roamed free, and smartphones were a futuristic fantasy. However, it is thanks to that technology and the social media of the new millennium that the photographs are now reaching a whole new audience.
The 57-year-old who is originally from Whitegate in Cork but now lives in Connecticut in the US, has been sharing many of his pictures on social media, and has been heartened and gratified by the response.
“I posted them on Facebook and I got hundreds of thousands of views. It’s great and I love sharing them… it’s a reward in itself. People all over the world get to see them. I get people saying, ‘oh that was me when I was four years old or whatever’. They are great memories for people and I have helped preserve those.”
Russell’s pictures of Cork on Christmas Eve are particularly striking, featuring women wearing headscarves perusing the stalls of the Coal Quay while the men sup pints in the pub, and such wonderful curiosities as a Hiace van with the side carved out to display a crib.
Russell was on a Christmas break from his graphic design course in Limerick when he took the pictures and says there was no particular purpose or design to them.
“It was 1981 or 1982, when I came home for Christmas. I met up with my friends and girlfriend and we walked around Cork city for the day, I caught some great moments. I didn’t do it for any particular reason, taking pictures was just what I did.”.
Russell switched his focus to photography after getting an enthusiastic response to pictures he had taken for his graphic design course.
“I had to leave Limerick because there was no photography course there at the time. I had no money so I went on the oil rigs and building sites and made enough to go and study in London for four years.”
He says he was determined to make the most of the opportunity.
“I was the only person who was paying their way through college because I was a foreigner. Everybody else had a government grant; I paid for my education and I made sure I was on top of everything. I ended up getting a Kodak award for best student.”
When he graduated, Russell went straight to work for the Daily Telegraph and the Observer and also worked in advertising.
“I used to make £70 or £80 a day as a photojournalist but for advertising jobs, I would make £1,500 a day, there was a tremendous difference. Photojournalism was more fun; I photographed all the royals, politicians and celebrities. The 1980s were heady times and I was right there in the middle of it; with a press pass, I could get into all the parties.”
Russell decided to broaden his horizons and head for New York but a cruel twist of fate halted his burgeoning career in its tracks.
“I wanted to be one of those highfalutin’ photographers flying all over the world for work. I came to the US in 1987, and I had interviews lined up with Newsweek, Time magazine, all the big names. I was living in Connecticut and I drove down to New York for one of my first interviews for a fashion photography job. I had lunch with them, came back out to get my portfolio and the trunk of my car was empty.
“It was one of the most devastating moments of my life. This was when there was no digital back-up, it was all tear sheets and originals. I had to go back in and tell them my portfolio had been stolen.
“I had a first-class honours degree but it meant nothing if I couldn’t show them my work.”
Russell decided to return to London but his then-girlfriend, who was from New Jersey, convinced him to stay.
“It was a pretty rough time because my visa was nearly up. I went back to relatives in New Haven [Connecticut] and started to do odd jobs. The following Christmas a friend invited me to a party in a beautiful house in New Haven and the owners were talking about having it renovated.
“The money they were talking about was huge. I said I would do it cheaper than the lowest price they could get. I told them I did it all the time, which was not the case but I thought I would figure it out. They hired me, I did the house and it won a preservation award. The owners sponsored me for my citizenship afterwards. All of a sudden, everyone wanted me to do their houses and I have been a contractor ever since.”
Russell still takes photographs, mainly of his family and his children’s high school activities, and says he long ago came to terms with the fact that he did not get to pursue his photographic career.
“I love what I do. Photography as a business now is a lot tougher. I suppose I miss the opportunities I could have had. My father died when I was three years old, left five of us under ten, and my mother had a lot of heartache and had to work really hard. When you compare it to that, it wasn’t such a big deal.”
In another, more fortunate quirk of fate it was also photography that led to him meeting his architect
wife Anna, with whom he works in their restoration and renovation business.
“A friend of mine bought one of my photographs taken in Clare and hung it in his house. My wife was at his house, saw the photograph, she asked if I did weddings. She was organising her sister’s wedding, so that’s how we met.”
Russell is happy that his photographs are enjoying a new lease of life outside the exhibition space.
“When I left college, I had a couple of exhibitions in London. I also went to the Irish tourist board with the photographs and they basically threw me out. They said they weren’t the photographs of Ireland they wanted to show,” he laughs.