Photography has long been a neglected area of Irish art. The National Gallery’s first exhibition dedicated to the discipline is beginning to redress that, writes Marjorie Brennan.
WHEN the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning first laid eyes on a daguerreotype in the early 1840s, it was a revelation. Of the first successful forms of photography, she wrote that the depictions were so true that she “would rather have such a memorial of one I dearly loved, than the noblest artist’s work ever produced”.
The debate about photography as an art form has raged ever since. In Ireland, the medium has been somewhat neglected in terms of exposure but now the National Gallery of Ireland is attempting to redress the balance, mounting its first exhibition completely dedicated to photography.
View of Ireland: Collecting Photography features around 35 works drawn from the gallery’s permanent collection of photographs, including a number of rare daguerreotypes which have never been on public display, as well as recent acquisitions.
“Ireland, unlike many other countries, has been slow to recognise photography as an art form. I think as a national gallery, we should really pave the way to do that,” says Sarah McAuliffe, who has curated the exhibition along with Anne Hodge.
“We already had some photographs in the collection, in the portrait collection, for example, and the gallery always had a long-standing collection of daguerreotypes. In the last year, we have collected quite a lot of photographs, nearly 120. So we decided to take the opportunity to let the public know that this is what we’re doing. We hope this exhibition will allow people to appreciate the medium as an art form, and also let collectors know that the gallery is moving in that direction.”
The gallery is currently focusing on an Irish theme in terms of building up its collection.
“We’re looking for works by photographers living and working in Ireland, or Irish photographers working internationally. They can also be international photographers who have visited and photographed in Ireland at some point. Living artists such as Amelia Stein, Eamonn Doyle, Tom Wood, are all represented, as are contemporary photographers such as Dragana Jurisic. As the collection grows, we will move beyond that remit.”
According to McAuliffe, there are many reasons that photography hasn’t received the same level of attention as other art forms.
“I think it was often overlooked and it still is today because people think not as much work goes into it — that it is just ‘point and shoot’. Mandy O’Neill said something very pertinent last year when she was the first photographer to win the Zurich Portrait Prize. She said: ‘It could take me 10 years to get the shot that I want’.
"People will say it is manipulation, but for photographers, they’re making their image, they’re advancing it to a point after their first initial shot, which is what any artist does in the form of studies. Photography is also a recent medium in comparison to other art forms. And we’re not that far behind — the Tate, for example, has just done their first retrospective of a photo-documentarian with the Don McCullin show.”
The NGI exhibition includes portraits of well-known Irish figures by the renowned Observer photographer Jane Bown and work by Inge Morath, the first woman to become a full member of the legendary Magnum photographic agency.
“Morath came to Ireland in the ’50s and photographed the Travelling community. In many of the titles of her work, for example, we’re going to see how times have changed. She would have titled her work ‘Gypsy Family, Killorglin, Kerry’, for example, whereas now, we have different terminology.
She didn’t name any of her subjects, which is unfortunate for us today. But we’re hoping that when we display these works, that people might come forward with more information,” says McAuliffe.
Also featured is a vintage albumen print by Julia Margaret Cameron, the British photographer who is considered one of the greatest portrait photographers of the 19th century. The story behind the Irish connection with one of her subjects is a fascinating one, says McAuliffe.
“The sitter [in this portrait], Mary Ryan, was Irish and emigrated with her mother to England in an effort to try and find work. They were pretty much living on the streets or going from home to home until Cameron found Mary Ryan, and was struck by her beauty. She took her in to be a servant in her home, but also to pose as one of her models.
"There are very few examples that exist today of Mary Ryan in her photographs, and many will have found their way already into other collections. We were very fortunate to find that first work at auction, it was one of the first photographs we bought nearly over a year ago.”
According to McAuliffe, one of Cameron’s portraits also led to Ryan’s marriage to a member of British high society.
“One of the portraits was seen by Sir Henry Cotton who fell in love with her. He actually proposed to her on the basis of seeing the photograph.”
McAuliffe says audiences will also enjoy the juxtaposition of perspectives by Irish and international photographers. For example, the late photographers Edward Quinn (Irish) and Erich Hartmann (American) both photographed Dublin in the mid-20th century but their images are quite different.
“Quinn was Irish but spent most of his life photographing Picasso and other well-known figures in the Cote d’Azur. He has a very relaxed informal way of photographing the city that he grew up in. It’s busy with people, you can almost hear the streets buzzing, where, with Hartmann, the streets are pretty much absent of people and there’s this quiet solitude and sentimentalisation of the city.”
McAuliffe is looking forward to bringing the work of highly-regarded Irish photographers such as that of Dubliner Eamonn Doyle to a wider audience.
“Doyle’s work is absolutely spectacular, it’s on a very large scale. And in a collection where we have predominantly black and white photography, it’s nice to see some examples of colour. Another stand-out for me would be Tom Wood, he’s really interesting. He grew up in Ireland but is based predominantly in Liverpool now.
"He has a work called Bus Odyssey, where he took photographs on the buses in Liverpool from the 70s to the 90s. He has created these images that have massive amounts of depth to them and various stories taking place, all on the one 2D surface.”
McAuliffe says contemporary Irish photography is often more appreciated abroad than at home and this is something the National Gallery wants to help tackle.
“Contemporary Irish photography gets overlooked because when you go to fairs like Paris Photo or Art Basel there are very few commercial galleries from Ireland displaying there. The market goes to the UK, the States, France and Germany.
"We have some fantastic galleries here — IMMA, for example, is brilliant at putting on contemporary photography shows — and we’ve worked with them to get in contemporary artists like Dorothy Cross or Amelia Stein.
“It’s great that they have hung tight in Ireland, but there are many contemporary Irish artists who are now going abroad. We will also try fill that gap — it is our 2020 plan to take in contemporary Irish photography. This exhibition will be a reminder to photographers as well as collectors and viewers that we are looking for work and to say that there is a space for them here.”
A View of Ireland: Collecting Photography, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, until Feb 2, 2020