David Creedon has been nominated for the Hennessy Portrait Prize for his picture of Billy Ramsell. It’s the latest addition to his hugely impressive body of work, writes Marjorie Brennan.
Cork photographer in the frame for top prize David Creedon’s work straddles photography, art, social documentary and history.
One particular reviewer assigned the Cork-born photographer the slightly unwieldy handle of ‘conceptual documentary photographic artist’. Given the way he approaches his subject matter, it would perhaps be easier to describe him as a storyteller.
Creedon’s distinctive images have featured in prestigious publications such as the Wall Street Journal and hung in galleries from New York and London to Sarajevo but for him, it is still all about the story. When it comes to researching his subjects, he says it’s good to talk.
“When you are doing PR photography or headshots or whatever, you don’t know the people you are dealing with. I like to do portraits in people’s homes because that is where they are happiest. You learn so much from talking to them.
"I could spend two hours having a cup of tea, just chatting away. It is also about making them comfortable. Then I do the portrait and try and encompass everything they have told me.”
Creedon’s striking technicolour photograph of poet Billy Ramsell, which has been shortlisted for the Hennessy Portrait Prize, certainly leaves the viewer wanting to know more about the subject.
“When I arrived at the house, Billy changed into a blue suit with a blue tie,” says Creedon, originally from the South Douglas Road, and now living in Carrigaline. He requested one small costume change that would make a big difference to the final result.
“I asked him if he had a yellow tie. I had seen the yellow chair,” laughs Creedon.
While Creedon has won many awards and been nominated for the Taylor Wessing prize, the leading international photographic portrait competition, this is his first time being shortlisted for the Hennessy Portrait Prize. What does he think it is about the picture that nabbed him a place on the shortlist?
“This is different from my usual work in that it is a straight portrait where he is looking directly into the camera. Billy has a direct gaze and his eyes are piercing.”
The inclusion of an unusual prop also gives the portrait added nuance.
“The story of the stick is also really interesting. It used to belong to Charles Stewart Parnell and has been passed on to various people, including the writers Brinsley MacNamara, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Seamus Heaney and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. When I was there, Billy’s wife [poet Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh] told me how she had just received it. I had to have it in the picture.”
Creedon doesn’t get too concerned about poses, preferring a more organic approach, sometimes committing days to the process.
“I ask someone if they are interested and then let them think about it. I explain how it is different to having a snap taken. You could be with them half a day or one day.”
Creedon’s commitment to his subjects is evident from projects such as a commission from the council in the town of Kuldiga in Latvia.
“My assistant and I basically drove around Latvia, the theme was people who lived under Stalin. We were there for about two years on and off.
"We would just pull up to a farmhouse and say hello, go in and chat and we might spend the day with them; they would tell you stories they hadn’t told anybody. They became more than subjects, they became friends.
“When we did that series, every story was fascinating but there was a touch of melancholy throughout. We photographed one woman who told us how she had returned home from working in the fields, to find her house full of smoke; she lost her three children.”
After completing the Latvian project, Creedon decided to focus on less emotionally demanding work closer to home, undertaking a project titled Corkland, visually arresting shots of a city waking up from its slumber. The work gives a sense of the ethereal to buildings and streets that appear grey and mundane in daylight.
“I decided I couldn’t do any more sad stuff and I started work on Corkland. My friends play a game with the photos where they try and guess where it is.
"That work was much more relaxed, even though I was getting up at 3.30am; I had planned where I was going to go and I knew where the light was going to be.
"As you look through those photographs, you can see it going from dark to bright; once the sun comes up, I’m gone.”
Creedon recently completed a yet to be published series on Dursey Island in West Cork. Once again, the pictures followed on from a story.
“I had come across the old school rolebook of Dursey National School, which closed in 1975. I tracked former pupils down and interviewed them about life on Dursey. I put it together with essays that were written in 1937 and I did some landscape photography there.”
Creedon is self-taught, buying his first camera from one of his first pay cheques.
“I was working for a company called Murphy Evergreen, a bacon processors in Cork. I wasn’t long working with them but I got three weeks wages because I was going on holiday and I bought a camera. I had a friend who worked with a concert promoter and he was able to get us backstage passes to see Thin Lizzy at the Wembley Arena and that’s where I started taking photos.”
While digital processes have transformed photography, Creedon’s way of working remains the same.
“Using large format, I might only take ten photographs a day. When I changed to digital, I still followed the same process and philosophy of taking my time.
“If I go out in the morning, it doesn’t matter if I’m there two hours for one shot. So what? If a shot is good enough it is good enough, if it is not, it is not.”
www.davidcreedon.com. Shortlisted works for the Hennessy Portrait Prize will be exhibited in the National Gallery of Ireland from Nov 25 to Feb 2018. The winner will be announced on Nov 28.
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