Minihan in the picture

A RETROSPECTIVE exhibition is often an admission the game is up, we may as well look back because there won’t be much point expecting anything new in the future.

Celebrating his 66th birthday mere days ago, John Minihan’s photography career has now spanned an incredible 50 years, but while most would be content to rest on their laurels and milk the plaudits, Minihan never flags.

He is constantly pursuing new projects, including an ongoing documentation of Irish emigrants to the US, and while his current exhibition, Film Photography, showing in the Kildare Village Outlet, spans his entire career, the most recent photograph, of Shane McGowan, was taken only last month.

“It is a celebration of film photography, it’s where I began,” says Minihan, “I have a passion for it that I don’t have for the digital world. I love the simplicity of it, processing film, having a contact strip that shows you how the mind of the photographer works, particularly with the Rolliflex camera, which only has 12 shots.

“Even though film is very, very hard to get now and I have all my printing done in London, it has a magic for me that will never be replaced.”

Minihan’s life has oscillated, as so many generations of Irish have done, back and forth between England and Ireland. Though he now lives in West Cork, he was born in Dublin in 1946 but was raised in Athy, Co Kildare. Then, aged 12, he was brought to live in London, coming of age as the Swinging Sixties in London were about to come into their own.

He became an apprentice photographer with the Daily Mail and at age 15 won the Evening Standard amateur photography competition. At 21 he became the Standard’s youngest staff photographer.

He lived for the next 30 years in London but the connections with Ireland remained steadfast; he returned each summer to his hometown of Athy, regularly recording the locals and their daily lives on film. His career is littered with a hugely diverse array of ‘trophy’ portraits, of the great, the good and the very, very famous — Jimi Hendrix, Richard Burton, Al Pacino, Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis, Keith Richards to pick a random handful, not to mention a swathe of great artists and writers. But it was a series of pictures taken of a wake in Athy that was to lead to perhaps his most renowned work of all, including one image hailed as one of the most ‘famous pictures of the 20th century’.

When Samuel Beckett won the Nobel Prize in 1969, Minihan recalls the almost total dearth of contemporary photographs of the writer and vowed to photograph him some day. When Beckett chanced upon the Athy Wake photos in 1980, he was so taken with them, the intensely private, very reclusive writer subsequently agreed to pose for Minihan, doing so on a number of occasions between 1980 and 1985, providing Minihan’s most renowned work from an already extraordinary career.

Minihan may have earned originally his primary crust as a newspaper photographer, but he has always had the eye of an artist. Reportage certainly informs all his work, each portrait seeking to tell a story, but his masterful eye for light, composition, contrast is not something licked off the newsroom floor.

* John Minihan A Celebration Of Film Photography will be launched today by the photographer at Kildare Village at 2pm.


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