A new book celebrates more of the work of legendary street photographer Arthur Fields, the man who took photos of passers-by on O’Connell Bridge for five decades. Ailin Quinlan meets some the people he captured on camera.
Arthur Fields stood on O’Connell Bridge in Dublin nearly every day from the 1930s until 1988, taking some 182,500 photos of passers-by; family excursions, newlyweds, dating couples, match-goers, cyclists up from the country and even the occasional celebrity.
Decades before the era of the family camera and the advent of the smartphone, this dogged street photographer not only captured priceless memories for his subjects, but spent his days recording a steadily changing cityscape, documenting the evolving fashions, social habits and youth culture of a changing Ireland.
Fields’ photographs chart the huge changes in the city as they passed before him, people in everything from dapper suits to mini-skirts, sporting everything from mohawks to mullets: meeting first loves or proudly showing off firstborns while in the background, the world changed. Nelson’s Pillar disappeared; the golden arches of McDonalds materialised.
“The family tells us Arthur was obsessed with the routine of being on the bridge,” recalls Ciarán Deeney, who along with fellow TV and film documentary-maker, David Clarke, compiled the just-published book Man on the Bridge, Volume 2, More Photos by Arthur Fields.
The book celebrates the work of the legendary street photographer and former tailor, whose camera not only captured domestic Irish social history on the move for more than 50 years, but also the occasional visiting celebrity, such as Bing Crosbie and his wife Kathryn Grant, who happened to be crossing the iconic bridge:
“He’d be there from 10am or 11am until the nightclubs closed. His wife Doreen would bring him his dinner to have on the bridge,” Ciaran explains.
Born Abraham Feldman in 1901, to a Ukrainian Jewish family which fled anti-Semitism, he later changed his name to Arthur Fields.
The father-of-four who routinely worked 14-hour days, inevitably came in contact with the occasional unwilling photographic subject:
“A few times he was roughed up — it did happen,” says Deeney, who adds that, over his half a century or so on the bridge, Arthur became a fixture of the life of Dublin city:
“He became well-known, a personality and a legend over the 50 years,” says Deeney, who along with David Clarke, launched the Man on Bridge project in 2014 in which ordinary people were asked to dig out photos in their possession taken by street photographers, specifically Arthur Fields.
“We started off this project three years ago, collecting the photographs taken by Arthur Fields — photos that ordinary people have at home. Arthur took a picture of my parents too —they were going to a nightclub at the time, which we think was Dr Zhivagos!
“Any Dublin family would have an Arthur Fields photo in their collection. We realised that one photographer united so many family albums.” Dubliner Paddy O’Donoghue (79) and his wife Betty were one such couple, photographed by Arthur in 1958 en route to The Theatre Royal the year before they were married:
“I knew that Betty was the woman for me, I was in love with her. More than likely she got a birdie on the cheek at the cinema in the midst of all the smoke,” says Arthur, who was born and reared in Cabra.
“We got engaged that year so I think we were engaged when the photograph was taken. In all, Arthur Field took three photographs of us, two in ‘57 and one in ’58.
“As you’d walk towards him, Arthur would take your photograph and hand you a ticket. He was a street photographer; a wonderful person who was out there in all kinds of weather, a great person.
“It’s a good memory to have and it’s something to hand on to the grandkids - we now have 11,” he says adding that he’s still happily married to Betty, and “still giving her the odd birdie on the cheek!”
At the outset recalls Deeney, it appeared to be a simple enough idea — collecting old photographs – but when the duo started to really learn about the life of Arthur Fields, they became fascinated: “When you delved into the story of Arthur Fields himself, you realised he was on the bridge 365 days a year, for some 50 years. He was a fascinating character. We got talking about him one day in 2014 and I became fascinated by who he was and what drove him to be there on the bridge, 365 days a year.
“Jewish by religion, he made a living out of it through the 30s, 40s, and and 50s when cameras were very much the preserve of the elite.
“As time went on, the trend of the street photographer ended when cameras became cheaper and people started to take their own photographs. Arthur’s career followed that trajectory, but he kept taking photos into the 1980s.” What started out as a website, www.manonbridge.ie, whose aim was to collect photographs taken by street photographers, specifically shots by Arthur Fields, grew into a book Man on the Bridge; The Photos of Arthur Fields, an exhibition, a TV documentary and now a second book.
This final book marks the end of the project. An archive of almost 6,000 photographs has been crowd-sourced from all across Ireland and abroad and the new book contains the final selection from the collection.
Behind each cherished snapshot, often gathered from walls, drawers and wallets throughout the country is a human story whether it’s a photograph of a family friend who had lost a leg in the Spanish Civil War, or the last known photo of a beloved mother carrying the newly-purchased slippers for a ‘routine’ operation.
As Deeney explains: “Each photo brings a small story, each story is a tiny piece of social history, and the stories are spread over 50 years from the 1930s to the 1980s.”
The duo are constantly on the lookout “for innovative ideas that could hold”.
The story of Arthur Fields was such a story: “We launched our website on the Late Late Show in March 2014 and started collecting photos and stories — people went to the website and added their photograph.
“The first book Man on the Bridge came out at Christmas 2014 published by Collins Press and we also did a TV documentary Man on Bridge,” he recalls. The book did very well:
“Arthur kept no negatives so the only versions are in the hands of the people who have the photographs and that is why we compiled a very unique archives one that didn’t exist three years ago and now there is such an archive of street life.
Noel Fitzgerald, now aged 59 and living in Ballyfermot recalls how Fields photographed him on a number of occasions throughout his life:
“Arthur Field took a few photographs of me as child, when I was about 11 or 12,” he says, recalling Mystery Train outings with his parents in the late sixties and early seventies:
“You’d get a ticket and get on the train and you’d end up somewhere in the country like Enniscorthy. You’d get off the train and have your dinner and walk around for a bit. Then you’d go back again on the train. We’d be walking back from the train in the evening to catch the bus home and Arthur would take pictures of us,” he recalls, adding that Fields was on hand to catch Noel and his wife-to-be Annette Kelly in June 1982 as they shopped for an engagement ring. After visiting a dozen jewellers, he recalls wryly, they eventually found the ring Annette wanted.
“I worked in Glen Abbey, Patrick’s Street at the time, and that’s where I made our matching sweatshirts.
“Arthur was always there with his trench coat and hat. He was part of Dublin city life. He was part of O’Connell Street, part of Dublin; he was a landmark.” The street photographs, scattered across the globe in family albums constitute a unique archive of Dublin street life, says Deeney, who explains that the second volume celebrates the individual contributions of thousands of people who sent in their photographs.
“No matter how big or how small, we wanted to emphasise the role that everyone can play in authoring social history. Walking down a street is an act of history-making in itself; being photographed is an act of documentation; and submitting your photograph to a project like this is an act of archiving.”
Man on the Bridge, Volume II; More Photos by Arthur Fields. Collins Press, €24.99
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