Photographer Louis McCullagh goes 'Backstage'

A picture of innocence

Chairman of the Belfast Photographic Club, Louis McCullagh, is a man who lives for his craft. A sensitive yet fiery individual, he finds himself at the forefront of the Northern Irish photographic fraternity, and for more reasons than one.
To say that 2005 has been a successful year for McCullagh would be an understatement. In April, he became one of only three people in the UK to be honoured with an International Photographic Alliance of Great Britain award – a grand alliance of all the regional photographic federations and associations of Great Britain - for a panel of his exhibition prints.
In May he won 4 awards for his portraiture work and was voted Northern Ireland Professional Photographer of the year by his colleagues at the British Institute of Professional Photographers. In October Louis received an unprecedented 13 different awards on the same night at the British Professional Photography Awards as a testament to his ‘Outstanding Achievement for Originality and Technical Excellence’.
His newest project is a film entitled Backstage. Made up of over 1700 of his own still photographs, it charts a day in the life of the pupils and teachers of Stranmillis Primary School, and runs at just over one hour and ten minutes in length.
BackstageBackstage was something of a stab in the dark for Louis. On May 28, 2005 he entered Stranmillis Primary School at first bell and would continue to do so throughout much of June. Five months later his film premiered to an audience of school children and their parents in Stranmillis College.
‘I made the film as an introduction to the way I see photography,’ McCullagh explained, ‘which is not about just lifting a camera and clicking, but about the intention of trying to tell a story. I thought the best way to tell a story was in a movie format, as opposed to an exhibition.’
Bereft of dialogue, and with only a smattering of voice-over, Backstage is a collection of still photographs glued together by a sometimes poignant, often hilarious soundtrack, and is virtually devoid of any fancy editing tricks save for a couple of gorgeous time-lapse sequences.
‘My heroes are the guys who did photo essays on life in general,’ said McCullagh. ‘It’s the whole thing about seeing someone’s soul through his or her eyes. I didn’t try to create something that was totally unique to the children and the teachers who were involved. I wasn’t just taking pictures of children; I wanted the viewer to connect with them.’
There are some fantastic photographs in Backstage. The faces of the kids crossing the line in the three-legged race; the spiky-haired little boy reading the sports pages; even the Peter Kay inspired finale, which sees pupils and teachers pseudo-walk their way to Amarillo. But the film also shows that school isn’t all fun and games, especially for the teachers.
‘Kids are very uncommunicative about school, but they do an enormous amount. And that’s one of the reasons why teachers become undervalued,’ McCullagh hypothesised. ‘Because nobody knows exactly what the children and the teachers are doing.
The speed they go through things is phenomenal,’ he said. ‘I found it totally relentless, and here was a teacher with twenty odd kids in class, controlling them and continually changing topics. I don’t know how much preparation goes into that.’
A number of Louis McCullagh’s pictures have recently been published in a book entitled Inspirational Black and White Images, showcasing his love of the genre and illustrating the groundbreaking techniques that have won him so much praise of late. Much of his exhibition prints, portraits and sports photography can be seen at his personal website, where it is also possible to order a copy of Backstage.

By Lee Henry