Having travelled around many galleries throughout Ireland and the USA, the Linen Hall Library is the latest mooring point for Bernie Brown’s acclaimed The Life of the Lough photography exhibition. Comprising of over 70 pieces, it is a vast display of Strangford Lough in its various guises, exploring what it means to the many people who live and work on its fringes.
It's no mean feat, but Brown tackles it with gusto. Marine biologists and maritime archaeologists feature in the work alongside staff from the Down County Museum and Castle Espie, while residents of nearby villages – characters, all – populate the pictures here and there.
One of the most eye-catching image shows a woman merrily dancing by the bay in Portaferry. This is Gertie Tomelty, born in Cork in 1934, who relocated to Portaferry where she has lived for 42 years. Tomelty is a natural performer who excels at tap dancing, soubrette musical comedy and panto. As Brown states in an attached note, ‘Gertie has made the lough her own.'
Furthermore, many of the pieces are accompanied by insightful quotes from the people featured. ‘There is beauty and tranquillity on my doorstep,' enthuses Edel McElholm from Greyabbey. Depicted with her fiddle (accompanying a dramatic sunset at the water’s edge), McElholm works on both sides of the lough with optician practices in Downpatrick and Kircubbin.
Elsewhere there are aerial viewpoints as well as photographs of fishermen, farmers, lifeboat volunteers, sweet shop owners and artists, all of whom simultaneously live off the lough and help to make it what it is. While the most engaging pieces are arguably those that show the human aspect of the lough, there are many photographs that display the breath-taking landscapes in the area, both on the water and on land.
Not only is the Linen Hall Library stairwell an appropriate location for the exhibition (mimicking in some small way the ebb and flow of the lough), but in its latest guise The Life of the Lough has been updated, containing an array of new pieces not displayed last time it stopped in Belfast.
These include a series of shots capturing New York artist Yvette Mattern’s large scale Global Rainbow laser projection at Scrabo Tower in March 2012. As well as the lasers (which reached for miles), Jupiter and Venus are also visible in some of Brown's photographs thanks to an unusually clear sky. Complementing these images are portraits of Mattern herself – a visitor from afar who has engaged with the lough in her own way.
While the impact of the exhibition comes from the sheer scope of the collection of images on display, a stand out piece is a simple shot of sunbeams breaking through the clouds above a Portaferry bay. Three silhouetted yachts add depth to the scene as a gull passes by overhead – this is Strangford Lough at its most serene.
From a technical viewpoint the standard of work is incredibly high, Brown’s compositional dexterity and ability to capture emotion remarkable. There are post-production effects added to some pictures, which of course takes away from their authenticity. Nonetheless The Life of the Lough is an ambitious exhibition that excellently showcases not just the heritage, but the continual evolution and reinterpretation of one of Northern Ireland’s truest natural treasures.
The Life of the Lough runs until June 30, 2012.