It’s tucked away – you could walk right past it and never notice the sign – but hiding off Rosemary Street in central Belfast is a white-washed time machine. The Red Barn, formely a hip and happening bar, is now, according to founder Frankie Quinn, home of the undisputed 'Belfast archive'.
Of course the folks at Belfast Exposed will have something to say about that, but after a wander around the Red Barn's third annual archive exhibition – which runs until September 29 and features 44 photographs from 23 contributors both amateur and professional – I find such a claim hard to dispute.
It's clearly the Red Barn's most extensive archive exhibition yet, though Quinn suggests that there was no definitive theme to speak of. Rather, Quinn and co 'want to show you something that years down the line people will look back at and say, “That was how we lived".'
The gallery's impressive collection of photographs (which now totals over 150,000, according to the outspoken founder-in-chief) is ever growing, and features work by professionals as well as family snapshots that were donated by members of the public. Anybody can submit photographs for inclusion in the archive exhibition.
'We’re particularly interested in shoebox collections,' Quinn adds, 'people hoaking in their drawers and their attics. They might not think that their family photographs would be of interest, but we would love to have a look at them anyway.'
The photographs are windows on other, not always better, worlds. Judah Passow’s portrait of 'Jap' McKinney, from his Divis Flats series of 1982, seems at once contemporary but strangely alien. That was the year that a European Union report described the flats as the worst of their kind in Europe, and the Observer duly despatched Passow to photograph them.
It was no fleeting visit: the photographer stayed for a fortnight, building up a vivid portfolio of life in flats that had started to rot almost before they were completed. Many of those photos are present here. Jap is a flat-capped mod, a baby-faced Del boy with a Madness badge.
He smokes a cigarette as he stands in front of a burning skip in a broken, rubble-strewn landscape. His culpability for the fire is strongly suggested, not only by the cigarette but also by his leering grin into the camera.
In Seamus McKenna’s 'Red Barn Bar' we see the Red Barn as it was in 1967, back when it fogged memories instead of preserving them. A woman, caught by surprise beneath the pub sign, casually echoes the attitude of the Victorian woman depicted above, while modishly attired in a beehive and maxi-skirt combo.
Gerry Collins’ 'Fusco Mobile Ice-Cream Cart', from 1950, seems to show us a future that never was. A group of bow-haired children cluster around a streamlined, space age combination motorbike and chest freezer. With a steering wheel! The unusual contraption looks as though it was knocked up in a shed by the kindly old gent distributing pokes in the picture: one offs, the pair of them.
There are two women standing outside a house, depicted in Donal Collins’ 'Lower Falls' from 1940. One, her knee coyly turned in, is dressed in a simple pinafore dress with a chunky crucifix hanging at her throat. The other, a nun, is head to toe black, save for a hefty silver sacred heart, worn like a nurse’s watch, and a huge crenulated wimple that looks like an Elizabethan ruff she hasn’t quite got the hang of.
It isn’t just old Belfast on show – the exhibition displays a hundred years of photographs right up to the present day.
John Hanvey’s 'Rihanna in the New Lodge' from 2011 is an obvious highlight, as the star and her various minders lose centre stage to a track-suited teen with a camera-phone, bent double with undisguised glee at the singer’s suspenders and denim outfit. It's a beautifully observed study of 'young man’s cramp'.
It’s been five years since Quinn took a dead pub and turned it into a bespoke photographic gallery. And while the gallery retains a lot of the original fixtures and fittings, it would be unseemly to break completely with the past, especially given the nature of the work exhibited there. Improvements are constantly being made, as and when the money is available.
'We have a new, eco-friendly lighting system,' Quinn beams. 'For a quarter of the energy we’re getting five times the light. This new light is between white and day-light, its called cool-white. It means we can show black and white and colour photographs. It does justice to the pictures.'
While Quinn is ever resourceful – this current exhibition received a measly £300 worth of funding from Belfast City Council – he admits to occasionally fearing for the gallery's future. But, like a proud father, he choses only to see the positives. The Red Barn Gallery, says Quinn, 'is the Belfast archive. There’s nothing to compare with it'.