The Cooper Collection at Strabane Public Library

PRONI exhibit stunning early 20th century photographs by Herbert Cooper in Strabane Public Library – are you in them?

Who do you think they are? That is the question posed by Northern Ireland’s Public Record Office as they circulate photographs of individuals and families taken during the first half of the 20th century by Herbert Cooper at his Railway Street studio in Strabane.

A selection of those images is now on display in the foyer of the town’s public library, where visitors are invited to register their comments and the names of people they recognise.

Presenting the archive at an open meeting in the library, Heather Stanley, Head of Preservation at PRONI, described the Cooper collection as 'one of the most significant of its kind in Ireland, and by far the largest. A priceless and unique record of life in the North West.'

The provenance of the collection is intriguing. Some 70,000 glass plates were saved from oblivion when an observant engine driver, who was bulldozing the site of Cooper’s former studio, spotted them. However, since no business records were found it has not been possible to identify the subjects – hence the search for names and identities.

 

Born in Hammersmith, London in 1874, Herbert F Cooper moved to Strabane in 1913, where he took over the studio of JW Burrows, as well as the photographs that had been taken there since 1901. He also managed the Pallindrome concert hall and cinema.

Cooper’s archly posed selfie above reveals a handsome profile, an acquiline nose, swept back hair, and a smooth handlebar moustache. His double breasted suit, silk neck tie and pocket handkerchief denote a certain affluence.

In his artist studio, Cooper used a long exposure gelatin dry plate camera mounted on a pedestal and protected from the light by the black hood, which covered his head. His subjects are artfully arranged in front of painted frescoes, bucolic scenes rendered realistic by practical props: a decorative garden chair, a bench, a desk.

Wedding photographs reflect fashion trends and economic realities. Wartime brides wear sober suits until, with rationing suspended, they reappear in white dresses carrying ferned floral bouquets. There are military men in uniform, country squires in great coats, farmers and tradesmen in their Sunday best. In family groups, the wife frequently stands beside her seated husband.

Cooper also took his camera into the streets of Strabane to photograph shop fronts and factories, landmark buildings, banks and hotels. Castle Street and Lower Main Street are bedecked with bunting to celebrate the coronation of George V. Crowds gather for Orange and Hibernian parades. The agricultural show gets under way at the town’s cricket pitch, and a circus clown poses a la Charlie Chaplin.

We see horse drawn carts, brand new motorcycles and top of the range cars – is that a Dodge or a Daimler parked outside the Victoria Temperance Hotel? An inexperienced driver has just crashed his cherished Model T Ford into a wall. Pupils at Strabane Technical College sit sagely behind their classroom desks. A group of women sign the Ulster Covenant while men dressed as women mock the efforts of suffragettes to obtain the vote.

All in all, Strabane has the appearance of a fairly prosperous market town, although down in Newtown Kennedy Street, Fountain Street and Barrack Street, children are running around barefoot.

 

'We see the world through Cooper’s eyes,' says Stanley. 'The mundane, the extraordinary, the familiar and the unfamiliar. Being an Englishman, he had the eye of an outsider and in the Strabane area he was alone in documenting local life, a photo journalist before his time.'

Bridie McGillian, a member of Strabane’s history society, recalls how, in the 1940s, the favourite destination for an evening stroll was Cooper’s shop window, where the latest photographs were on display. 'Everyone made for Cooper’s and especially when there had just been a wedding in the town, for we wanted to see the style.'

Cooper travelled by rail to Donegal, Derry~Londonderry and other towns in Tyrone. From the 1920s his wife drove him in their car while he documented rural life. He took pictures of neatly thatched country cottages, of farmers gathering flax or the manufacture of linen at Herdman’s spinning mill in Sion Mills.

Digitisation manager Joy Carey explains the role of PRONI in keeping and cataloguing a large photographic archive, which includes not only the Cooper collection but that of HT Allison, another English photographer, who settled in Armagh and had studios in Belfast, Newry and Warrenpoint.

At the PRONI HQ in Belfast there are four stores, each one the size of four tennis courts. Glass plates measuring 14 cms by 9 cms have been cleaned, catalogued and neatly wrapped in acid-free paper and stored in bundles of ten. Of the 253 boxes which contain Cooper’s glass plates, only a fraction have so far been printed.

During the 1980s, 2,500 photographic prints were made from negatives but now it is possible to bypass that process. A Phase One P30 overhead mounted camera is used to digitise directly from the glass plates to produce high resolution tiff format images and low resolution jpgs. It is even possible to camouflage cracks in the glass and to digitally enhance the photographs. These are then uploaded onto flickr.com, where viewers have the opportunity to post their comments.

Of the 763 portraits already digitised, only 11 had been identified prior to the PRONI presentation in Strabane. A Scottish man from Musselburgh recognised his grandfather, Quintin Lawson, who was president of Strabane golf club and lived at Ard Na Finn.

The Devine brothers, Leo and Seamus, who emigrated to the US in 1957, have also been named, as well as their brothers Danny and Michael, who stayed at home to work on their farm.

The PRONI ladies were excited to see a Cooper stamp for the first time. It appears on the back of a photograph, which Billy Kerr brought along to the library. Taken on September 11, 1945, it is a portrait of Kerr aged five standing beside his younger brother.

Bridie McGillian recognised her mother’s cousin, Mary Bolton and her husband, Airman Willie Hackett. Now the hunt is on for more names. Do you know who they are? If you are from the area, or have family who were, why not visit this fascinating exhibition in Strabane Public Library, which runs until the end of June 2014.

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