The Presence of Absence

Pete Irvine documents Ireland's forgotten buildings in gritty photo series on display at the Playhouse, Derry, until August 28

'I was always interested in the decaying, derelict buildings around us. Going into them is like stepping back in time, and also seeing what we leave behind. There’s an excitement in what lies beyond the No Entry signs and the closed doors, the interior fabric and the craftsmanship in some of the rooms and the objects and the machinery. I get to see the possessions which were important to someone at some point. There’s beauty in them.'

So says Ballycastle-based photographer, Pete Irvine, who works under the title of Irishmanlost. He captures images of urban decay. His latest exhibition is a study of some of Ireland’s forgotten buildings.

It is beautifully presented and cleverly structured, and it’s full of a quiet power, demonstrating a wonderful eye, a real sense of composition and how to use light, and an ability to both record and create. 

Royal Court

There is a uniformity about the photographs, in the sense of shape and colour, but within that, the exhibition is finely nuanced and features dashes of subtle and shocking colour. It is a record of Ireland’s past. There are exterior and interior images of churches, factories, hospitals, castles, houses, mills, garages, shops, all in a state of decay and disintegration.

There are 100 photographs in all. Together, they present a perfect whole, each one a jigsaw piece fitting snugly with its neighbours. But, although they tell one story, each contains a story of its own.

In Elegance, we see the interior of a County Armagh mill. We see the slender curves of the banister rail, simultaneously sensual and industrial, and wonder about the care that went into its creation and the hands that touched it going up and down. And we see the stained and dirty ceiling above it, and the smashed panes of the office at the top of the stairs.

Half Way Up The Stairs

There is an arched ceiling in Parked, damp, distressed, above peeling walls and a grubby floor. This is the interior of an asylum in Galway, where wheelchairs have been left abandoned and twisted, close to hurriedly stacked plastic bucket chairs. 

The photographs are full of emptiness. We see empty chairs, carefully positioned for the convenience of those who will never sit in them again. In Rathlin’s 70s Fashion, there is a roof torn open. Rotting joists lie on the floor, colonised now by soil and weeds, and there’s a gaping wardrobe, from which can be seen a moulding overcoat and kipper ties dangling from a hanger. Someone wore that coat; someone put those ties away.

The Void shows the interior of a mill. The floors have been ripped away, but the storeys and stories still are evident, even though now the building resembles some sort of giant game of Connect 4 or Snakes and Ladders, as the neatly repetitive staircases remain behind, leading nowhere. But once workers scampered or dawdled up and down them, busy, or just trying to look busy.

A Ghost of Christmas Past

In some ways, it’s like a neutron bomb has robbed the buildings of the people who made them live. A mini Chopper bike has been left outside, maybe while the child nips in the shop for a loaf, but no-one ever comes out. It now just rests on its stabilisers, in a dead and stable world.

Only one human figure features in the entire collection, and that is a barely discernible smudge. And yet, we still expect someone to appear, maybe from the back of the shop in Costello’s, where the posters show a competition to win a Chrysler Avenger, and the shelves are still stacked with boxes of cornflakes and washing powder, although the clock on the promotional display no longer has hands.

'I’m trying to tell the story of past lives,' says Irvine, 'to record parts of Ireland that are disappearing.' And he does so. But he does more than that.

Skillfully composed, with an understanding of shape and form, these are beautiful documents of art.

The Presence of Absence continues at the Playhouse, Derry, until August 29. For further information visit facebook.com/irishmanlostcom.