This 'comprehensive and enthralling' photographic exhibition shows how Derry~Londonderry was affected by the Troubles
Outside the City Factory Gallery, Derry~Londonderry is in colour, and the colour is made more vivid by the bright sunlight. It shines on the groups of tourists staring at the Guildhall clock, and on freshly painted buildings, and on the emerging breed of slick young things with laptop bags who do their business in cafes.
Inside the gallery, the city is either Derry or Londonderry, and is in black and white, apart from the splashes of burning orange, or smears of dead, malevolent, dull tones. It is a city that no longer exists.
A partnership project between the Nerve Centre and Culture Company's BT Portrait of a City project, and curated by Declan Sheehan, Picturing Derry is one of the best things I have seen in a long time.
It is a collection of photographs taken in Derry~Londonderry from 1969 up to some time in the mid-1980s. The exhibition fills five rooms, and draws on the work of local artists, national and international photojournalists, community workers and project workers, as well as that of a British Army photographer serving with the Royal Anglian Regiment.
There is so much to see that it is almost overwhelming. One visit isn’t enough. Picturing Derry is comprehensive and enthralling, a stunning exhibition that doesn’t let go of you. Such is the number of photographs featured that the pictures begin to swirl in your mind, leaving you with mixed impressions of youth, wariness, weariness, vitality, anger and defiance.
The fashions were different in 1969. Rifles wore fixed bayonets. Army helmets carried camouflage in their netting. The police wore quaint, old-fashioned motorcycle helmets and knee-length raincoats, and carried scratched and scarred shields. There were moptop rioters in jacket and tie, formally dressed as if respecting an invite. The more a la mode among them had World War II gas masks, while others had to make do with makeshift masks of thick padding tied with string around their heads.
By the 1980s, there were mullets and perms and thin moustaches, and maybe some prototype kevlar. A photograph of an IRA parade shows a unit guarded by a volunteer, a woman in uniform with sensible shoes and a submachine gun. An artwork by Victor Sloan – a scratched and distorted image of an Orange Order parade – shows girls at the front in their best Bananarama hairstyles.
Picturing Derry is a record of an abnormal normality. It is a record of lost lives. Not of deaths, although funerals are shown, but of lives robbed of ordinariness, marked by the banality of violence, brutality and deprivation. There are ordinary scenes shown here, things you would see in any city. Then they’re skewed.
A Barney McMonagle photograph shows three or four young lads on a night out, walking up the street carrying bottles, on their way to a party. But the bottles are filled with petrol and topped with rags. Another shows boys sharing a cigarette. One reaches to take it out of the mouth of another. They are masked with balaclavas and the boy reaching with one hand holds a petrol bomb in the other.
There is a sequence of three photographs by Gilles Caron. A boy is shown hurling a petrol bomb. There is violence and rage in the images, but the prowess and effort are striking too, in the arch of the back and the fast bowler’s follow-through on release.
Another, again by Caron, shows a crowd of young men charging down a street, their faces full of joy, youth, anger and excitement. But there’s one boy there swooping on the run to scoop up and throw all in one movement. He is balanced, fast, athletic and sure. He could be saving a boundary and returning the ball to the wicket keeper rather than thudding a stone into a riot shield.
There is a crowd scene. An army of young men is gathered on open ground between two buildings. Their ammunition is the rubble on the ground. Their armour is a dust-bin lid. One young man is preparing to throw. His throwing arm is stretched behind him, his shield arm – holding a dust-bin lid – stretched in front. He could be a Spartan soldier facing the might of the Persian army at Thermopylae. The pose is there; it just requires a change of clothes.
There is a constant feeling of wrongness and familiarity when looking at many of these images. The poses and looks are recognisable, but the context jars. There is a picture of a lovely young woman. She is pretty and vital, dressed in her best skirt. She looks like she’s met a nice young feller and is off to meet him at the pictures. She is standing in the middle of a war zone, debris and desolation all around. She doesn’t fit in there, but that’s where she is.
That can be said for so many of those shown in these images: the soldiers – on both sides – the Orange Order marchers, the punks pictured with King Billy on a prancing horse on the wall behind, the priest walking away from the funeral to which everyone else is flocking.
The context has distorted them and left them in a new shape. And it’s also for those taking the photographs. This exhibition is their story, too. Many of those whose work is on show here saw their careers begin in the riots of 1969. Some lasted not much longer. Gilles Caron disappeared the following year, in an area of Cambodia controlled by the Khmer Rouge.
Juxtaposition, incongruity, strangeness, alienation. Seán Hillen’s brilliant mixing of Derry battle scenes feature images of cowboys and Indians, rockets and spaceships, Bodie and Doyle, the challenge of the real alongside the fictional realisation.
A young man hurls a petrol bomb at disinterested police beneath an advertisement for 'Guinness – the most natural thing in the world'. A young girl looks into the camera as if checking herself in the mirror, her eyes peeping beneath her fringe and above her home-made gas mask. In a Derry shirt factory, a woman sews a Ben Sherman shirt. Ben Sherman, the iconic British brand.
You reel through this exhibition, struck by brilliance and sorrow and waste. And there’s a street map in the final room. It shows the Diamond within the walls, and the Bogside and Creggan outside. Just missing from the map is Patrick Street, where the exhibition is held. The past is the same country.