Red Barn Gallery

A group exhibition by known and unknown photographers

The Red Barn Gallery has achieved an extraordinary level of publicity for this exhibition, with television coverage on both the BBC and UTV and extensive newspaper coverage. It is perhaps part of the welcome fair wind that the first Belfast Photo Festival has created for all such venues, but the Red Barn has outstripped the others.

That is perhaps a tribute to the accessibility and enduring popularity of the social documentary photography to which the gallery is committed. There is a fascination in seeing times before our own, or even earlier epochs in our own lives.

Did we really dress like that? Look at the hair, the cars. Were times really that bad! That natural curiosity is carried a step further when the photographer captures an almost indefinable additional essence of moment and place. Then we see social documentary become art.

The 50 photographs here culled from the 160,000 in the Red Barn’s archive are inevitably a mixed bag. They span the entire era from 1910 to the present, and they include photographs from donated ‘shoebox collections’.

Many of the images are therefore accredited to that distinguished figure ‘unknown’, but there is also work by well known photographers such as Bill Kirk and Frankie Quinn (co-founder of Red Barn and a veteran press photographer born and bred in Belfast).

'Scouts at Newcastle 1922'

The oldest photograph is an example of a common enough genre, the school photograph. Here the shutter speed is barely fast enough to capture the smiles of some and the raggedy glumness of others. Of these early anonymous photographs, I found ‘Scouts at Newcastle 1922’ (pictured above) the most intriguing, not so much for the gawky scouts but because they are using a horse drawn Inglis bread van to transport their gear.

Otherwise coverage is overwhelmingly urban. Key episodes in the Troubles are covered, such as August 1969 and the burning of Bombay Street, the introduction of Internment in 1971, the great ‘Ulster Says No’ demonstration in 1985 and so on.

These are of course part of the record, but I find odd angles the most revealing. Yes, as Hugh McKeown shows, soldiers were given tea in Ardoyne in August 1969, and from the family’s best teapot – the weary relief of the soldiers is palpable (pictured below).

Then again the response of children to the Troubles is illuminating. In another McKeown photograph children play bus drivers in a hijacked bus. By 1975 in Balaclava Street in Brendan Murphy’s ‘War Games’, they have learned their lessons all too well as they conduct a grotesquely realistic stop and search operation complete with dummy rifles, and boy spread-eagled against the wall being frisked.

Tea

Life goes and never more so than in Quinn’s ‘Front Line’ from the Short Strand in 1988, wherein an old man wearily carries his shopping past a blazing bus and is quite oblivious to it. It is Quinn who literally uses an angle to advantage when photographing the ‘Ulster Says No’ demonstration of 1985. He, like many of the demonstrators, climbed onto the scaffolding then on the Robinson Cleaver building and got a shot of the events looking towards the City Hall.

There are plenty of photographs of normal if vanished life per se. Old ladies looking out of their doorway in the 1930s, long gone shops, a Short Strand wedding, Smithfield. When it comes to making art out of the mundane, Bill Kirk still remains supreme – his ‘Pound Loney’ of 1966 features a child swinging round a lamppost against the background of a soaring mill chimney; both reach for the sky.

As do others: the supporters of Guru Maharajah sing for peace in Cornmarket in 1973. Paul Morrow’s ‘Hot Line to God’ of 2009 is literally that, as the devoutly attired seller of religious artefacts at the Christmas market prattles on her mobile phone. Jakub Swiderek is a new Polish talent and his ‘Evangelical Prayer Meeting’ also of 2009 catches enthusiasts for the Lord in remarkably unstudied poses.

Photographs can’t tell you everything, and this is absolutely the case in John Hanvey’s ‘Lower Shankill 2009’. Here we find a roaring gorilla dressed as an Orangeman. It is not clear whether this is someone dressed up as a gorilla, or part of the elaborate display of garden gnomes in front of an adjacent house.

It is also not clear whether the endeavour is a satire on the claim that Orangemen sow terror, or a welcome for that reputation. Good photographs set you thinking...

Red Barn have also used this exhibition to launch the archive, which is on everything from lantern slides to 8mm film. The exhibition itself has encouraged new donations, including 100 photographs from Carrick Hill in the 1930s and 40s.

Trouble is, the archive is very far short of real launch. Conservation alone is a first priority. Digitisation and full access can only follow much further down the line, and in the meantime Red Barn survives on a shoestring. Prints from this exhibition are available with 12” X 16” prints £20 and 20” X 20” prints £30. All funds go to the cause.

Red Barn Gallery Group Exhibition runs until August 25, part of the Belfast Photo Festival.