A Spiritual Eye on Ireland

Jenny Cathcart meets Pip Sides, the potential preacher turned philosphical photographer

Like Guy Fawkes Night and Hallowe'en, Enniskillen photographer Pip Sides is preparing his annual 'Burn ceremony', a bonfire attended by costumed musicians and dancers, to ritually burn any of his negatives more than five years old.

‘Burning the past ensures new energy for the future’, Sides claims, whose study of comparative religions, appreciation of religious ritual, and interest in spiritual values inform his art photography.

In previous years, the Burn night has been held in the Buttermarket, where Sides' photographic gallery and studio have been since he set up his business with the help of the Princes Trust in 1995. This year, the Burn will be staged at the Powerscourt centre, Dublin, where Sides is opening his first gallery in Southern Ireland.

Sides was born in County Cavan in 1976, son of a Church of Ireland clergyman. When he was four years old, his family moved to the rectory at Florencecourt in Co Fermanagh, a parish which includes the Florencecourt domain, once the family seat of the Earls of Enniskillen and now a National Trust property.

A rebellious youth, Sides ran away from boarding school in Dungannon when he was fifteen, but later resumed his studies at the Belfast Institute for Higher Education passing A-levels in philosophy, media studies and photography.

Gaining a place at Bath Spa University to study philosophy and comparative religion  with a view to becoming a Church of Ireland clergyman, Sides holds strong views about how the Church should open and accept the diversity of religious traditions.

While still at college, Sides spent six months exploring the ascetic and spiritual side of his nature at the Romanian Orthodox Theological College in Sibiu, a rigorous training school for priests who rose daily at 7am and fasted before Holy Communion.

They conducted their prayer rituals amid the hazy smoke of burning incense and the glow of burning candles. In contrast, Sides satisfied his passion for speed and the open road when in 1999 he drove a motorbike across America from Los Angeles to Carolina. During this trip he discovered Ansel Adams' black and white photographs, and decided to make photography his career.

Sides' early attachment to the Florencecourt estate and similar properties in Co Fermanagh is revealed in his photographs.

A series of photographs taken in May 2004 on the Crom Estate includes one of the house and lawns, taken with an infra-red lens that picks up living energy, in this case the grass, creating a mystical effect.

‘Solitude’ depicts an empty boat moored on the lake shore, alone amid the stark stillness of a calm day. Such peaceful scenes are typical of life in Fermanagh, a county with a low population density where local people and visitors can enjoy magnificent mountains, lakes and a well-organised park infrastructure.

Changing weather patterns are another feature of the Fermanagh landscape.

‘One can experience four seasons in a day,’ says Sides. ‘In the summer, I prefer to take photographs in the early morning so I can catch the shadows cast by the rising sun. In winter, the sun is never too high so it's possible to gain good contrast between blacks and whites. Winter skies can be dramatic with dark menacing clouds, like those depicted in my photograph of the 17th century plantation castle at Monea. It's a place with a history of plunder and power’.

Even the Fermanagh water has an effect on Pip’s photographs for the density of the minerals it contains sometimes leave stains on the negatives. Fermanagh has a high proportion of religious sites, relics of a monastic life that flourished among the islands of the Erne waterway in the 4th and 5th centuries and where, down the years, people have gone to pray and meet God.

Inishmacsaint is one of those islands and here, Sides photographed a huge Celtic cross ‘up close and low down’, achieving an impression of intense power and proximity.

A similar effect was achieved in his photograph of the neo-classical facade at Enniskillen's Town hall, when Sides lay on his back in the street and used a wide angle lens to achieve a commanding image, softened only by the reflection of an ornate street lamp in one of the windows.

True to his mission to ‘capture the spiritual vision of Ireland’, Sides has filmed a series of photographs in the Mourne Mountains, including the peak of Slieve Donard.

When Sides was commissioned to take photographs for a new wing at the Killyhevlin hotel in Enniskillen, he decided to enhance the overall feeling of comfort by abandoning his trademark black and white prints with black ash frames, in favour of a gold antique sepia finish and a new framing, devised by Victoria Scott.

The photographs were hung between two sheets of glass, creating a three-dimensional effect. A glass surround between the ‘Silver Manhattan’ frame and the photograph also allowed the colour of the background wall to come through as part of the picture.

A stunning example of the new sepia format is Sides' photograph of the Jeannie Johnston, a replica Irish famine ship, which famously never lost a soul during any of its voyages to America. The photograph was taken with a panoramic film camera (Fuji GX6170) in Kinsale harbour on a clear day in the summer of 2005. The proud ship fills the frame and the sepia finish is entirely in keeping with an historical subject.

A Westport hotel owner commissioned Sides to photograph his horses. Sides used the same panoramic camera, enabling him to compose a picture of horses and riders galloping along the beach, against a majestic backdrop of the Croagh Patrick Mountains. A normal camera can only produce such a scene in a triptych of photographs.

Sides is an energetic promoter of his own work, whether on his website, in the newspapers or at craft fairs all over Ireland. Apart from his art photography he undertakes commercial work with digital cameras and is booked to cover more than fifty weddings in 2007.

Sides' assistant, Padraig Donnelly, shoots the main group photographs while Pip covers the candid camera shots. The photographs may be downloaded with a secure code from the website or printed out on the day as fine quality prints, a far cry from the old Polaroid system.