30 years of Photography

Belfast Exposed and The MAC show how fine art photographers have captured Northern Ireland

The challenge for fine art photographers in Belfast over the past few decades has been to distinguish themselves from journalists and produce work that takes a perspective not found in the thousands of familiar Troubles pictures from the period.

The Troubles went on for so long that photographic approaches that were startling at the beginning were cliches by the end – young men chucking stones or petrol bombs at armoured vehicles, snatch squads making arrests, the juxtaposition of war and domesticity in God knows how many images of women pushing prams past soldiers crouching with rifles.

The job of journalism was to catch the action. Karen Downey, curator of Northern Ireland: 30 years of Photography at Belfast Exposed and The MAC (where it takes up all three of the building's gallery spaces) says that fine arts photographers wanted to stand a little further back and look at what was enduring and meaningful in a quieter way.

Northern Ireland: 30 Years of Photography


What this distinction overlooks is that journalism is more than news, that much of what has appeared in our newspapers has been detached and reflective. That’s what feature pages give, and much of the photography that journalists themselves have provided has been illustrative, symbolic, even plain decorative, which has narrowed the ground for any photographer who would conscientiously seek not to be a journalist.

A picture of a piece of graffiti on a wall above a housing estate (Paul Graham's 'Grafitti; Ballysillan Estate, Belfast 1986') may carry suggestions of the quotidian reality when no one is protesting or rioting; it may ask us more softly to think about what it is like to live there.

A union flag flying from a tree in the middle of a field (Paul Graham's 'Union Flag on Tree, Co Tyrone 1986') records a statement about land and territory, or it may attest just to the proliferation of sectarian politics into greenery. But it is not an image that a journalist would have scoffed at. All that it would take to make that an adequate illustration for a comment piece on an inside page would be a little tighter cropping.

And there are times when the endeavours of major photographers are bewildering, not in the meaning of their pictures but in the point of so much work going into saying so little. Paul Seawright’s images of places where people were killed are only bad pictures without their captions. But it seems to be part of his project to let them be bad pictures.

Is Seawright saying that the artist’s eye, which would impose form and meaning on the scene of a murder, is a dishonest intrusion? These pictures, which don’t even have titles, just dates, are news related and only counter journalistic in the images being skewed, off centre and not inherently interesting.

True, no newspaper would have printed them with stories about the killings they relate to. Would journalism be wrong to look for something interesting or telling at the scene? Perhaps, but is the best way to counter that journalistic approach to contrast it with tedium? Any image that requires text to explain it is suspect. Surely the point of fine art is that image should make its point unaided? Apparently not.

Northern Ireland: 30 Years of Photography


Donovan Wylie’s blanched and similar images of the derelict Maze Prison ('Inertias (I - VIII) 2003') are interesting as record, as is John Duncan’s 'Sandy Row 2008', for example, pictures of stacked bonfires. They will tell future generations what oddities we had here. But they have no emotional content, nothing inherently fascinating, no intriguing composition; there may be academic rationales for going to the trouble of taking such pictures, but the eye that is eager for stimulation finds nothing in them.

Where the distinction from journalism holds good and works well is in a portrait by Phillip Jones Griffiths of a soldier seen through his scratched perspex riot shield. This would not work as journalism because its subject is not immediately obvious. The placid, long suffering expression on apparently distressed and darkened material is suggestive of the Turin Shroud, making comment, perhaps, on the martyrdom of the soldier.

Much of the criticism of press photography in the academic thinking of these photographers, and expressed in the accompanying book by Colin Graham, tells us that journalism fails because it reinforces lies and stereotypes. However, the weakness in this media studies approach is that it usually fails to tell a story that is more convincing than that told by journalism.

Some of these photographers were and are on a mission to make pictures which substantiate academic theories but, in themselves, are not worth looking at. But this is not to dismiss some very striking and beautiful work in the exhibition.

Hannah Starkey catches suggestions of deeper meaning, even of a kind of social dance, in the simple movements of people in drab situations (see 'Untitled, May 1997'). And Patrick McCoy’s images of passengers in black taxis are grim and disturbing accounts of young men coping with stillness and silence.

Victor Sloan’s enormous, distressed images are wonderful. His 'Ferrygate, Derry' is a commanding presence in the Belfast Exposed gallery. But there are photographers who are missing, like Frankie Quinn, John Baucher and Jim Maginn, though it is a curator’s right to select, and it is the curation which has defined this exhibition.

Northern Ireland: 30 Years of Photography runs in Belfast Exposed and The MAC until July 7.

Northern Ireland: 30 Years of Photography