Bill Kirk - A Retrospective
One of Belfast's most talented photographers celebrated in a new exhibition at the Red Barn Gallery
‘Where there is no vision the people perish.' So reads the placard worn by a street preacher. His face is entirely obscured by a megaphone, though above this his bowler hat protrudes. His photographer, Bill Kirk, has ‘vision’ and this is more than evident in what is an exhibition in two parts at the Red Barn Gallery.
For his 1974/5 essay on Sandy Row’s Klondyke Bar, Kirk entered into the life of the place and a powerful apparently unstudied veracity is the quality that emerges.
The Klondyke, dating from the Edwardian period, was not exceptional or notorious. By 1974 it was already threatened by re-development and the fabric, including the original plasterwork ceiling, was gently decaying. Many of its customers were of an older generation too. One senses that the bar was a home from home for many of them.
There is an easy familiarity here, where conversation is to the fore. You can bring pets in too, play draughts, or fall asleep as the need takes you. You can even get your palm read, and this is what the one celebrity appearance, Gilles Peress, later President of Magnum Photos, is doing.
Politics, even in those bad years, is incidental to ordinary life. There is a hand written notice for an ‘Opportunity Knocks’ talent contest organised by a loyalist club; a young man plays a flute; the girls who have followed a band come in bearing their ‘1690 – No Surrender’ flags, but these have fallen aside amidst the crack.
These photographs deservedly attracted the attention of Blackstaff Press, who published Klondyke Bar in 1975. In a tragic postscript the bar was destroyed in a bomb attack in 1976, and John Smiley who appears twice here was killed. Photographs of the wreckage complete the story.
Kirk’s approach was not immune from controversy. A late arrival at Art College, he found that his sociological focus was suspect. He participated with Arthur Watson in the Arts Council supported exhibition ‘Ulster Photographers’, but again criticism followed.
Some of it was focused on a remarkable photograph of a north Belfast wedding in 1974. All is normal, the smiling bride and groom are there, as are what I assume are the in-laws, but they are separated by an armed policeman: the abnormal had become the norm.
Kirk’s technique was not one of in your face documentary seeking out the catastrophes of the day. He felt that that was often ‘exploitative’ of the subjects. He responded instead to the incidental, or established a rapport with his subjects, approaches that help give this broader retrospective aspect of the exhibition its depth.
Amongst the incidental, even opportunistic photographs, a classic must be that of down and outs in King Street slumped below posters for a Dire Straits concert. Nearby he finds a different crowd, and we have a confident and assertive group of skinheads. Elsewhere a punk couple radiate pride in their full regalia.
Regalia are in some disarray by the time Orangemen reach the field on a hot summer’s day at Edenderry, and Kirk’s hidden camera turns this into a pastoral idyll as a young girl hides in the flower strewn woodland while bandsmen and policemen lounge beyond.
Some of his subjects are familiar: the old Smithfield; the security gates; Mickey Marley’s roundabout; Barry McGuigan in his prime. But there is always the unexpected: a girl playing an accordion perched on a yard wall amidst the crumbling slums of Sandy Row in 1974; Geordie Heaney, a man mountain with his pet dog, in Heaney’s Bar on the Falls Road, and a park keeper stripped for action in the middle of the lily pond at Botanic Gardens.
Kirk was deservedly picked out to put on the first exhibition in the original Belfast Exposed in 1983. In the same year he collaborated with Robert Johnstone in the atmospheric Images of Belfast. Johnstone says now of Kirk’s photographs that ‘they show something real that is worth attending to’.
The hopes of the early 1980s for this genre of photography were not borne out. Irony indeed that Kirk made his main living for 18 years working for the Northern Ireland Tourist Board with its insatiable demand for untroubled blue skies over landscapes where the sun never set. Kirk has nonetheless been a pioneer of new ways of looking at landscape, but that is another story.
This exhibition, entitled Bill Kirk - A Retrospective makes the enduring claim for his significance. The Red Barn Gallery has served him well with separate catalogues for both the Klondyke essay and the wider retrospective element. These in turn are only the tip of the iceberg as they have also digitalised the 16,000 photographs in Kirk’s archive.
Thus both gallery and artist make effective claims for photographic art of substance, while elsewhere in the city a new and empty photographic minimalism tends to sweep all before it.
Bill Kirk - A Retrospective runs in the Red Barn Gallery until April 26.