The Glass Album

Contemporary artists respond to the 19th century documentary and forensic work of James Glass

In the late 1870s, James Glass, a commercial photographer from Derry~Londonderry, travelled into the Gweedore area of Donegal, taking a series of photographs to record life in the region. Around a decade later he went there again, producing another body of work.

The reason for the first visit is unclear. As a commercial photographer, it’s unlikely that Glass would have embarked on such a venture without a commission. After all, the region was remote, access was difficult, and Glass spoke no Gaelic.

Moreover, he used the collodion process to produce his photographs, which required a portable darkroom, fragile equipment and the application of a variety of chemicals. It is possible he was charged by a charity to do the work, given Glass's concern for the destitution and poverty in the region, which was heightened by the threat of famine conditions.

The second visit is more clear-cut. On February 3, 1889, District Inspector William Martin was killed at Derrybeg Chapel. Along with 23 others, Father James MacFadden – a leading figure in the Land Wars of the time – was charged with his murder. In his professional capacity, Glass photographed the scene of the crime, and the surrounding area, in the parish of Gweedore.

The Glass Album contains 38 prints drawn from the two journeys Glass undertook in the 1870s and 1880s, alongside contemporary projects completed in response to the archive of photographs, by Eoghan McTeague, Mat Collishaw and Will Curwen. In addition, Los Angeles-based photographer Walead Beshty is working on a project based on the work showing as part of the exhibition, which is showing in the City Factory until March 22.

It is a fascinating exhibition, drawn mainly from the National Museums Northern Ireland archives. Each man’s work stands alone, but together they make more than the sum of their parts; they resonate, and they call and echo across to one another. The record of life in Gweedore made by Glass in the 1870s is grim and grey. Life is just existence, and unjust existence at that. Stone and earth hovels seem to be sinking into the land, which doesn’t support; it just takes.

Groups stand outside their houses unsmiling, too weary to resent. They are ground down by the fact of living. There’s a dreadful stillness in their poses. They are presented as passive specimens for consideration, without threat, no flicker of hope. Here is a colony far removed and left behind. The collodion process gives an impression of liquidity, as if an essence is flowing away.

The 1889 photographs are distilled and chilled by their purpose. They show a view of a main street, a view of Gweedore church and environs, a view of the presbytery and wall, and so on. This is material to be pored over by officers, and maybe shown to a jury. It is not art; it isn’t interpretation. It is to allow investigators to understand the layout, the physical context, the routes to and from where the murder took place.

In the same room a video is playing. A Derry police officer from the forensic photography unit is explaining how he works, travelling alone, in an unmarked car in plain clothes. His job is to show what is there, who was where, where they came from, where they were heading, where the bullet shells landed.

He begins with an aerial view to establish the context, and then moves inwards. In the example he quotes, he talks of the actions of the 'terrorist' firing at security forces. The location is not far from where James Glass had his studios, and is a short drive to Gweedore.

Will Curwen’s series of studies of Gweedore uses High Dynamic Range Imaging. Multiple exposures are made and then merged to produce a single image, allowing greater detail and a broader range of tones to be shown.

Curwen presents his work as raw data, a contemporary, objective documentation of the Gweedore area. The colours are rich, subtle, dazzling at times. There is a sense of sky and space in these photographs, a feeling of distance and remoteness.

'Abandoned Lazy Beds' at 'Gweedore Golf Club' shows vivid colours, a beautiful range of greens and blues. A cluster of houses sits across the bay, on the edge, lost. An area of field is enclosed by a fence; inside it are fallen pallets. Some of the fence posts stand askew. Things have been started and then left, given up on.

Where Glass photographed hovels, Curwen offers pictures of beach houses, gleaming, pristine, apparently empty. Even though the houses have well-tended gardens, there is no sense of occupancy. It is like the Marie Celeste. There are people in Glass’s pictures; Curwen shows two graveyards. And while the houses in Glass’s studies seem part of the land, Curwen’s houses seem to have been placed on it, and then left.

One person only is shown, in 'Coitin Crossroads and Derrybeg Hotel at Gweedore'. He or she is leaning on a wall, left like a useless rearguard. In the same picture, a car is shown, insubstantial due to the exposure, disappearing, opposite signposts no-one follows.

Eoghan McTeague uses the same collodion process as Glass. His photographs are aerial images of modern-day west Donegal, around the same areas where Glass worked. The images are black and white, and hard to make out. The plates have been smashed and reassembled. The evidence has been pieced together. The land is scarred and broken. It is aged and fractured and distant and again has been left behind.

Mat Collishaw’s work is 'Yielding Glass'. It is a model which is installed in Gweedore at An Gailearai and screened here using CCTV. Simulated glass plate negatives of Glass’s subjects have been used to build a chapel, similar to that in the MacFadden murder trial.

The work is informed by the time after the American Civil War, when glass was so expensive that plate negatives from the war were used in greenhouse construction: light and growth through images of the dead. Collishaw’s chapel is beautiful, ancient and modern, and recalls death and suffering.

The exhibition is sub-titled Dutch Tears. A Dutch Tear is the name given to a piece of molten glass dropped into cold water – a teardrop shape results. The surface cools instantly, while the inside takes longer. The glass contracts and tension is created within the shape. Due to the state of tension, the glass will not break, unless the tail of the teardrop is damaged, in which case the glass will explode.

The Glass Album runs in the City Factory, Derry~Londonderry until March 22.