The Light of Other Days
Jim Maginn's compendium of traditional and folk musicians 'captures the dignity of those who still make music'
The most remarkable photograph here is one of Margaret Barry from County Down, Ireland’s Edith Piaf. Though taken in 1985 and in old age, her blazing eyes still follow you right round the gallery, reminding you of her extraordinary voice.
It is just one of Jim Maginn’s inspired portraits of traditional musicians taken between 1985 and the present. His own inspiration dates back rather further to a Planxty concert in around 1974. Love of the music and a fellowship with his subjects has been crucial. As he says, ‘the best portraits arrive naturally when a relationship of trust exists’.
This certainly understates the deliberation that has gone into each composition, here on display in the Red Barn Gallery in central Belfast. The challenge is all the greater because these are, first and foremost portraits, rather than photographs of performances.
True, a minority of the subjects are playing or singing, but this seems incidental to capturing them as people whether in their homes, gardens, in the surrounding landscape, or off stage waiting to perform. Instruments often become extra limbs. That’s true of Tommy Keenan from Tyrone, who features on the catalogue cover (see picture above). His fiddle and bow are in perfect alignment with his long fingers and aquiline face.
A somewhat similar effect is achieved for Sean Maguire of County Antrim, with fiddle aligned with his left arm while the bow extends with his right arm and both lead in to the studied concentration of his face. Davy Hammond’s hands rest naturally on the scroll of his guitar while the diminutive Derek Bell is found at home swamped by his harps.
Sometimes there is playful contrivance, as in father and son, Donal and Gerry O’Connor from Antrim. The curve of Donal’s chin is matched by the fiddle’s scroll, while Gerry peeps over his instrument, using it as a mask.
Alternatively McGinn effaces himself altogether. I particularly appreciated photographs from the McGoldrick house in County Donegal. In one of them Eddie McGoldrick and Jim Foley are making music in the background. Only the dog that dominates the foreground notices the photographer.
Maginn, now a teacher of photography at the University of Ulster, has a technical mastery that gives us every last detail of weather-beaten faces, whether they wear the patina of kitchen or back room bar or even of summers cutting turf. Paddy Cullen from Donegal appears as almost a stereotype of a folk musician with his fisherman’s jersey, but here you feel that you can climb into his beard.
Maginn uses black and white to distill the essence of his subjects. Sometimes he relies on powerful contrast as in Ewan McColl caught against a completely black background, but more often subtleties of light and shade are involved.
He goes beyond a commitment to black and white and proclaims a purist ‘dogma’ that there must be ‘no cropping in post production', because this ‘removes a safety net designed to compensate for sloppy practice and forces the image maker to get it right on camera’. The black borders here are the actual edges of the original photographic images.
This is a rooted view from Maginn’s home terrain rather than of the tradition in Ireland as a whole, with Antrim and Ulster dominating and providing 33 of the subjects, while the rest of Ireland gives us only four. Irish musicians found in England do slightly better, and Ewan McColl appears no doubt because of his links with Irish musicians.
You could view all this simply as an archive. Many formidable performers are immortalised here, yet these are, simultaneously, enduring works of art.
No doubt that is why, as Maginn fondly recalls, Michael Longley and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, through Artist in The Community projects from 1989-1993, helped him develop his work. Inexplicably today the Red Barn Gallery is left to champion the achievement without assistance. Fortunately Foras na Gaelige stepped into the breach on this occasion.
This has enabled the production of a splendid large format catalogue printed to a very high standard by Shanway Press (£20/E24). This comes with a foreword by Ciaran Carson, also one of the subjects, and an introduction by Maginn. An additional 55 ‘thumbnails’ of photographs that didn’t quite make the exhibition are also provided.
It is a tribute to the importance of the exhibition that Martin Parr of Magnum Photos travelled from England to do the opening honours. The self-deprecating Maginn doubted whether there would be much interest in his record of ‘dead men’. The title of the exhibition, The Light of Other Days/Solas ó Ré Eile, indeed suggests an era that is past.
Certainly the exhibition recalls many now lost to us. Yet there are women here too: Mary Black is hardly a dead man! There are also plenty of younger men – less weather-beaten, yes, but sometimes sallow and nervous pre-performance. What Maginn actually does is to bring a tradition to life, and captures the dignity and pride of those who still make the music their vocation.
The Light of Other Days/Solas ó Ré Eile continues at the Red Barn Gallery, Belfast, until November 28.