Irish Poets and Writers

A gallery of creative Irish voices


The Participating Eye
Taken from the forward to the book "An Unweaving of Rainbows - Images of Irish Writers
The illiterates of the future will be the people who know nothing of photography rather than those who are ignorant of the art of writing.
László Moholy-Nagy, New Vision (1935)

A photograph, says Susan Sontag (On Photography, 1977), is `not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask. While a painting, even one that meets photographic standards of resemblance, is never more than the stating of an interpretation, a photograph is never less than the registering of an emanation.' Photography revives, she suggests, the primitive status of images: `Our irrepressible feeling that (it) is something magical has a genuine basis. No one takes an easel painting to be in any sense co-substantial with its subject; it only represents or refers. But a photograph is not only like its subject, a homage to the subject. It is part of, an extension of the subject.'
Susan Sontag (1933-2004)
One might argue, of course, that paint, like any material thing, is ultimately consubstantial with human bodies; but so too is light, as in the light of the eye. We may speak, in both cases, of `an extension of the subject'; and it's in this sense that John Minihan's systematic record of Irish writers, like John Butler Yeats's graphic work 100 years ago, may be said to contribute to literature itself. Barthes proposes, however, in Camera Lucida (1980), that it's not by painting that photography touches art, but by theatre; and he uses the phrase `tableau vivant', which is what we have here.

Irish literary photography too (both of and by the writers) goes back 100 years, though not the full 150; for we had no inspired innovator to capture Mangan, say, as Felix Nadar and others captured Baudelaire - though, in The Mangan Inheritance (1979), the novelist Brian Moore tries to rectify this omission by having his protagonist Jamie Mangan, a young journalist, find a fictitious daguerreotype of an ancestor, the poet James Clarence Mangan, in a house in Canada - `a portrait in a scrolled brass frame preserved under glass, a small, shimmering, mirror-bright picture on silver-coated copperplate. It measured about three inches by four and showed a man facing the camera, a head-andshoulders portrait taken against a plain background. The man wore a silk cravat, a white shirt, and a dark cape tied loosely about his neck by two broad tapes. His longish hair fell to his shoulders and his slight uncertain smile revealed a missing upper tooth. What made Mangan stare as though transfixed by a vision was that the face in the photograph was his own. He turned the daguerreotype over. On the back of the frame, written in a sloping looped script in the top right-hand corner, was the notation: (J.M., 1847?).'

But if there were no Irish commercial photographers to compare with the big European names, there were inspired amateurs - some of them writers themselves like Somerville and Ross, Shaw and Synge. The authors of The Real Charlotte (1894) bring out the magic, indeed the alchemy of the thing in their description of Christopher Dysart at work in his dark-room: `There was no sound in the red gloom except the steady trickle of running water and the anxious breathing of the photographer. His long hands moved mysteriously in the crimson light among phials, baths and cases of negatives, while the uncanny smells of various acids and compounds thickened the atmosphere.'

Shaw, writing in 1885, ten years before his own first experiments with the camera, had already decided photography was in some respects superior to art: `Artists are sticking to the old barbarous, difficult and imperfect processes of etching and portrait painting merely to keep up the value of their monopoly of the required skill. They have left the new, more complexly organized, and more perfect, yet simple and beautiful method of photography in the hands of tradesmen, sneering at it publicly and resorting to its aid surreptitiously. The result is that the tradesmen are becoming better artists than they, and naturally so; for where, as in photography, the drawing counts for nothing, the thought and judgment count for everything.'

Wilde, who understood the power of the image (think of Dorian Gray), was much photographed, notably during his American tour by the New York society portraitist Napoleon Sarony, whose 27 studio shots of the great self-publicist have been frequently reproduced. Wilde sat too for the Julia Cameron studio; and Merlin Holland, in The Wilde Album (1997), published for the first time some remarkable late snaps of his grandfather taken in Rome, probably in the spring of 1900, with Wilde's own camera. Wilde himself wrote to a friend: `My photographs are now so good that in my moments of mental depression I think that I was intended to be a photographer.'

Of the various Irish writer-photographers at the end of the nineteenth century, none achieved more interesting results than Synge, whose 23 surviving studies of life on the Aran Islands were eventually published as My Wallet o f Photographs (Dolmen 1971), arranged and introduced by Synge's nephew Lilo Stephens. The author of Riders to the Sea and The Playboy o f the Western World used a Lancaster Instagraphic 'plate-and- bellows' camera of polished mahogany in a black leather case with eyeholes for lens and viewfinders, an apparatus now in the library of Trinity College, Dublin.

Joyce was no photographer but was famously photographed at different stages of his life, preferably by the most fashionable practitioners. Portraits of the artist abound - as precocious student, intense young man, flaneur, father, convalescent and sage. His striking looks helped, and his dandyism; bow-ties and waistcoats, gym-shoes and walking-sticks contributed to an indelible composite image, and even the tinted specs and eyepatches he wore to save his failing vision were somehow less functional than decorative. All this and more is evident in Gisele Freund's late studies done in Paris.
Surprisingly, given his interest in the `ineluctable modality of the visible', Joyce didn't have much to say about photography as such, except in terms of popular culture: `The Bath o f the Nymph over the bed. Given away with the Easter number of Photo Bits: splendid masterpiece in art colours ... Three and six I gave for the frame.' Photo bits, like advertising jingles and music-hall songs, recur throughout Ulysses, often with voyeuristic undertones - pictures cut out of papers, those lovely seaside girls ('your head it simply swurls'). Bloom himself is a camera; to Gerty McDowell in the Nausicaa episode he is `the gentleman opposite looking'. He is even a film camera; for his day, as Joyce describes it, is a home movie of the domestic city. Harry Levin speaks of `cinematic montage' and `the optical illusion of reality obtained from a continuity of discrete shots'; and we remember that Joyce was involved (1909) in Dublin's first cinema, the Volta, where too `projections (tended) to slow down and at times stop altogether, suddenly arresting the action and suspending the characters in mid-air.' Photography as commercial landscape, moreover, is already widespread in Dublin of 1904: `All kind of places are good for ads.'

Context is established in this new album with formal portraits of literary venues - the Shelbourne (its generational revolving door), Davy Byrne's `moral pub', Doheny & Nesbitt's, and the old Pearl Bar, once a haunt of journalists. Finn's Hotel is here, where Nora Barnacle worked in youth; the late Hubert Butler's Maidenhall in Co. Kilkenny, a generic portrait of a Georgian country house; and the Protestant church at Farahy, Co. Cork, spiritual home of Elizabeth Bowen. Here too, appendices to Minihan's Samuel Beckett (1995),-" are the Beckett homes in Kerrymount Avenue, Foxrock, and the Boulevard St-Jacques, where both the 'Cooldrinagh' name-plate and the Paris mail-box have extraordinary presence.

Stephen Joyce, in dark specs like his grandfather, attends the unveiling of a plaque at 28 Campden Grove, Kensington ('Campden Grave', Joyce called it), where James and Nora briefly resided in 1931 in order to be married, `for testamentary reasons', in England; while Edna O'Brien, with a Molly-esque gesture, smiles in furs from an upstairs window. Ulick O'Connor emerges from the National Library where the young Joyce and his cronies gathered; while the London dimension expands to include three generations of MacNeice women, George Barker and Eddie Linden taking refreshment, and Michael Mannion, the modest `Bard of Kensington', at work in his bachelor pad, a man-about-town's evening rig airing beside the kettle.

John Ryan and Anthony Cronin are here, veterans of the first commemorative Bloomsday pilgrimage in 1954; but it's a younger crowd who take up most space. One knows these people, the handsome and the ravaged, the gorgeous and the quaint. A rainbow of personality is unwoven and rewoven here; from all eyes - well, from most - shine soul and sensibility, and these shine back at them from a loving lens.

Unlike The New Yorker's Richard Avedon, whose ultra-cool, harshly lit and decontextualized theatre people Avedon calls `symbolic of themselves' ('I'm never really implicated; I don't have to have any real knowledge'), Minihan is participatory and idiosyncratic. This is what so distinguished the Beckett book, where the great clinician is obviously in a humorous relation to the camera, so that serendipitous occasions present themselves spontaneously:
the patient cup, the gnarled hands, the walking-away shot from behind.

When we think of great portrait photographers, among the names that spring to mind are those of Andre Kertesz and Bill Brandt - Kertesz's Eisenstein, Brandt's Pound and Graves - and Minihan's best work resembles theirs in its warmth and humanism. Working with a Nikon F3, motor drive, a range of lenses from 21mm-200mm, and starting with the Beckett series, John Minihan has established himself as the finest Irish literary portrait photographer of his generation; and photographs of Irish writers are a vivid extension of the literature it illustrates.

Derek Mahon


Edna O'Brien in her home in Chelsea, London 1971
Les Murray, London 1993