What others have said about Minihan's photography
John Calder, PublisherJohn Calder speaking in London in 1989:
John Minihan is not only a rare artist with a camera, but he has the discernment in his choice of subjects to choose those artists and writers who have contributed the most unusual, as well as the best, modern work to contemporary culture. He finds what is most interesting behind scenes of everyday life, so that what at first sight might seem banal, suddenly takes on significance and humanity in a way that only an artist can express.John Calder describes Minihan's image of Samuel Beckett sitting at Le Petit Café, Boulevard St. Jacques, Paris, 1985 (from The Royal Academy Magazine, Autumn 1998):
His love of his native Ireland, its people, landscapes,, homes and geniuses is apparent in all his work. The future will be grateful to him for recording what would otherwise have been tragically lost or ignored, and not just for recording it, but for moving everyday images into the realm of art and truth. His camera never lies.
Samuel Beckett’s face has become an icon, and many distinguished photographers, including Brassai, Jane Bown, Robert Doisneau, Jerry Bauer, Man Ray and Richard Avedon, have caught the head “like an Aztec eagle” in different poses and moods. But this photograph by John Minihan was taken when Beckett’s attention was distracted and catches the introspective, infinitely sad gaze of a man looking into the abyss of the world’s woes.
The obvious comparison is one of Rembrandt’s late self-portraits, where he is contemplating both his own inner self with resignation tinged with bitterness and one assumes that his thoughts about the state of the world are in the same mould.
Beckett spent most of his time on his own, either working in his study or at his country cottage, or sitting in café’s where he often wrote poems, epigrammes and thoughts on scraps of paper or beer mats. Those written in French are published as Mirlitton-ades, or birdcalls, but there is no name given to the English ones. But Beckett’s reflections gave birth to some of the most beautiful and poignant poetry of our time. Old loves, awareness of the ubiquity of pain in the world, current problems, all mingle in these quaint café moments.
John Banville, Writer
Looking at the work of John Minihan one understands immediately why Samuel Beckett, that most private and publicity-shy of artists, entirely trusted him, and allowed him to become, in effect, his official photographer.
Minihan’s gift is to be at once penetrating and discreet, probing and respectful, close-up and impersonal. His photographs offer us deep insights into Beckett the man while maintaining intact the essential mystery, which is the mystery of art, and the Beckett he presents to our gaze is both mortal being and the timeless artist.
Sir Peter Hall, Director
They say that after thirty years you take responsibility for your own face: increasingly what you are is what you look like. There can be nobody of whom this was truer than Samuel Beckett. As the years mounted, his wise and witty face became more and more ravaged by thought; as the end drew nearer, the rage and resentment at illness and the waste of imminent death came closer to the surface of the face. Yet there was a stoicism and a courage there. The Nobel Prize-winner became the icon staring into life’s mysteries. He understood more than most men.
Beckett has to be one of the most photographed authors in history. And this is because we learn by looking at him. His face is so eloquent and yet so contradictory. On the one hand, there is a philosopher and seer, looking past we ordinary mortals to understand and challenge the unknown. On the other, there is the companionable man who was never far from uttering a witticism. The face is wry and knowing.
Beckett’s novels and plays are as ambiguous as Shakespeare. There is laughter and death, and joy is full of sadness. It is that basic yet entertaining contradiction that makes his plays increasingly popular. It also makes his images so rewarding to study.
In this fine website of John Minihan, you will see many of Beckett’s moods and much of his mystery. He is contradictory, certainly. Yet he remains for me not only of the most courteous men I have ever met, but also one of the funniest. He was the most delightful man to share a glass of Guinness with…
Sir Peter Hall
Photography: The New ArtformTaken from the International Herald Tribune, Feb 25-26, 2006
Photography, now a fully recognized art, they say, is judged solely on its own merits. Really? The hold that painting had over photography for decades is well known. What entirely escapes attention is the impact that pictorial criteria have on collectors when comes the moment to take out their chequebooks.
The sensational auction of photographs from the Gilman Collection, acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art a year ago - an auction in which 113 lots sold last week at Sotheby's for a phenomenal $15 million - provides a rare chance to measure the value that connoisseurs attach to pictorial composition and treatment of the subject. It leapt to the eye on Feb. 14 from the very beginning of the first session of the two-day sale.
Edward Steichen, the earliest of the 20th-century giants in American photography, underwent the influence of French painting and printmaking to an extent that is seldom recognized. His famous portrait of the English master of the craft, Frederick Evans, gazing at his own likeness by their Boston colleague F Holland Day, betrays the imprint that the stay Steichen had just made in Paris left on-his aesthetic approach to his art. The standing silhouette turned three quarters back is reminiscent of paintings by Degas and other early Impressionists. The elongated format itself was in vogue among French printmakers. The platinum print swiftly sailed past its high estimate to $84,000.
This was trumped a minute later by "The Pool. Evening, A Symphony to a Race and a Soul," which was shot in 1899 by the then 20-year-old Steichen, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Leaves float on the still waters against a backdrop of blurred growth in the twilight of a late autumn day. Corot would probably have loved it. Bidders certainly did. They ran it up to a huge $296,000.
But the price pales by comparison with what Sotheby's experts rightly called one of "the photographer's greatest: pictorial achievements" in their entry for "The Pond. Moonlight," signed and dated 1904. The line of trees, of which the symmetrical reflection in the dark water dimly lighted by a rising full moon occupies most of the space, is pure Barbizon school vintage. Harpignies could have conceived it in the 1850s. The gum bichromate print from the Gilman collection in Sotheby's sale is famous. It was exhibited many times - at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1998, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1999, and at the Whitney again, in the "Edward Steichen" 2000-01 retrospective.
One wonders why the Met felt the urge to sell it, so soon after having announced, the acquisition of the Gilman Collection in March 2005, as if it were some pseudo-collecting speculator in a hurry to take a profit, but this is another story. Collectors and dealers, not believing their luck that such a prey had come their way, went berserk. At $2.92 million, Steichen's Barbizon-style masterpiece now holds the world record for any photograph from any period. Steichen's disciple, the great Alfred Stieglitz, was influenced to an even greater extent by a whole range of painters.
When Stieglitz photographed his companion Georgia O'Keeffe seen head and shoulders, turned three-quarters, he could not have come closer to North European Renaissance portraiture. Albrecht Durer's self-portrait springs to mind, an analogy underlined by the very blouse worn by O'Keeffe. Bidders were electrified. At $329,600, the 1933 print almost tripled the highest expectations.
Proportionately comparable enthusiasm was elicited by the appearance of a large format photogravure in the second session on Feb. 15. Although published in an edition of 40, "The Hand of Man," estimated to be worth $25,000 to $35,000 plus the sales charge, soared to $114,000. Contrary to what the wording of the entry might suggest, the view of an engine in the distance, spewing a jet of black smoke against a hazy backdrop of electricity poles and structures, is purely pictorial -- Claude-Monet's "Gare Saint-Lazare” may have been a source of inspiration.
If last week's two-day sale is anything to go by, much subtler connections be between photography and painting can exercise the same fascination. Few could have imagined that Paul Outerbridge's still life of a "Marmon Crankshaft" would ever climb to $374,400. The 1923 close-up on the engine element is contemporary with Fernand Leger's "Mechanical Period" paintings, the earliest of which precede it by some years. On the other hand, the gleaming surface and the carefully contrived chiaroscuro effect call for comparisor, with the fastidiously- precise rendition of detail in the Surrealist art of the Italian Georgia de Chirico and Yves Tanguy in Paris.
There was perhaps a greater surprise when Margrethe Mather's platinum print of 1920, "Pierrot," made $228,000, nearly four times the high estimate. Here, the influence of late 19th-century French pastel leaps to the eye. There is a bit of Odilon Redon in the vast, toned haze that serves as a background and .more than a touch-of Toulouse-Lautrec in the ambiguous sneer of the head that pops up at the bottom.
Even when one feels inclined to reject any link between 19th-century graphic art and photography at its best, one often finds that some of the most brilliant compositions are actually based on the ideas of 19th-century artists.
Sotheby's experts duly noted that Margaret Bourke-White set up her camera in the Chrysler Building still under construction in New York, as its gargoyles, inspired by the Gothic devices of Notre Dame in Paris, had just been fitted. What they do not say is that 19thcentury lithographs illustrating Victor Hugo's novel "Notre-Dame de Paris" exploit the same concept - a gargoyle at the top of a Notre Dame tower thrusts across the Paris panorama far below. No doubt, the unusually large format - 48.2 by 34.6 centimeters, or 19 by 13 5/8 inches - of Sotheby's print, of which only one other example ever appeared at auction, helped it climb to a vertiginous $352,000, setting yet another auction record that day. But no doubt, too, its highly pictorial composition in a 19th-century mood was a factor in the making of the price.
Pictorialism, however, does not necessarily equate with academic inspiration, far from it. Steichen's "The Spiral Sea Shell," shot with light effects that go straight ` back to 17th-century chiaroscuro, is at the same time boldly modernist. Here, too, bidders were stirred to respond. They pushed up the print to $96,000, three times the high estimate.
In fact, the rules of pictorial composition can be applied in the most classical as well as in the most advanced views by the same photographers. One of Robert Frank's masterpieces, "Horse and Cart, Paris," was shot by the great American photographer in 1969, in a style and mood that conjures up memories of late 19th-century views of Paris. It was one of the few great photographs that "only" doubled the high estimate at $31,200 _= presumably because it -looks faded but actually is not, Denise Bethel and Christopher Mahoney of Sotheby's both told me. By contrast, Frank's admirable photograph of an endless highway going straight up barren hills, "New Mexico (U.S. 285, New Mexico)," illustrates the impact that Abstractionism and perhaps, more specifically, the New York Color Field school had on his work. That may in part account for the fantastic $156,000 it cost on Feb. 15.
Curiously, pictorialism at its most advanced has yet to come into its own. One of the unacknowledged giants of 20th-century photography is the American William Garnett. Shots like "Reflections of the Sun on Windy Water, Moss Landing, Cal." or "Fallen Trees" are gems in the spirit of Abstractionist aesthetics. These, together with five other outstanding prints, could be bought for $48,000 on Feb. 15. Even at four times the high estimate, this is hardly excessive compared with earlier works.
Part of the reason for the huge success of pictorial photography is that some frustrated would-be buyers of paintings go after it. If you have the inclination and the eye, explore photography. This is one of few areas where the greatest remains available and true masters still await recognition.
International Herald Tribune Art Critic
Irish Arts Review - Winter 2005
A ‘Head haught eyes light blue almost white silence within.’
Samuel Beckett: Ping, 1967
Next year will be marked by conferences, seminars, theatrical presentations and other celebrations of many sorts to honour the life and work of Samuel Beckett, whose centenary falls on 13 April. These celebrations will be worldwide, not just in Ireland and France, his native and adoptive countries respectively. His centenary is not the only notable Beckett anniversary – 29 October this year marks the 50th anniversary of the first Dublin production of Waiting for Godot, directed by the late Alan Simpson, at the tiny Pike Theatre on Herbert Lane.
At Beckett’s request, Simpson deferred the Dublin opening until after the play had already opened in London. At that time London producers still thought that the securing of British and Empire rights to a play closed out the possibility of a production in Ireland, or in Éire, to be more precise. It sometimes takes quite a while for political and historical realities to become manifest. The British and Empire connections had long been severed and the exit from the Commonwealth had taken place some years before.
Alan Simpson’s agreement to defer his production allowed for a curious divergence to arise between his and the London production. Beckett had completed his first version of the translation of his play (he called it ‘rushed’) by July 1954. Later that year he revised his translation and it was this version he sent to Barney Rosset of Grove Press in New York who had undertaken to publish it. The American edition appeared in September 1954 and a copy was sent to Simpson at the Pike. As the impoverished Pike had no access to photocopying the actual play-scripts for the actors were typed out again with carbons being taken. This meant that the players in the Dublin production delivered the script as published in New York. The situation in London was somewhat different in that the script used was the revised version without the changes that Beckett had introduced as he worked on the galleys and proofs of the Grove Press edition. At the Arts Club Theatre in London (and later at the Criterion theatre), what the audience heard when Pozzo arrives in the first act and Estragon and Vladimir are trying to conciliate him by making a show of trying to ‘place’ him, was Vladimir’s comic line: ‘I once knew a family called Gozzo. The mother had warts.’ In Dublin the audience heard the stronger or coarser line: ‘I once knew a family called Gozzo. The mother had the clap.’
Alan Simpson’s production ran for nineteen weeks at the Pike, transferred to the Gate Theatre for a week, went out on a seven-venue national tour and finished with another week at the Gas Company Theatre in Dun Laoghaire in June, 1956. The accounts of the Pike Theatre show that the production earned Beckett 172 pounds, 7 shillings and 3 pence in net royalties. It does not seem much now but at the time the sum would have been enough to buy a luxury saloon car, fill the tank and have a mad weekend away.
Beckett did not travel to Dublin to see the production but he did receive production photographs by Derrick Michelson from Simpson. In a letter to Simpson in late November he wrote: ‘I liked particularly that of Vladimir [Dermot Kelly] looking at the boot as if it were an early 17th century skull.’ In reply to Simpson’s request for an author photograph Beckett wrote: ‘I’m afraid I’m very bad about photographs. I’m not due another until 1960, when my identity card will have to be renewed.’ This was not strictly true, as is amply evidenced by the publication in 1997 of the Beckett volume in the series Portraits d’Auteurs by the French publisher Marval. This volume features some thirty photographic portraits of Beckett taken between 1951 and 1988 by nineteen photographers. After the success of Godot in Paris in 1953 Beckett may have been publicity-shy but he was never camera-shy. Further evidence for this is, surely, the rich archive of ‘family snaps’ held by the Beckett Estate, some of which I gratefully drew upon for my Illustrated Lives: Samuel Beckett, published by Penguin in 2001.
Throughout his writing life Samuel Beckett inserted images of himself into his prose narratives. His character Belacqua Shuah who appears in both the first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, and in the story collection More Pricks than Kicks, is closely modelled on the writer himself. Not only is he a diligent student of Dante but he is also ‘a low-down low church Protestant high-brow.’ Belacqua is even fitted with a black leather coat such as Beckett himself possessed at the time of writing both books. But Belacqua constitutes a withering and mocking portrait of the artist as a young man, a portrait deployed by Beckett for satirical purposes.
In the third of his post-war novels, Malone meurt/Malone dies, Beckett has his narrator Malone plan to engage himself with telling a few stories as he is dying. One of these stories features a boy called Saposcat. The name neatly conjoins mind and body, wisdom and dung, that typically Beckettian take on the Cartesian ‘ghost in the machine’ conundrum. The boy is described thus:
‘But the most striking thing about him was his big round head horrid with flaxen hair as stiff and straight as the bristles of a brush. Even his teachers could not help thinking he had a remarkable head and they were all the more irked by their failure to get anything into it.’
This passage (originally written in French) pre-dates Beckett’s unexpected celebrity by some five years but its accuracy as a description of the author is undoubted. Beckett wore his unruly hair en brosse for most of his life. It is a feature of Beckett’s appearance that is admirably caught in John Minihan’s Paris portraits. A little later the self-portrait is augmented:
‘Sapo’s phlegm, his silent ways, were not of a nature to please. In the midst of tumult, at school and at home, he remained motionless in his place, often standing, and gazed straight before him with eyes as pale and unwavering as a gull’s.’
This not only captures Beckett’s essential shyness, his capacity to be withdrawn in the face of clamour, it also registers his remarkable eyes, the bluest I have ever seen. Monochrome photographic portraits cannot capture this feature, nor, strangely, do the colour portraits taken by Hugo Jehle in Germany in the 1980s. When Beckett looked at you, with or without his spectacles, you felt seen, even seen through.
From 1953 onwards images of Beckett’s face were available on book jackets, theatre programmes and newspapers in Europe and further afield. During the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s – the period of his most intense involvement in productions of his own plays in England, France and Germany – he willingly agreed to let scholars, critics and photographers attend his rehearsals so that these events could be fully documented. Bruce Davidson was allowed on the set during the shooting of Beckett’s Film in New York in 1964 and his photo-portraits of Beckett at work have achieved wide circulation. John Minihan was granted similar access while Beckett was working, for the last time, at the Riverside Studios in London. The photograph of Beckett in the theatre bar shows him in a more relaxed mode.
But Beckett’s commitment to documentation went even further; he arranged for his meticulously detailed production notebooks to be lodged in university archives so that succeeding generations of scholars and theatre practitioners would have access to the minutiae of his stagings of his plays. Other photographers, most notably Lutfi Özkök and Henri Cartier-Bresson, were admitted to his study in Paris to photograph him. There is even an unattributed shot of him leaning against his work-table in that gaunt little cottage at Ussy where much of his later writings were composed.
I find John Minihan’s shots of Beckett in Paris very moving because this was the man I knew, having met him for the first time on ‘the awful occasion’ (Krapp’s phrase, from Krapp’s Last Tape) of his eightieth birthday. It is just about possible that my first meeting with Beckett took place at the very table in the PLM hotel where Minihan photographed him. The full ashtray on the table looks familiar. Meeting Beckett was always a pleasure because of his unfailing courtesy and punctuality. He was always affable and would willingly respond to queries on points of detail about his work. He never dealt with general questions and always welcomed gossip about the theatre and the visual arts ‘over there’ in Dublin. He once told me that when he had difficulty sleeping he would mentally play the back nine at Carrickmines golf club and then walk up to Ballyedmonduff to see the stone-cutters at work and listen to the ringing of the hammers. The noise levels in south county Dublin are not so mellifluous now. But Beckett’s strong imagination could conjure consolations from his store of memories:
‘Nowhere in particular on the way from A to Z. Or say for verisimilitude the Ballyogan Road. That dear old back road. Somewhere on the Ballyogan Road in lieu of nowhere in particular.’ Company, 1980. John Minihan’s shot of Beckett, toting his ‘pilgrim’s scrip’ walking away from the camera along a London street, is amongst the most enduring and moving of valedictory images.