Critique | PhotoIreland Festival 2022

Various Locations; 7 July – 28 August

Amy O’Riordan, Transition, 2002, photograph; image courtesy the artist and PhotoIreland. Amy O’Riordan, Transition, 2002, photograph; image courtesy the artist and PhotoIreland.

Now in its thirteenth year, PhotoIreland Festival’s 2022 iteration, titled ‘Opening The Gates’, has, with a fine balance of determination and nuance, taken on the task of surveying the field of (art) photography in Ireland. The central and immensely impressive exhibition is ‘Images Are All We Have’ – adapting a phrase often attributed to Beckett and turning on the hopefully waning sense that Irish cultural production is, or has been, dominated by ‘words’. ‘Images Are All We Have’, along with several attached exhibitions, was shown in the Museum of Contemporary Photography of Ireland in The Printworks at Dublin Castle, with an even more ambitious remit than its previous version in 2019.

The polemic edge to this temporary museum and the insistence on the importance of photography as a cultural form in Ireland is, in effect, an argument for a national institutional response to the lack of a fully-functioning, comprehensive and dynamic ‘museum’ of photography in the state or on the island.  The argument for such can be, and has been, made in the abstract, but much more effective is to show the wealth and variety of the work that has been made in photography in Ireland in recent decades and to begin to imagine how it might be viewed in situ. ‘Images Are All We Have’ gathers together a comprehensive and sensitively curated set of images, arranging them into loosely themed sections but allowing for a fluidity between the sections of the exhibition and an under-determined approach, which suggests that everything could be rearranged and new patterns found, if only a ‘museum’ could be more permanently created to accommodate them.

‘Images Are All We Have’ reaches back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, citing the influence of, for example, Paul Graham and his work in Northern Ireland in bringing a documentary form to bear on a place which had been visually codified via photojournalist modes. The exhibition also recognises Irish roots in the 70s and 80s, including work by Tony O’Shea and Tony Murray, and then spreads out to broadly thematise more than 300 works by around 200 artists. The scale – both the number of works and the number of photographers – is in itself important. This is a substantial cultural phenomenon with no home. It does not need a canon or an exclusive club, but it does warrant a celebration, a critical reckoning and proper recognition. 

It’s always going to be the case that Irish photography will, like any ‘national’ photography, reflect the recent history of the nation; but it will also see things differently, at angles, with alternative clarities. The landscape photography in ‘Images Are All We Have’ is an almost inexhaustible example of this, from the very judiciously-chosen aerial view of Belfast by Cecil Newman – a 1979 photograph which pre-figures the Google-mapping of later decades – to simple yet brooding recent work by, for example, Caitriona Dunnett and Robert Ellis. Ireland’s rural landscape is seen throughout, worked, farmed, changed, wild, cultivated, while the urban experience is both documented and tracked for its people and its textures. Frederic Huska’s striking ‘Flyover’ images from 2019 are a surprising example of urban photography morphing into the abstract without losing its documentary mode.

Equally rewarding and ready for a thoughtful critical articulation is a line of conceptual photography (a poor way of describing complex work) which begins, or which has its earliest example here, in Les Levine’s 1979 series, ‘Using the Camera As a Club’. ‘Images Are All We Have’ carefully avoids grouping this work, which includes abstract and montage forms; Suzanne Mooney’s Equilateral Coercion (2010) is striking, as are Aisling McCoy’s images from the series, ‘Studies in Time and Distance’ (2020) and Alan Phelan’s Joly screen photographs. 

The institutions of Irish and globalised life, of the two states on the island and their international interactions, are brilliantly visualised here by photographers as diverse as Mark Curran, Noel Bowler, Ailbhe Ní Bhriain, Fiona Hackett and David McIlveen. Ní Bhriain’s video works are a particular joy and it’s good to see the crossover into video included. Vukašin Nedeljković’s crucial work on Direct Provision (as an institutional setting) is included, and ‘Images Are All We Have’ integrates work which interrogates and understands the lives of relatively recent immigrant populations into Ireland, via the photography of Ala Buisir, Ieva Baltaduonyte and Olamide Ojegbenro.

While ‘Images Are All We have’ is the centrepiece of the festival, it is surrounded by a vibrant sense of other possibilities via other projects. PhotoIreland continues to support emerging artists through the New Irish Works programme. Alan Butler’s 2017 video installation, On Exactitude in Science (alluding to the short story written by Jorge Luis Borges in 1946) was also on show in The Printworks – a stunning dual-screen production with Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1982) on one screen and Butler’s remake, using the virtual world of gaming, on the other. It’s unsettling and brilliant. Amongst the other satellite exhibitions was Daragh Soden’s ‘Ladies & Gentleman’ in Rathfarnham Castle, which cleverly and compassionately inserts layers of seeing and being seen into the visualisation and performance of drag. 

The PhotoIreland Festival 2022 shows what photography in Ireland has become. At its centre is the most comprehensive survey yet undertaken of the past decades of photography on the island. Let’s hope it’s an indication of what could be, and that the temporary Museum of Contemporary Photograph of Ireland becomes something permanent, and as generous and capacious as this festival. 

Colin Graham is Professor and Head of English at Maynooth University.