Published  17/07/2013

Picturing Derry

Picturing Derry

City Factory Gallery, Derry
31 May–7 July 2013

Grand Hall, Stormont
12 August–20 September 2013


Bringing together local and international photographers and artists, Picturing Derry covers the years (primarily 1969 to 1972) when conflict in the city reached a climax.

Derry had become the focus of the world’s media when civil rights protests met with government opposition and eventual repression. The social unrest that followed led to the Battle of the Bogside, Bloody Sunday (when 14 civil rights protestors were shot dead by British soldiers in Derry on the 30th of January, 1972) and the extraordinary, and often overlooked, fact that part of the UK seceded and declared itself autonomous (“Free Derry”) for almost three years.

Central to the exhibition’s success, and its strengths are many, is the sense of seeing beyond the binary explanations and historical narratives of The Troubles. What emerges is a much more nuanced and complex, but no less scathing, series of views. The crucial themes of civil rights and repression are there and all the more so because they are depicted from many angles and on many layers. It is history almost as cubism; depicting a multiplicity of perspectives and a sense of, not just space but, time and motion in the events captured. The effect is visual art and reportage rendered in many more dimensions than simply the printed image.

Whilst often-reproduced images are displayed, the exhibition presents intriguing slants on the well-worn, a testament to the discerning eye of curator Declan Sheehan. The iconic image of a child brandishing a Molotov cocktail, wearing an Ireland badge and an over-sized gas mask by Clive Limpkin, now adorning a gable wall in the Bogside, is supplemented by Gilles Caron’s study of the same child. In one, he is a fallen innocent, in the other a swaggering street urchin.

There’s terrible violence here, of course, and tragedy. These are brilliantly depicted in Caron’s shot of a man on crutches watching a bakery burn to the ground. Economic hardship is implied in the background desolation of buildings before the riots. It’s also apparent in the way protestors appropriated junk and antiques from earlier ages; wearing tin helmets, Blitz-era gas masks, holding bin-lids as quixotic shields and, at its most tragicomic, a middle-aged man firing a sling-shot at the police.

Yet there are other aspects of the human spirit too easily missed in cursory news reports. There is an acknowledgement in the photographs of an uncomfortable truth for some; that this was, for many young people involved, an exciting time as well as a bleak one. It was, after all, their youth and the riots became something of a social event. It’s evident in Caron’s portrait of a young woman in the midst of a rubble-strewn battleground. She occupies the centre of the frame, her hair and dress in chic 60s fashion, an inquisitive look in her eye. It could be said to be a fashion shoot, which in a way it partially was. This explains why in the surge of the crowd captured by Caron, there are so many unique identifiable individuals, wearing effectively their Sunday best. There is no Guy Fawkes-mask anonymity here. They were here, partly, to impress and manifestly to stand out from the crowd.

This tendency finds its most exultant form in Brian J. Gill’s photograph of a young masked revolutionary. He is wearing a stylish coat, trousers and boots. One knee is slightly bent, chest puffed up and he has a pistol in his hand by his side. It is a pose somewhere between an edgy catwalk shoot and a sepia picture of a self-mythologised Wild West outlaw. Yet it is real, real in the sense that heroism is a kind of role-play and one which the photographer, all through this exhibition, is unconsciously generating and encouraging by his or her presence.

The wide variety of views throughout Picturing Derry might give the impression that there is some kind of moral levelling or relativism at work. This, however, is not the case. Though some of the situations photographed may be ambiguous or complicated, no photography is truly objective. Neither is our viewing of it. If the heroic outsider or rebel begins as an assumed role (demonstrated by the photographs here not just of rioters but bikers and punks), so do does the position of tyrant.

With a mischievous self-awareness, Sean Hillen incorporates scenes of riots with cut-outs from comic books, depicting cops versus criminals (The Professionals) and cowboys versus bandits (Frontier Times). If there are good guys, there must, by definition, be bad guys. It’s a comment not just on politicians’ and the media’s deliberately reductive outlook but on our own attraction to a comforting Manichean view of the world. Yet in the face of the horrors happening daily, Hillen skirted close to the literal. In Trouble in Paradise (1987), he juxtaposed IRA volunteers with British ceremonial Redcoats and the Queen, adding, with gallows humour, that he’d almost subtitled it, “Spot the terrorists”. The exhibition rests neither on propaganda or condemnation however, other than events themselves and the behaviour of those involved implying so. The fear on civilian faces, the innocuousness of their dress and the context, when the British army fire plastic bullets on funeral mourners for example, says everything. The finger pointing towards a soldier who has just blinded a protestor in Eamon Melaugh’s 1971 photograph seems almost superfluous. The camera has already done so.

If it’s impossible for photographers to avoid taking sides, even subconsciously, the role that separates the artist from the reporter is to go beyond surface delineations, to embrace subjectivity in the true sense of seeing as much as possible. Gilles Caron’s photograph of an Apprentice Boy march is a master-class in this; portraying the aged face of a participant in a close-up so extreme it resembles a Da Vinci grotesque and yet enlarged enough to reveal a deep humanity in the subject’s eyes. The two most explicitly artistic series of responses here also focus on what lies beneath and the treacherous nature of first impressions. In Victor Sloan’s scratched, bleached, prematurely-aged glimpses of loyalist marches, there is a disruptive tension between the smiling faces and the decay and violence of the treatment. Similarly emotive but evasive, Willie Doherty’s Fog: Ice and Last Hours of Daylight (1985) are epic and ephemeral because the forces involved often are. They conjure up an atmosphere of claustrophobia and subversion, suggesting whilst the mist and the night permeate everything, they also help to conceal.

An intriguing dissenting view is offered in the photographs of Lieutenant Corporal A. W. Martin, taken from the Army’s positions, through observation slits and from behind riot shields. The aim is surveillance rather than bearing witness and the intent may change a great deal for the observer. Yet only the position and the adjoining notes make you aware of this. The photograph changes with the knowledge of who took it. In Melaugh’s Disturbance at Rinmore Drive (1973), we see riot police jeering and blowing kisses to the camera from behind a wall. They resemble not authority as we know it but simply another tribe or rabble even, adolescent and playing up to the gaze as much as any of their opposite number. With a keen eye for irony, Caron captures a Kodak poster in the background of a disturbance. It shows a man taking a photo of the viewer and advises stoically, “Take life as it comes”. Similarly, Eamon Melaugh framed a British Army photographer photographing him, signifying a perpetual double mirror effect. All through the exhibition, there are sightings of photojournalists in alleyways or peering round corners, subtly altering what transpires both on film and in actuality. The most “official” shot is also the least believable featuring a news reporter behind police lines addressing a cameraman who’s standing with his legs wide apart, like a cowboy in a high noon duel. The role-play is not limited to those taking part.

In all conflicts, there are battles of symbols and the traces are interspersed through many of the works on show at Picturing Derry. At times, they resound politically or historically: the medieval Wound Man and the foreboding Jesus in Hillen’s collages, an accidental cross of petrol or blood slipped on the ground, an icon of the Virgin Mary and child being rescued from an abandoned house, the early stylised uniforms of the riot police which resemble their Gaullist counterparts on Situationist posters in Paris, Mai ’68. Melaugh’s shot of a Centurion tank rolling into Creggan to combat resistance during Operation Motorman is highly symbolic in terms of the impersonal dread it evokes and the sense of disproportion in witnessing a tank taking up both sides of a residential street in a Western democracy. In another powerful image, we view the silhouette of a soldier confronting a teenage boy who leans, hands in pockets, casting the trooper a look both diffident and dissenting. On the wall is a graffiti scrawl pronouncing, “Gerard is King”. In the beautiful lie of a camera flash, a young boy appears to outweigh the State.

Perhaps the most engaging acts of symbolism are what we might call politicised versions of Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment; the MP Bernadette Devlin, “embarrassing the men into action”, poised to shatter a paving slab for stones (resulting in a jail sentence of six months), a gentleman casually ducking under a rifle barrel on the way home or to the pub, Willie Carson’s skill in suggesting the biblical forces unleashed in a torrential water cannon directed on civil rights protestors and a sniper taking aim next to what looks like an earthquake-uprooted lamppost.

Chief among these is Gilles Caron’s decisive moment of a petrol bomb arcing towards police lines. His triptych of the young man who launched it is stunning not just for its sense of momentum but its wit; containing in the top corner of a scene of bedlam, a Guinness billboard and the line “The most natural thing in the world”. A real coup for the curators, Caron’s photographs are exceptional and all the more haunting as barely a year later he would disappear in a Khmer Rouge-controlled region of Cambodia and a unique talent in photojournalism would be lost forever. Around the same time, local photographer Barney McMonagle took a series of photos that zip with adrenaline-fuelled chaos and kinetic energy. When a bullet from a British soldier narrowly missed him, he decided never to go back to the riots.

What was lost in those years is as much the subject of study as what was gained. There are apocalyptic portents in the collapsing buildings and the blaze-lit nocturnal figures Caron captured, in the manner of Brueghel or Bosch. Dark days were to follow. Yet Derry now, for all its flaws, is nearly unrecognisable to the city of these photographs. Life somehow went on, recorded by local collective Camerawork and Homer Sykes in terms of innate and sympathetic human peculiarity that briefly recall Diane Arbus; a lady holding a greyhound pup, a plastic bullet victim wearing a halo brace and eye patch, various wizened characters propping up a bar. One photograph, in this superlative collection, has especially touching symbolism. It shows a group of children, like characters from a Boy’s Own adventure, hulking a wooden plank either to a barricade or for firewood. In the background the graffiti declares, “Derry Merry, Derry Free”. The boys’ leader, himself a child, stands proudly in the background, holding a revolutionary flag, suggesting that happiness, elusive as it is, is one form of defiance worth having. 

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

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