It is self-evident, if perhaps too often stated, that photography serves some memorial function, concerned necessarily with what is past, and Eoin O Conaill’s Common place certainly belongs to that tradition within the medium. The 2009 winner of the prestigious Artist’s Award from the Gallery of Photography, this is O Conaill’s first major solo exhibition. He turns his attention to the fractured landscape of contemporary life and its inhabitants. It’s no surprise then that he chooses to work at transitional hours of the day, early morning or into the evening, with figures posed in such a way as to suggest that they are on the edge of some uncertainty, mapping non-places – the sort of places we can no longer even see, even though they are familiar, even though, in many ways, they are home. So if the ideal role for a photographer is to pick up on the covert frequencies in the static chatter of our lives, in order to articulate the ever-changing currents that determine our social realities, then O Conaill’s ambition is equal to the task, taking on what more Irish photographers should be dealing with, but which so few actually have – the shattered end of an economic age.
The pictorial qualities of the photographs, their atmospheric effect, might seem at odds with their more ostensibly documentary intentions, but what O Conaill is really spinning is more like a cautionary tale, making pictures that catalogue the psychology of place. It is arguable that a more ‘detached’ style would have been better suited to his particular range of subject matter and indeed, at times, the lack of detail is frustrating (a problem not helped by the manner in which the photographs are printed), but the best of these pictures balance very telling juxtapositions as a way to expose underlying tensions in the country as a whole. One such photograph features an almost archetypal, ‘sublime’ Irish landscape – a rugged green hill, shrouded in low clouds, with trees scattered here – but a scene which is, in turn, acidly countered by the seemingly random appearance within the frame of a suburban development in microcosm, complete with twin satellite dishes and trellis.
This tension, however, is not always obvious in the series as a whole. Given that this work has probably been developing for a few years – and even right through the real peak of Ireland’s economic boom – there is little evidence of those once-so-familiar gilded façades and high rollers, nothing to really suggest the short-sightedness and hubris of a time just past, other than showing the unrestrained sprawl of housing and the lone portrait of a well suited man found in the modest, but satisfying, catalogue. The curious lack of perspective within the exhibition itself speaks to something more like a case of curatorial second-guessing by imposing a narrative onto the photographs, than a failure to grasp the issues at stake, which are, in truth, well expressed. This absent sense of balance, or any comparative reading, does undermine the wider relevance of the work. These pictures are a valuable record of the times, not so much in objective terms, but of the emotional landscape, its profound sense of disquiet, as a cumulative record of where we are just now, and this is its real strength.
Darren Campion is a writer and photographer.