author: Stephanie McBride
byline: Stephanie McBride writes on visual culture and is based in Dublin.
French historian Jules Michelet once wrote that the task of his profession was “to make the silences of history speak.” In a way, that same task is at the core of photographer David Farrell’s best-known body of work, Innocent landscapes, winner of the European Publishers’ Award for Photography in 2001 and the subject of a documentary which was screened as part of RTÉ’s recent series on Irish photography, The Look of the Irish. Promisingly, the week-long series in the first half of August announced that it would “celebrate Ireland and our heritage through the photographs that have shown us who we are since 1893 in a series of formal and informal snaps taken by amateur and professional photographers.”
Yet RTÉ’s scheduling of this celebration was unwieldy and topsy-turvy, with archive pieces early in the evening and contemporary figures left to late evening graveyard slots. Overall, the series fell way short of the impact it might have achieved: it came across not so much as a sustained investigation into photography as a challenging artform, more as a comfortable bubblewrap packaging to make photography more TV-friendly.
The differing modes of address compounded the uneven quality of the exercise, with talking heads offering superlative summaries of archive photographs of Cork being the most irritating. Too much arts television seems to equate popularity and accessibility with a drive to reduce everything down to the final image and product, at the expense of any proper discussion of the processes involved in artforms.
In Elusive moments, however, director Donald Taylor Black’s documentary about David Farrell opened out to explore the creative impetus, the wider demands and pressures of digital technology, as well as funding issues and the commercial imperatives of the art market which underpin cultural production. Visually elegant and eloquent, it documented Farrell’s working practice on various projects over two years, from initial reflections on how to approach shooting a body of work on delicate subject matter to the problems of fluctuating light in Irish weather, tentative musings on how a piece might work, and unveiling an image from its plastic coating and hanging a show.
Taylor Black offered glimpses of Farrell walking through Dublin streets, carrying a ladder on his way to a job, or accompanying him on his journeys through the Irish countryside with his tripod and camera – his own means of excavating the landscape and making the silences speak, as he visited the “sites of the disappeared,” the bogs and fields where bodies were said to have been buried by the IRA during the Troubles.
An ordnance-survey map dissolved into an image of the landscape itself, yielding the details and contours, local place names with their layers of history and people. Farrell refers to the bog “as a memory bank, the witness of history and trauma,” echoing writers such as Seamus Heaney, William Trevor and others whose work also sees these same landscapes as a kind of scarred canvas, scored and etched by historical events. In a kind of pilgrimage, Farrell regularly returns to these same sites, recollecting and recording but also understanding how the landscape changes, how its natural vegetation asserts its own claims, as the traces on the surface of the burials and the searches fade in turn, over time, in the timescale of the bog.
Farrell’s work has also explored modern institutions such as the Central Bank in When a building sleeps, a series which is a reminder of one of photography’s central forces, the fascination with the play of light and reflective surfaces. While these images are devoid of people, there is a palpable trace of human agency in many of the pictures – the pen on an office table, the graph scratched on a whiteboard, the picture hook on a green wall, each bristling with narrative expectation.
By contrast, his Ash series consists of portraits of different generations photographed on Ash Wednesday, following the annual ceremony in a Catholic church and all linked by the traces of the ash imprint, at one time a pervasive sign, but now more a sign of a tradition in decline, more and more out of synch with the new rhythms of modern Ireland.
Visual storytelling is at the core of Farrell’s work, and the editing process is a central force as the documentary showed him working his way through selecting from around 900 images, to fashion and shape those narratives.
Taylor Black’s credits include documentaries on a range of diverse topics, from profiles of Jimmy O’Dea and Micheál Mac Liammhóir to Liam O’Leary, as well as the socially critical edge of The Joy and Hearts and souls. Here again he demonstrated his engaged approach and insight into his subjects. The director’s signature skill, richly textured and empathetic with artists’ perspective, shows how arts documentaries can enter the world of the artist and artform, examining the economic and cultural strands within artistic processes and exploring the silences at the heart of photography.