A day in the life


It was a glorious Sunday morning as I drove into Glencolmcille. I turned into her driveway and saw her leaning out a window talking to a kid – who turned out to be her grandson. She didn’t seem to have changed at all. She was expecting me and met me at the front door. There was such beautiful light pouring into her house. It’s probably 15 years or so since I last seen her. A few minutes after I arrived, she produced a photo and gave it to me. It was a photograph of me and her at the back of the church on my confirmation day in Kilcar, which I remember being taken. I was wearing a delightful red fake leather tie and a black jacket. The views from her kitchen on this morning were amazing. Clear blue skies. She suggested a few rooms after I showed her some photos and explained  to her what the project was all about. We talked briefly on the phone and I said it would make more sense once she saw the other photographs. She suggested the kitchen and because it was small I decided to shoot there. I needed another light for the back room as I was shooting at f16. She was wearing a white blouse, black skirt and white shoes and suggested changing but I convinced her she was fine. She put on a pink cardigan anyway, which really lifted her from the white of the kitchen. I love this portrait and the way she held the cable release. She looks powerful in it. The height of the camera in relation to her height was about how it was when I first met Mrs McGinley, aged 4, when I was in baby infants. She called her daughter in law Claire over to see some of the photos, who lives across the road. I went to school with Claire so I knew her fairly well. After the shoot, we had some tea by the table and ate homemade scones. We talked about cholesterol, teachers, schools and how things have changed.

All this talk about Ethnography. I suppose this became part of my photographic practise while I was shooting Wearing Purple. Each visit I made to the people in my photographs was recorded like this in the form of a diary, recording little details. Details I didn’t really know what to do with, except record for the moment. I gave each person a disposable film camera which I collected from them when they had done what I asked them to, which was to capture a day in the life of themselves, no matter how boring a shot seemed. What I wanted was another side of the story, as my side was just that. It was mine. The collected snapshots presented a sense of normality which is exactly what I was after. Normality is important, as I think stereotypes take over when we think of the elderly. A lot of photographic work has focused on the frail side of being old. That is important too, but I wanted mine to steer clear of it, as my subjects didn’t live in a nursing home or were confined to their homes. One woman even expressed her discomfort when I approached her first about taking part in the project. She didn’t want to be represented as a lonely old woman who lives on her own, because she wasn’t. The people who took part in this project live full and enriched lives surrounded by people who care about them. It is this essence that I hoped their photos would get across, which is impossible to do with a single photographic portrait that I could ever take. What is glaringly obvious from looking at these snapshots is they bear no resemblance to the idea being sold to us on a daily basis that young should prevail over old. Elements of the beautiful Donegal landscape, holiness, farming, pastimes, fleeting moments, daily routines and loved ones were recorded. All normal here.


The problem with old age

Hour by hour, and week by week, the thing upon the canvas was growing old. It might escape the hideousness of sin, but the hideousness of age was in store for it. The cheeks would become hollow or flaccid. Yellow crow’s-feet would creep round the fading eyes and make them horrible. The hair would lose its brightness, the mouth would gape or droop, would be foolish or gross, as the mouths of old men are. There would be the wrinkled throat, the cold, blue-veined hands, the twisted body, that he remembered in the grandfather who had been so stern to him in his boyhood. The picture had to be concealed. There was no help for it.

(Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891)

Living in the Western world, we are constantly confronted with images of the perfect body or commodities that promise to give us what we can never have. Two ingredients feed this false ideology. One is an obsession with youth; the other is an inherent fear of our own mortality. Neither of these are new phenomena. Oscar Wilde’s fictional Dorian Gray was obsessed with the idea over a hundred years ago. Photography’s history also provides us with an insight around the same time. The Victorian’s used photography to record dead children as angelic sleeping babies, thereby coming to terms with mortality in their own way. It can be seen as a sort of embalming tool for a world they had little comprehension of, one where death seemed a little more reasoned. Lewis Carroll used photography to record childhood as an innocent fairy tale, albeit a highly sexualized fairy tale. His ‘Alice in Wonderland’ accounts for the cultural fantasies of a growing girl struggling in a small world. His photographs of young girls served only himself it seems, as fetishised objects of girls that never grew up, that could forever be young, embalmed and present.

Alice Liddell - Lewis Carroll

Alice Liddell - Lewis Carroll

Childhood and youth is a stage that has always seen to be important. On the flip side, growing old was seen as something to be rejected; to be, as Dorian Gray felt, concealed. The mechanical process of photography seems to have been used as a tool to mythically halt the advancement of time itself. It provided the means to avoid the unavoidable for the Victorians and for some cultural theorists. André Bazin describes the subjects of the Victorian family albums as being “freed from their destiny”.[1] Some saw it as death itself. Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida, which can be described as a form of grieving, constantly refers to the subject as being dead, but forever there, present. Photography provided Barthes a reprieve in the grieving of the death of his mother, finding a photograph that was a suitable likeness, for fear he would forget. Ironically, he only found her likeness or “the splendor of her truth” in a photograph when she was aged five, and not as she was when she died: an old woman. Freezing, embalming time is of course as impossible as the myth of never growing old, yet photography continues to function in this myth. It plays a pivotal role in the twenty first century in keeping this myth alive, with advertising that promises a young healthy beautiful body and everything else that makes the advertising machine work: the production of desire.

In modern times, we are presented with the pervasive glossy magazine that keeps this production line active and alive. David Green argued how the “presentness” of the images in the contemporary glossy magazine is merely a veneer behind which we try to shelter from the inevitable.[2] This veneer is what offers us the chance to remain young and beautiful. This veneer is what nurtures the belief that old is ugly. It seems only logical then that the idea that old-as-beautiful is something that can never be part of the consumer culture. It is after all in the interest of the media to promote ageing as something that is ugly and avoidable at all costs.

To understand the background into the media’s under-representation of this important social group, it is important to understand some history, a sociological history, so that we can make some sense of why the older members of our community are perceived in a different and sometimes, negative and unbalanced way. To begin therefore with a question: what exactly is ‘old’?

The life stages that we are so accustomed to in the West are nothing but social constructions. That is to say that they do not necessarily simply exist in other cultures. Middle-age or old-age are not naturally occurring organic concepts. Sudhir Kakar highlighted this in his article The Search for Middle Age in India, when he went asking diverse and random people in India what they thought was ‘middle-aged’. He only found people who were aware of the concept at a cocktail party of upper class people well versed in the English language and Western concepts.

Within each life stage, a series of rules, regulations and etiquette must be adhered to in order for us to fit in to what is expected, to what is normal. These too are social constructions, and evolve from generation to generation. The sociologist and historian Norbert Elias traced the evolution of manners in The Civilizing Process from the twelfth century to the twentieth century using courtesy manuals as his map. His theories detail the complexity of how the social body was shaped. For example he details how table manners evolved, on how to properly pass wind (in either direction)[3], on how the knife and fork came to be common utensils in our eating habits or how natural bodily functions became regarded as improper and impolite and thus privatized to a special room with special equipment. The Civilizing Process maps out the growth of civilization in Western Europe as a slow complex evolutionary process. The privatization and therefore taboo and stigma associated with natural bodily functions can often afflict the life of a senior citizen. As our bodies grow old, societal rules and regulations can often burden us with feelings of embarrassment and shame when certain organs fail to function as they should.

The varying perceptions of senior citizens in Western societies are therefore deeply rooted in historical, sociological and cultural discourses. The ever complex and evolving social body is never static. Retirement can bring joy and celebration, yet the social effects of retirement invariably have an effect on how the social category of ‘senior citizens’ is perceived. As is often the case, they are rarely represented in the world’s myriad types of media in a fair and balanced way. Our obsession with youth and glamour, and our inherent fear of mortality feeds this under and misrepresentation.

Viewing the 21st century with a contemporary lens, the obsession with youth invariably points us to an ignorance of death and all that goes with it. The consumer culture that is very present and visible in today’s society will always silently avoid the unavoidable that people like Barthes and Bazin openly discuss. The obsession with youth is certainly not a simple turn of events.  Rather it is complex and layered in centuries of history. The Western world is driven by this obsession and the desire to remain forever young, socially tipping the seesaw of life too far for Nature to balance. Everyone will get older, and with that, the Western perception that everyone will get more ugly will inevitably hold true. It seems the only remedy to the bitter aftertaste of old age is to change social attitudes, towards the elderly, towards dying, towards mortality; to alter the perception that because one ages does not mean one becomes ugly; to alter the perception that because one ages and slows down does not make one stupid or less intelligent than before. These are monumental social issues that were formed over thousands and thousands of years and it is unlikely that these attitudes will change anytime soon.

[1] Bazin, André, What is Cinema?, University of California Press, London, 1967, p. 14

[2] Greed, David, ‘Marking Time: Photography, Film and Temporalities of the Image’ in Stillness and Time: Photography and the Moving Image by David Green (ed.), Photoforum and Photoworks, 2006, p. 13

[3] In relation to farting as an example, Elias found a quotation from 1530 from a courtesy manual, that describes the best approach according to Aethon’s epigrams. “Even through he [Aethon] had to be careful not to fart explosively in the holy place, he nevertheless prayed to Zeus, though with compressed buttocks. The sound of farting, especially of those who stand on elevated ground, is horrible. One should make sacrifices with the buttocks firmly pressed together”. In a different era, two hundred years later, the same topic was raised, this time in 1729 where it was considered “very impolite to emit wind from your body when in company, either from above or from below, even if it is done without noise”. Along with farting now being a very private matter, the language itself has been privatized preferring the term wind to farting, and making it shameful and indecent to do it in a way where others hear it.



August Sander - Berlin Coal Carrier, 1929

Berlin Coal Carrier, 1929

When it comes to portraiture, two of my favorite photographers span almost a century. August Sander, born in 1876 and Katy Grannan, born 1969. Sander was German and Grannan is American. It is the social element to both photographers that I’m interested in, yet both work in very different ways. Sander brilliantly documented his People of the 20th Century in Weimar Germany, categorised by social type and occupation, believing that society was organised into a hierarchy of occupations. Some of his participants were photographed at work surrounded by the tools of their trade, others were photographed against neutral or natural backgrounds, such as farmers. White-collar workers were usually photographed inside. He captioned each with the type of work they done and the year, creating a relationship with society and the individual and in doing so, putting a value on their occupation regardless of what it was.

August Sander - Pastrycook, 1928

Pastrycook, 1928

Grannan on the other hand is a portrait photographer. Her earlier work Model American has a rawness that perhaps is missing from her latest work. For Model American, she put an ad in the paper that read “Art Models. Artist / Photographer (female) seeks people for portraits. No experience necessary. Leave message”. The ad sounds like a dating advert, and the overt emphasis on female changes the tone somewhat, and was probably the reason it drew a lot of exhibitionists. Her subjects would decide on location, pose and clothing (some wearing nothing). She shot on a clumsy large format film camera with a light. What is interesting about these is that her subjects, on their own direction, are performing and acting out roles based on fictional events from TV, advertising or cinema often appearing awkward and clumsy. The photographs hint at something much darker and depressing about mid-American life, the drab interiors, small rooms (often showing the ceilings in the image while shooting low), and the unsmiling model. The aesthetic of this work is on a par with high gloss advertising images, yet it’s meaning is a polar opposite. It’s hard not to think of why these people answered the ad, which is why the work resonates with me. I want to know more about the process involved, what was it like? What were the interactions? Did they seem unhinged? Maybe it is precisely the not knowing, which makes the images so intriguing as we read the images with our own baggage, asking these questions, making our own assumptions and constructing our own little narrative.

Katy Grannan - Untitled, 1998

Untitled, 1998

Katy Grannan - Untitled, 1999

Untitled, 1999

Katy Grannan - Wolf, Poughkeepsie, NY, 1999

Wolf, Poughkeepsie, NY, 1999


AIB Prize Nominee

I was fortunate enough to have been nominated for the AIB prize 2010. The winner of the prize gets funding to assist in the publication of a catalogue and towards the production of work for an exhibition in the gallery that nominated them. For me, that’s the Letterkenny Regional Cultural Centre. Three runner’s up receive a €1,500 prize. Past winners include Anne Cleary & Dennis Connolly (2009), Jackie Nickerson (2008), Diana Copperwhite (2007), Linda Quinlan (2006), Paul Doran (2005) and Amanda Coogan (2004). The nominations haven’t been announced yet however, so we will have to wait to see whether there will actually be an AIB prize next year.

I have submitted a proposal of work for the prize. Regardless of its future or funding, I need to kick this project off as it’s been brewing in my consciousness for a few years now. By writing this blog, I hope to strip the project to a simple concept. At the time of writing, it is not entirely clear in my own head, but this process may, or may not, enhance that clarity. It also may, or may not, completely bore the readers. In many ways, this is more for me than a reader, but hopefully it will work in both ways.

In summary, the project is centered upon one important element in the exchange of photographing someone as part of an art project – the potential imbalance of trust and power that exists in the photographer / sitter relationship. Personally, when someone gives me their time, their being, their home for a few hours to photograph them, I always feel a little guilty asking them to sign a model release form. I feel that they have not got as much out of the process as I. Photographers in situations like this usually stand to gain something from the process, whether it’s furthering their career, a masters or PhD. Participants in contrast, may not accrue similar benefits from their own participation. From a power perspective, the photographer clearly has the upper hand. I don’t mean to insinuate all photographers take advantage, of course they don’t. What I’m trying to clumsily explain is my own feelings on the matter. Maybe it’s my Catholic guilt, I’m not really sure. Whatever it is, it’s what I’ve decided to build this next body of work on.

I am reading a lot about ethnography at the minute, which is a pretty wide branch of anthropology dedicated to the study of human societies. I will attempt to simplify that definition and narrow its scope to my own photographic practice of representing a set of older people in our society. According to Sarah Pink, ethnography is an approach to experiencing, interpreting and representing culture and society. In other words, it is a process of creating and representing knowledge about society, culture and individuals. The methods by which this is done usually involves the ethnographer living with the people under study, getting to know them, collaborating with them on generating a variety of documents (writing, video, photographs etc.) which represents a culture, society or group of individuals. This knowledge which is represented is of course subjective, as it is based on the ethnographers own experiences but nevertheless should be an honest and detailed representation about a society or culture.

Sarah Pink - Doing Visual Ethnography

Sarah Pink - Doing Visual Ethnography

What has this to do with photography? Lots, actually. The photographer in my case, can be seen as a mini ethnographer. By photographing a bunch of people and framing them for a gallery purpose, I am saying something about that which I photograph. In this case: old age. How can I represent old age? I cannot, and don’t claim to. Informed by ethnography and borrowing some of the ethnographic tools however, I can concentrate on a group of people, build a relationship with them and hopefully involve them in the process and in the documentation of that process. In this way, I hope to tackle the issue of trust and the important aspect of leveling of power that I mentioned earlier.

It sounds all very idealistic, I admit.


A beginning, of sorts

Behind the scenes in any artistic practice is not everyone’s cup of tea when it comes to reading something ‘interesting’. An artist will spend a lot of time exploring avenues, making work, researching, journaling and recording his or her process before realising that the avenue should be abandoned to explore a side-avenue that might be more interesting and relevant. Mostly interesting. In my own case, the avenues that I go down and research are all relevant, it’s getting the right slant on the project, or what will be the right ‘ahhh!’ from an audience when looking at the work. I tend not to complicate my work, not to smother it with critical art theory that, in my mind, does nothing except baffle 80% of viewers. I certainly am informed by it, as every photographer should, but I don’t allow it to be bigger than the work itself. I don’t find anything problematic or wrong with that. It’s just not for me.

I’m about to begin a project that is slightly related to my Wearing Purple work. Related in that I’m going to continue to photograph people over 65 years of age. The process however, will be quite different. For one, I will not have met these people before. This is quite significant because in order to make a portrait a successful one, there has to be an element of trust between the photographer and the subject. For me, it all comes down to that one word – trust. Where it is not there, it will be as apparent as what the person is actually wearing. They will wear it on their face and in their body language. Of course, it’s more than trust, it’s also how I approach them, how I interact with them and how comfortable I am with them and the project I’m working on. Portraiture is so easy!

Let me illustrate this by an example of work done in Wearing Purple, but not before digressing a little. I began the project Wearing Purple for my degree show, my final year in IADT, Dun Laoghaire. I had wanted to explore the area of old age and the older body. My work prior to that had focused on the younger body in various projects. The reason? I guess it was me exploring photography and for some reason or another, the body always was my point of focus. Naively, the only body to photograph was the obvious more youthful body, because this is what society tells us to, isn’t it? I should only speak for my own naivety however. So on one of those avenues of research I talked of earlier, representations of the older body cropped up and it got me thinking. Representation of old age is something that I find completely lacking from consumer culture, the culture that promises us eternal youth, but for obvious reasons, will always fall short of delivering. The youthful body sells products, and it is this obsession of youth that was the premise of my thesis Old Age: A bitter Aftertaste which was in effect, my research for Wearing Purple. My own relationship with older people has always been positive. I would have loved to have photographed my own grandparents, whom I had a very close relationship with, and it is perhaps that which spurred me on and made the final photographs at home that little bit more poignant.

So enough digressing and back to some evidence. Before I decided to move the project back to Carrick, I volunteered with a great charity in Dublin called Friends of the Elderly, helping out on their Wednesday meeting session, where they would meet as a group, dance, sing and have a bit of fun. About two percent of that group probably fitted into the stereotypical image of an elderly person. The vast majority were full of life, fun and high spirits. Out of this I met a woman who fitted into that category, called Celine. She said she would be delighted to take part if, in her own words, ‘that would help your college exams in any way’.

Celine (unused) from Wearing Purple

Incidentally, I only photographed one person out of my visits to Friends of the Elderly, because I found it a little manic to meet people and introduce what I was doing to them in a few hours, which was really their few hours a week. It was generally quite manic, in a very good way. Visiting her at home on the day of the shoot, which was my first of the series, was very pleasant. She seemed comfortable with the process and I, perhaps not so, as I fumbled with lights, chords and the paraphernalia of a mobile studio. I’ve always found this photograph to be lacking in something, and what I’ve put it down to is trust. The relationship between the photographer and the person photographed needs to be one based on trust. I didn’t have any reference photographs to show her of previous shoots, as she was the first. I met her through a charity, so my background to her was completely unknown. Apart from these obvious reasons, the person being photographed needs to be comfortable in a shoot such as this. It was my fault entirely that this wasn’t the case. But on a positive note, this made me stop on one of those avenues and reconsider. The road I took then, took me to Donegal where I grew up.

Kathleen McGinley, 1943 from the series Wearing Purple

Going back to Carrick in Donegal to photograph people I knew as a child, who are now over 65 and therefore categorised as senior citizens, was one of the most positive and pleasant experiences of my life. I made contact with my very first teacher again, after 20 plus years. I met and spent a lot of time with neighbours, whom I only had vaguely known.

The element of trust I talk about was implicit, as I knew all these people, and they knew me. I feel that this is why the project worked so well. It has made me realise the amount of work which is required when photographing people I don’t know for a project such as this. Which is where I will finish on, as this blog is really about my next body of work.