Review: Frank Browne: A Life through the Lens (David and Edwin Davison)

God can sanctify photography. With a poem by Pope Leo XIII, Colin Ford explains the basis for how Irish Jesuit Frank Browne acquired a camera from his bishop uncle, at the age of 17, and kept making images throughout his priestly life.

Browne took his camera everywhere. His early trips to Europe were the apparent source of his self-teaching of technique, analysing the works of Masters’ painters in Venice and Florence.

He travelled widely, to the front lines in France and Flanders during World War One (serving as chaplain) and further to Australia (where he went to recuperate after suffering mustard gassing).

Yet I would argue that it is his persistent images of Ireland over the decades, emerging as a new republic, that leaves a significantly valuable legacy. Photos of countryside life are complemented with ones of industrialisation.

20150127 Frank Browne - Titanic Cobh

Browne is known primarily for photos that he took during the maiden voyage of the Titanic. His first class ticket was only for Southampton-Cherbourg-Cobh (his uncle never intended for him to emigrate to America!). With the sinking of the ship, his precious images were in highest demand by newspapers.

Kodak thanked him by offering a lifelong supply of film. Yet Browne was responsible for developing the film and paying for any prints. Consequently, many of his photos remained unpublished, until Father Edward O’Donnell discovered a large trunk, long after Browne’s death.

Father O’Donnell proceeded to publish a series of Frank Browne photo books, including Frank Browne’s Titanic Album. More recently he has written a full biography in The Life and Lens of Father Browne.

20150127 Frank Browne - At Keem Beach

But Frank Browne: A Life through the Lens, by Donald and Edwin Davison and the subject of this review, is a more artistic critique of his best work, copiously illustrated and drawn from his trove of 42,000 images.

In a chapter titled “Father Browne photographer of the twentieth Century”, Donald Davison explains how Father Browne was influenced initially by pictorialism but also with modernism.

Browne was not constrained by any particular photographic style, though reportage-style stands out. Even here, he didn’t always obey the decisive moment – sometimes he would get children and take off their shoes and socks for his more desired, rustic look of the countryside.

One could argue that because Browne did not concentrate on any particular method, he never mastered his craft.

But I don’t believe Father Brown was ever seeking photography perfection; his formal training was spiritual, remember.

Instead, we’ve been blessed with the vision of a man who understood tone and mood, natural and human, who recorded the matter of life wherever he found himself.

I highly recommend Frank Browne: A Life through the Lens, by Donald and Edwin Davison, for its approach to the subject from a photographer’s perspective.

Frank Browne: A Life through the Lens accompanies an exhibition at the Andrews Gallery, Titanic Building, Belfast, 14 January-31 March 2015.

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