Softening images of Partition
by Allan LEONARD for Northern Slant
24 May 2017
Although John Irvine left Northern Ireland over 15 years ago, having grown up about East Antrim, he retains “strong links” and comes home frequently. Irvine explained how one morning drive accidentally led him to his book, Partition.
Irvine picked up photography in his mid-20s, mainly as a means of unwinding. By now living in Scotland, he would venture out to photograph classic cars, his focal point. The wonderful natural surroundings of the cars caught his attention; he soon was photographing the landscape exclusively.
He studied the work of landscape photographers, Joe Cornish and David Ward, and acquired a medium format camera. Irvine’s choice is colour negative film, “because of its huge dynamic range and high margin of error”. He likes the softness of tone for his low contrast scenes, too.
I asked if there was any significance in the use of mist in some images in Partition. Irvine described how it is such a good tool to naturally distill and calm images: “I didn’t want to make the places look bleak. The objects are very stark and strong; I didn’t want to enhance that.” The mist softens the hardness.
Indeed, Irvine would have applied this approach more, but as he was only home certain days, he had to work with what the weather presented to him.
To put the images in context, Irvine said that he had to re-educate himself and re-engage his mind in regards to the past and the present. He stumbled across the name Jonny Byrne in his readings, and reached out to him. Byrne — a lecturer in the School of Criminology, Politics and Social Policy at Ulster University — very kindly wrote the foreword to Partition.
Irvine said that Interface Architects lent a “kind ear” and gave him encouragement. His ambition is for the work to go back into the community, to be used for structured conversations. He does not want the printed images to collect dust: “I would love them to be in the open outdoors in the centre of Belfast.”
Could he be tempted back for a follow-up project in Northern Ireland or elsewhere?
“I would love to,” Irvine answered. “I like juxtapositions and contrasts, and stories within stories in a photograph; I look at things this way.”
When Irvine was back in Northern Ireland last summer, he said that he was encouraged by the remarks he heard by ordinary people:
“There is a dynamic landscape politically in Northern Ireland. Mindsets are changing for the better, but whether people in charge are reflecting that (is another issue). My exposure to people there has been a breath of fresh air.”
There is no doubt that Irvine cares about the place he grew up — its landscape and its people. He is true to the definition of social landscape photography, and we anticipate his next car journey inspiration.
Images published with kind permission (c) John IRVINE