Monday, November 19, 2007

Irish Travellers by Alen MacWeeney

For some photographers, the book Gypsies by Josef Koudelka embodies a notion of romance of the intimacy one can achieve in a relationship between subject and photographer. Who, while looking through that book, hasn’t imagined themselves in those situations and wondered what other sights could have been seen and recorded onto film. The romance I refer to is closely associated with the feeling of elation one may get when they are fully accepted into a group of people and are given spoken or unspoken permission to be present and work freely. To be invisible or at least completely unselfconscious and free is my deepest desire while photographing.

In 1965, Alen MacWeeney found himself in a similar situation when his curiosity towards an encampment of Irish ‘travellers’ drew him into their lives. ‘Travellers’ are small groups of impoverished Irish that form communities of nomadic craftsmen and women. In recent past history common forms of employment for a traveller was to be a tinsmith, a chimney sweep or do seasonal work on farms.

For five years, MacWeeney would befriend, photograph and make audio recordings of their music, songs and tales. The book Irish Travellers: Tinkers No More, Photographs, Stories and Music has just been published by the New England College Press.

Like Koudelka (working with gypsies around the same time in Czechoslovakia), it isn’t that MacWeeney has become invisible, but the subjects have accepted his presence with a compliment of natural posturing and facial expressions that would be gifts for any photographer to be privy to. MacWeeney employs the use of both 35mm and square medium format cameras for his photography but for me, his talents with the square frame are what keep me coming back to open this book. If they had been seen, these pictures would seem to have served as early models for a later generation of photographers with Chris Killip and Graham Smith. All three have the gift of describing the lives of the working class or poor that shows the hardness of their subject’s lives without sliding down the dangerous slope into exploitation, pity or patronage in a condescending manner.

The 61 black and white photographs in the book are laid out with various texts of stories by some of the book’s subjects, lyrics from traveller’s songs and an account of MacWeeney’s experience over those five years. The layout is the only thing about the book that I do not like. Again we have an approach to book making that follows a long and familiar tradition that now seems stale and out of date. The designer, Yolanda Cuomo, uses design traits that include images bled to the page edge on three sides, various sized images, and frequent use of pushing photos through the gutter. All of this is functional to invigorate the eye but does sacrifice some photographs.

I had seen a show of this work at the Steven Kasher Gallery earlier this year when the book was first released and I was blown away by the prints on the wall. When I saw the book, I didn’t recognize half of the pictures due to the design. In this case, it has a way of unfortunately cheapening the quality of the images. Fortunately, the printing is very rich and provides deep blacks and sharp contrast that are faithful to MacWeeney’s prints. The book comes with a CD of traveller’s songs sleeved on the back cover which sets an interesting tone while looking through the book.

Alen MacWeeney may not be a household name but a few of these images are sure to challenge what we think of as the great photographs fleshed out of similar territory.

Book Available Here (Irish Travellers)

Steven Kasher Gallery