Dr. Justin Carville on
‘Small Town Portraits’
The title ‘Small Town Portraits’ connotes that sense of comfortable familiarity that we have come to expect from the contemporary re-discovery of local photographic collections. Photographs of the everyday lives of the inhabitants of Irish townlands, villages, parishes and provincial towns, packaged as local history books, or assembled as exhibitions, have become popular visual expressions of the search for commonplace routines of community life in an era of continuous social change. Local faces, local places, the photographic typology of small town life is relentless in this pursuit of the familiar and the instantly recognizable. Even for those viewers from outside the villages and towns represented in such photographs, the appearance of intimacy between the subject and the photographer amidst the dynamics of community life conveys the familiarity that is so desired from photographs of small town life.
Dennis Dinneen’s portraits of the local people of Macroom, Co. Cork, should conform to this photographic typology of small town life, yet the photographs exhibited here are strangely indifferent to the expectations of the visual appearance of a community. The faces that look out of the portraits are frequently expressionless. Some stare pensively at the cameras lens, others have relaxed more into the po-faced expression required of them. A deadpan aesthetic has taken hold of the instant the camera’s shutter has exposed the encounter between the subject and the photographer. These may be portraits of a community, but the awkward familiarity between subject and photographer is clearly codified in the rigidity of the bodies and faces depicted within the pictorial frame of the photograph. Pictorially and socially then, the photographs are out of kilter, they offset both the idealised reality of the portrait photograph, and the cultural resonance of representations of a community of people.
This exhibition of Dinneen's portraits, many of which were taken in the Macroom Photographic Service established within his public house Dinneen’s Bar on Main Street Macroom from the 1950s to 70s, are best described as ‘vernacular photographs’. This is not to suggest that they should be re-appraised as examples of a self-conscious vernacular modernism, rather they are vernacular because they disclose the distinctive technical, aesthetic and social characteristics of portrait photography. To borrow a term from film, they disclose the ‘pro-filmic’, or even better pro-photographic space and event of the portrait photograph. The pro-photographic space of the photograph are all the technical processes, aesthetic codifications and social interactions that take place in front of and around the taking of the portrait but which do not necessarily appear in the pictorial space of the photographic image. An example of this is the harsh lighting used to illuminate the faces of his subjects against the white backdrop for passport or identity portraits, and indeed of the drop-down, white rectangular back-drop itself. The passport photograph would normally be cut to size by scissors and the dark shadows created by the lighting would have been removed from the pictorial plane of the image, and the edges of the back-drop would be cropped out in the darkroom to conceal its role in organizing the visual appearance of the face for the portrait photograph. Another example are the images of women whose faces and bodies frequently partially appear – sometimes with jocular effect – in the right-hand background of the photographs. These are likely to have been Ilford test cards produced by the Ilford Photo Company and supplied to photographers to help ensure the proper range of tones in the printing of the photograph could be achieved, and whose presence would have been removed from the final portrait. Even the triple portrait of the family doubly framed by the ornate archway, and the ubiquitous white back-drop, convey the economies of production of the main-street photographer.
What is normally concealed in the portrait is thus disclosed in Dinneen’s photographs, it reveals what actually occurred in the taking of the photograph before it was instrumentalised as a portrait for the passport, drivers license or identity card. Dinneen’s small town portraits are familiar, but strangely so. They depict the familiar, commonplace routines of the jobbing, small town photographer that generations ago would have been aware of but whose visible presence remained concealed within the community of small town portraits.
Dr. Justin Carville is the author of “Photography and Ireland” published in 2011 by Reaktion books, and a lecturer in Historical and Theoretical Studies in Photography at The Institute of Art, Design & Technology, Dun Laoghaire, Dublin.