Wednesday 20 September 2017

Fergus Bourke

Kieran Fagan

FERGUS Bourke, who died on October 8, 2004, was a renowned portrait and landscape photographer. Born in Bray, Co Wicklow, 70 years ago, his career began with street scenes, where he recorded the transcendent in everyday life, later moving on to portraiture and stage photography.

He spent 25 years as official photographer to the Abbey Theatre. In 1990 he moved to the west of Ireland, and produced landscapes in black-and-white of great power and majesty.

He was the first artist-photographer to be invited to join Aosdana, the association of artists in Ireland established by the Arts Council. That recognition held twofold importance, personal and national. It recognised the outstanding quality of Fergus's work, and - for the first time in Ireland - photography as a branch of the arts. A younger brother, the artist Brian Bourke, is also a member.

A most important influence on his work, he told his friend film-maker Art O Briain, was the period he spent in Wexford. Due to family circumstances, he spent the years from age eight to 14 living with an uncle there.

"I did not realise it then, but in that period of isolation, I was learning to be a photographer." The impressionable boy's eye was his first camera, observing the life of the street, of the town, of the tinkers, their weddings and theirfunerals.

Later, the celebrated Hungarian documentary photographer Andre Kertesz on seeing Bourke's portfolio in New York observed: "You see the world through the eyes of a child."

This was a hugely important recognition of the way in which Fergus Bourke approached his work, says Art O Briain.

The street scenes featured in an exhibition in Dublin as early as 1963. Other exhibitions followed, in the foyer of the Gate Theatre, when the Dubliners were riding the wave of a renewed interest in Irish folk music, and in the Project Arts Centre.

But the work was not all social realism. Friends remember wry studies of society women preparing for outings to the Dublin Horse Show. And narrative sequences, a succession of frames showing a young brother being helped to get ready for an outing.

In the Seventies, his photojournalism appeared in Nusight, a current affairs magazine which eventually begat Magill, and at a distance, The Village, the recent magazine involving Vincent Browne.

Bourke's quarter century as production photographer to the National Theatre was a fruitful period, during which time he worked with and befriended many actors.

The Eighties also saw the flowering of Kindred, a series of double portraits of close relatives, published by the Sunday Tribune.

In 1990, he moved from Sandymount in Dublin to Rosscahill in Connemara, where the wonderful light inspired the final phase of his work, celebrating the landscape of the west of Ireland.

His work was exhibited widely, including at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and galleries in Austria, Belgium, Germany and elsewhere. A major retrospective - Eye, Hand and Heart - was held at the Gallery of Photography in Dublin in 2003, and Galway Arts Centre in 2004. His books include: Mother Ireland with Edna O'Brien, Kindred - The Portrait Collection 1983-1991; and recently Connemara Blues and Landscapes of the Soul with John O'Donoghue.

Fergus Bourke is survived by his wife Maureen, three sons and a daughter. A film, Fergus Bourke, Photographer, in his Worlds, by Art O Briain will get its first showing in Galway town hall on November 13, 2004.

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