Tuesday 16 July 2019

50 shades of Ireland from photographer Susan Wood

From grubby-cheeked children in the inner city to colourful aristocrats in their country piles, photographer Susan Wood has captured a vibrant visual slice of a half-century of Irish life

Susan Wood at the launch of Susan Wood's IRELAND, at the Irish Georgian Society. Photo: Peter Houlihan/Brian McEvoy Photography
Susan Wood at the launch of Susan Wood's IRELAND, at the Irish Georgian Society. Photo: Peter Houlihan/Brian McEvoy Photography
Sophie Donaldson

Sophie Donaldson

It has been exactly 50 years since American photographer Susan Wood first came to Ireland, on assignment for British Vogue. In the decades since, she has returned countless times to document the people, landscapes and buildings that, she notes, still retain much of the splendour that first captivated her all those years ago.

"It's claimed that it doesn't exist anymore, that there's been so much destruction of basic beauty during the Celtic Tiger years. It's still an agricultural country and it's exquisite," she says, as we sit down to discuss her latest personal project. Titled IRELAND, the 160-page photography book chronicles her half-century spent discovering this island.

At first glance, the book appears to capture two opposing ends of Ireland's social spectrum. There are chapters dedicated to descendants of Anglo-Irish aristocracy like Garech Browne (de Brún), Desmond FitzGerald and Marina Guinness, with whom Wood developed firm friendships. Then there are portraits of cattle farmers working the markets in 1960s Kerry, caps pulled low over their weather-worn brows. There are grubby-cheeked children from Dublin's inner city, pulling faces at what would have been a rare moment in front of a camera in the 1970s. There are derelict cottages in rural Roscommon and the jaunty circus colours of Traveller caravans.

Despite the seemingly random people and places, Wood realised when she was selecting the photographs from her immense archive that, in fact, all the subjects had a commonality. "The connecting sinew is their patriotism as recorders and guardians of Ireland's culture, its history, ancient music, poetry, centuries-old architecture and art," she notes in the book's introduction.

Of those featured in the book, Guinness heir Garech Browne is undoubtedly the most famous cultural custodian. "I met him on my first trip. He was living in Woodstown and I wrote about it for Vogue. He was very responsive when I phoned him and said, 'I'm doing this article and someone suggested I call you.' And he said, 'Of course, come out for lunch.' I arrived and there were peacocks on the lawn and we had lunch in a glass greenhouse. He had someone serving and he had Paddy Moloney playing music for us! I felt I was in the middle ages being entertained by an Irish king. But he was down to earth, friendly and adorable," she recounts.

Browne would become a close friend, with Wood staying at his famed estate, Luggala, when she visited Ireland. The grand home has rightly come to occupy a near-mythical place in the minds of many people. After all, this was where Mick Jagger and the Stones came to stay; where Michael Jackson was given refuge during the most scandalous period of his career. Thanks to Browne, who passed away earlier this year, it attracted a coterie of musicians, actors, poets, artists, models and various hangers-on. As Wood's friend, the director John Boorman, noted at the launch of IRELAND, "What happened in Luggala didn't really count in the outside world."

With an expansive career photographing the likes of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol, Gloria Steinem and Diane von Furstenberg, Wood has a few colourful anecdotes of her own. However, when it comes to Luggala, Wood's memories are far from the Champagne-fuelled debauchery you might expect. Instead, she recalls quiet suppers with good food and good friends.

"Usually, Roderic O'Connor, who lived on the hill on the property, would make a chicken and the best potatoes I've ever had in my life. We'd sit in the kitchen around a little pine table, often John Boorman, Roderick, Garech and I, and whoever else was there - maybe four or five people. And it was wonderful. These wonderful dinners - a little wine, this chicken and those great potatoes. I remember those times very, very fondly."

The photographs of Browne at home in Luggala are as intimate and tender as Wood's memories of her time spent with him. "He basically would get into the same thing every day. He would slip into those slip-on boots, and if somebody didn't untuck the hem of his trouser, one leg would be in a boot and the other over a boot," she laughs.

"But he had the most beautiful robes and I love photographing men in robes; I was the first to put John Lennon and Yoko Ono into bed. I like to get to an unusual, intimate place and I asked Garech to get into a variety of his robes, and in the book, he's not sick: it's just me asking him to do it! He was very co-operative; he loved my photography and he loved being supportive of the arts, and this was one of the arts. I just wish he was here to see the book."

Along with Browne, his cousin Marina Guinness has also become a close friend. Her chapter opens with shots of Marina as a child, darting about in a red military jacket, and closes with candid family portraits of Marina, now grey-haired and still strikingly beautiful, with her grandchild.

Wood has worked for some of the world's most eminent magazines, including Harper's Bazaar, US Vogue, Look, Life and New York magazine. Born and raised in New York City, she started out as an art school graduate with a passion for photography and sent her portfolio to various magazines, hoping for a response.

"As it happened, I had a fantastic reception from two of the most famous art directors and tastemakers in the magazine world. They were Alexey Brodovitch of Harper's Bazaar and Alex Liberman of Vogue. I didn't have any introductions. I simply sent in my work with a letter saying I was hoping to get into photography. Those two responded," she recalls.

Despite her talent and tenacity landing her regular work, the media and advertising worlds of the 1960s and 1970s were incredibly unfriendly places for female photographers. She describes Life magazine as a "boys' club" whilst Look magazine had "a different atmosphere", thanks in part to female editors like Pat Carbine, who would later found Ms. magazine with prominent feminist writer, editor and close friend of Wood's, Gloria Steinem.

It was at the newly established New York magazine that Wood was given the chance to truly develop her talents as both a photographer and writer. "Clay Felker was sort of the antitheist to this snobbery in writing in relation to, say, The New Yorker, because he hired these new journalists such as Tom Woolfe and a gaggle of us women who wrote inside stories about what was going on," she says.

As well as her IRELAND tome, Wood has also recently released an anthology titled Women, a photography book that chronicles the famous and influential women she has photographed throughout her career. Whilst these photographs have culminated in a celebrated tome, Wood notes the ingrained sexism at play that meant she mostly photographed females. "The reason I have this book today with all these stars is because that was soft news. Anything about women was soft news and the male photographers didn't get those assignments, so they gave them to me. That was good but, yes, it was a discrimination."

Despite initial apprehensions, Wood is a staunch feminist. "At the time I didn't realise how I had woven around the discrimination, or even that I was being discriminated against. I became more aware and I'm very proud to be a feminist because I think we still need it."

At 86, Wood is still photographing whilst focusing on archiving her life's work. And what a life it has been - from "rambling in a car on small roads or by foot through narrow lanes" in rural Ireland to getting John and Yoko into bed, Wood's photography is a significant cultural and historical documentation of people, places and times gone by.

'IRELAND' by Susan Wood is published by The Lilliput Press at €30

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