Saturday 18 January 2020

The guerilla art form that is taking it to the streets

Street photography, the guerrilla art form that snatches moments of humanity from mundane situations, is growing in popularity, as seen in a new Culture Box exhibition. Doug Whelan speaks to Des Byrne, the photographer leading the movement.

Photo by Martin J Murphy
Photo by Martin J Murphy
Photo by Des Byrne
Photo by Giuseppe Milo
Photo by Seamus Travers
Photo by Michael Ryan
Photo by Danielle Houghton

Doug Whelan

You need to stop and smell the roses every once in a while, as the saying goes. In the urban surroundings of Dublin's City Centre there may not be many roses around to take in, but it also works as a simple reminder to look around yourself at what's going on sometimes. You just don't know what you might spot.

That's the essence of what the Irish Street Photography Group does in their monthly meetings. Hiding in plain sight, these amateur enthusiasts move among the crowds, shooting from the hip (sometimes literally) and asking questions later.

The moments they capture can be of 
little consequence in the moment, but when captured they can take on an air of beauty, humour and tragedy - sometimes all at once - and live on as a unique 
reminder of a single moment in local history.

"It's all split seconds," says Des Byrne, who established the Irish Street Photography group last summer and now marshals up to 50 amateur and professional participants on the group's monthly excursions.

"You never know what you're going to get, which is very different to any other type of photography. It's a very subjective art form, and there are different interpretations of what qualifies and what doesn't."

Like many photographers, Des started off with landscape photography and portraits, but found it rather restrictive.

"You can only shoot the Sugar Loaf so many times," he quips, "but on the street you need quick thinking. I see it as recording a moment in history, one that will never be repeated. It's totally unique."

Taking inspiration from some of the best-known international proponents of the art form, Des took up street photography and through social media become connected to like-minded individuals around the world. Eventually he decided to expand upon his hobby, and set up a local group to hopefully share what he had learned and make street photography as legitimate an art form as it is in other major cities around the world.

Des doesn't use prohibitively expensive equipment (he takes most of his shots with a Fuji X100) and insists to prospective group members that they don't need to either. They meet in Trinity once a month; he divides the members in to smaller groups before assigning a theme.

"I would give a topic like umbrellas, or maps; something to give the less experienced photographers something to focus on. Then we would fan out for a couple of hours, snap away and then reconvene to see what we got."

Everybody reading this has either themselves become very interested in photography in recent years, or has a friend who has. Des calls the growth in street photography 'the Vivian Maier Effect'.

Maier was an amateur photographer who spent 40 years photographing the people and architecture of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and beyond. She died in 2009, having received no recognition for her contribution to the medium, until historian and collector John Maloof discovered her work and began to exhibit it. Maier has since become a celebrated figure in the world of street photography and the subject of a documentary, Finding Vivian Maier.

Des suggests this documentary is responsible for bringing the genre to a wider audience and inspiring people to try it out themselves.

Closer to home, there is a long history of street photography in the capital, namely the similarly unsung JJ Clarke, whose work resides in the National Library.

Clarke photographed in and around the streets of Dublin in the late 19th and early 20th century, and his works are a unique and moving portrait of Dublin life more than a century ago.

A more familiar name is Arthur Fields, who dedicated his life to photographing people on O'Connell Bridge between the 1930s and 1980s. All told, Fields took an estimated 180,000 photos, but Des suggests Fields wasn't a street photographer in the strictest sense, despite the rich contribution he made to Ireland's photographic history.

"Fields was asking his subjects to pose," Des explains. "It's cheating to set a photo up and then call it a 'moment'."

In his view, preparation and editing is fine but getting your subjects to pose is something of a no-no. It makes sense as any sense of spontaneity is often lost.

The notion of spontaneity brings us neatly to the ethical considerations of street photography. For the most part, the subjects are unaware they are being photographed. Des agrees there is a measure of common sense and respect required - never photograph children or the homeless are the two golden rules - but adds there is no law against photography in public.

"I talk to the people in the group about this," he says. "You have to exercise your own judgement, but we're doing this for artistic purposes. We don't want to hassle or alarm people. We're doing it for the joy and ultimately to portray Dublin in a positive light."

There is something slightly voyeuristic about it, Des agrees, but there has to be in order to get the end result. Do the ends justify the means? That's up to the individual but for him, most definitely.

"Most street photographers carry a business card and if someone approaches them and asks what's going on, they're happy to explain what they're doing and anyone is welcome to a copy of their photo.

"We're not out to exploit people or make fun of them," Des says. "It's an art form."

The Irish Street Photography 
Exhibition takes place at The Culture Box, 12 East Essex Street, in Dublin's Temple Bar from 15th to 22nd August.

Irish Independent

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