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A new focus on the Father of modern photography

When he died in 1960, Father Francis Browne's negatives were packed away and stored inside a large, battered metal trunk in the Jesuit archives in Dublin. There they lay, embalmed in dust, quietly mouldering for about 25 years, until another of his priestly brethren thought to peer at the yellowing label and crack the clasps to exhume what lay inside.

Although Browne's remarkable photographic talent had been acknowledged during his lifetime - the shots he took on board the first leg of the Titanic's maiden voyage were devoured voraciously by the press in the days following the liner's demise, and remain in demand today - most of the rest of his oeuvre faded from view.

As preacher to Jesuit missions and retreats in parishes all over Ireland, he travelled continuously, performing evening services that left him free during daylight hours to pursue his hobby.

He averaged about four pictures a day, which doesn't sound like much in our snappy smartphone times, but he was using first a box camera then a folding film camera, and it added up to an incredible 42,000 images over his lifetime.

From Cork to Laoise to Roscommon and Donegal, it is arguably the most thorough portrait of this country in existence.

Negatives

We aren't familiar with all of his work because it's taken almost 30 years for the original negatives to be duplicated. Most were on the nitrate-base film that was in use until the Fifties, which, when stored in large quantities, is not only extremely unstable but liable to self-combust.

In 1986 the Jesuits, who owned the images pursuant to Father Browne's will, engaged restoration specialists David and Edwin Davison to preserve the fragile resource for posterity.

The pair have since acquired the rights to the archive and recently opened an exhibition of about 200 of the lost images at Farmleigh, close to Dublin's Phoenix Park. Titled Frank Browne: a Life Through the Lens, it coincides with a book of the same name, the first general survey of his work aside from the Titanic images.

"Distilling those 42,000 images into 200 was torture," says David Davison.

"It's impossible to do justice to the breadth and skill of his work. When the trunk was opened in 1985, people compared him to the greats like Henri Cartier Bresson and Robert Doisneau, but his work predated theirs by decades."

Francis Mary Hegarty Browne was born in Cork in 1880. His mother died of puerperal fever within days of the birth and when, a decade later, his father drowned, Frank and his seven siblings were taken in by their uncle Robert, Bishop of Cloyne. It was Robert who gave the 17-year-old Frank his first camera in 1897.

He was about to set off on a European tour with his brother William, and so the gift was timely. But when he returned it was to enter the Jesuit novitiate, and, having to renounce all worldly goods, he was forced to surrender the camera until he graduated two years later.

It was thanks to the generosity of his uncle, too, that Frank was on board the Titanic for the first leg of its maiden voyage from Southampton to Queenstown (now Cobh), where Bishop Robert lived.

Frank took about 80 photos on board, conjuring life at sea in vivid detail. As a result of these that Kodak offered the priest free film for life, to ensure he carried on with his photography. In return, he wrote a series of columns for their magazine.

Chaplain

During the First World War, Browne served as chaplain to the Irish Guards in France and Flanders during some of the worst of the fighting.

Injured five times and gassed once, he was described by his commanding officer as "the bravest man I ever met".

Unsurprisingly, he was dogged by ill health for years afterwards, and it was as part of his recuperation that he travelled to the warmer climes of Australia and South Africa, where he captured the working life of pioneer settlers.

His hearing had also been affected and in later years he took to wearing a portable microphone on a string around his neck.

"I suppose it was unusual for a clergyman to have such a life, but he had the interest. He wanted to meet people and was fascinated by an evolving Ireland" says David Davison.

"The country he was born into had no cars, no electricity. His first pictures in Cobh showed schooners sailing in the port, and by the end of his life, he was photographing Transatlantic aeroplanes at Shannon Airport. He was riveted by all of that."

Frank Browne: a Life through the Lens by Colin Ford is published by Yale University Press. An exhibition of Fr Frank Browne's photos is running at Farmleigh House, Dublin, until December 23


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