A Poetic History: The Photographic Work of David Farrell.

A Poetic History: The Photographic Work of David Farrell.

(Paper presented by Clare French for ‘Beauty Will Save the World?’ a Postgraduate Conference on Art and Social Change at the University of Bristol, 7/9/10.  The conference was aimed at challenging the notion of art solely as reflecting the world and exploring the ways in which arts practice actively creates social meaning.

The paper should be read in conjunction with David Farrell’s blog which can be found at www.source.ie/blog/).

This paper examines “Innocent Landscapes: The Revisits”, a body of work by Irish photographer, David Farrell. Farrell has a long and varied photographic practice and is presenting his new work via a live blog on the Source photography magazine website. Farrell’s art actively creates social reality through his explicit and complex engagement with history, in a practice that exemplifies the ‘photographer as historian’. Here I’ll present an overview of the some of the range of ways in which Farrell’s practice operates historically, rather than discussing any of these facets in depth. But this is a necessarily cursory glance at an enormously complex piece of work.

By way of introduction, the understanding of ‘history’ as a key, dynamic social practice, rather than a collection of pre-existing facts and figures has developed over the past 50 years. Historiographical, and photographic, practice have increasingly, and usefully, been revealed as subjective, fragmentary and socially constructed. Alternative historiography has focused on oral history, giving voice to the everyday, and the silenced and incorporating self-reflexive practice. Much important work has been done on memory, critiquing the archive and debating the limits of representation. Further critiques over the past 20 years have led to a ‘new historicism’ based in practice, the sensory, performance and lived experience, analysing ‘history’ as being enacted within particular social contexts.

Contemporary historiography and photography have developed and operate as parallel and mutually constitutive social practices, and share many points of intersection. Consequently, photography offers a particularly valuable poetic space for the practice of the ‘historical imagination’. I consider photography as consciously-engaged arts practice, which can be analysed in terms of the content of historical statements and the processes by which they are created. In “Innocent Landscapes”, as he makes and re-makes his photographs, Farrell makes and re-makes ‘history’ while concurrently investigating and offering alternative historical methodologies.

Innocent Landscapes concerns a number of burial sites of ‘disappeared’ people murdered by the IRA during the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and early ‘80s. Their exact number was uncertain though it was thought that there were at least 15 people whose whereabouts remained unknown. On May 27th, 1999, as part of the ongoing peace process, the Northern Ireland Location of Victims Remains Bill was passed. This provided amnesty concerning information about the identification and location of what became known as the ‘Sites of the Disappeared’ and led to official searches for the victims remains at the sites to allow for proper burials and confirmation and closure for victim’s families.

Farrell followed the initial searches of the sites carried out in 1999 and 2000 and his resulting photographs (and maps) were exhibited and published as Innocent Landscapes, the book winning the European Publisher’s Award for Photography in 2001. Farrell has maintained an ongoing interest in both the story and the sites, returning every year since to make more photographs. The period over which Farrell has been re-visiting the sites has seen a number of changes. Not least, further information has become available and other political and technological shifts have led to further re-searches of the same sites, which have become incorporated into Farrell’s work.

Farrell’s blog incorporates a huge range of material such as his own and other photographs, historical and political information and comment, posts on photographic and historiographical theory, ethics, poetry, references, notes on his own artistic practice, and a range of other self-reflexive and personal information. As such the blog;

  • shows photography operating both as historical statement and method,
  • shows ‘history’ as a dynamic practice taking place in the present and
  • necessitates and validates the use of the artistic imagination within both photography and ‘history’.

Farrell’s work makes a number of challenges to dominant versions of Irish history, two of which I’ll discuss here. The first is in relation to historical constructions of ‘North and South’, within and externally in relation to Ireland. These are highly complex, but an essential facet of this constructed divide is that north and south remain unequivocally split and separate, and that ‘violence happens in the North’. Farrell’s interest in this story was initially piqued by the fact that:

“The locations contained a simple but final bitter twist – they were all located in the South of Ireland” (blog 20/10/09) and “as I revisited these places that final twist disturbed my notions of landscapes; of Northern and troubled – Southern and peaceful” (Gallery of Photography, Dublin website March 2001). And he reports that in spite of wide-spread media coverage of the story, people regularly asked him how his “work in the North” was going.

Similarly, though the lived reality and performance of ethnic, religious and political identity is complex, traditional historiography in relation to the conflict in Ireland (as elsewhere) is premised on strong and unambiguous religious and political affiliations. However, these Sites of the Disappeared also put paid to this notion. For as the blog states:

“Apart from one undercover British soldier they [the victims] were all Catholic and widely assumed to have been ‘disappeared’ by the IRA [Republican, Catholic] through a process of internal policing of the movement and the wider Catholic community” (blog 20/10/09).

The challenge to and re-making of these two key Irish historical tropes – from ‘Northern’ to cross-border violence and cross-community to ‘internal’ murder – is implicit in Farrell’s choice of subject. However, he explicitly uses photography to develop this further.

Farrell’s inclusion of background historical information and comment leave us in no doubt as to what we are looking at and yet….both the sites and the photographs themselves leave few, or ambiguous, and certainly changing traces of the events to which they refer. An inherent photographic ambiguity not only perfectly reflects this aspect of the sites, but facilitates reflection on photography, on the ‘history’ [in all senses] of the sites, and on history-making more generally. In this way, Farrell achieves his aim to “make photographs to create a space for reflection” (blog 17/10/09).

Farrell’s photographs also provide a strong visual opposition to traditional binary historical markers by showing the sites as geographically undistinguished or ‘undistinguishable’. The power of the ‘North/South’ divide, for example, is not borne out here in the very landscape about which it’s constructed. This is strengthened by Farrell’s inclusion of text and maps indicating the difficulty in actually finding the sites. This ‘indistinguish-ability’ also operates in terms of the locations being graves. Having neither geographical nor normal funerary markers (such as headstones) makes a ‘grounded’ identity much harder to come by. In these ways the photographs pose questions about the reliability of these historical constructions and deliberately reduce the viewer’s ability to make assumptions about all sorts of physical and symbolic borders.

A central facet of Innocent Landscapes is the impact of ever-encroaching ‘nature’ on the sites, seen in the photographs’ record of changing landscape, foliage, light and so on. This operates as another contrast or counterpoint to traditional social, historical (i.e. human) constructs, challenging them by diminishing their relative durability and substance.

Farrell also refers to the victims being “exiled in death creating a poignant and, as time progressed, what could be termed a haunting internal diaspora” (blog 20/10/09). Photography shares these qualities so its use here reconfirms or doubles the poignancy or hauntedness of the sites.

In addition there is a softness or slowness in Farrell’s photographs – of light, colour, a vagueness of subject – the ‘undistinguishability’ mentioned above. On the one hand this provides a quiet, reflective space in which the viewer can ‘watch’, to use Ariella Azoulay’s term, (The Civil Contract of Photography, 2008) rather than merely ‘look’ at the photographs, allowing a deeper engagement. However it also provides a stark, and shocking contrast to our knowledge of the violent events that ended up, literally buried in the land, on show in these images. The title of the work comes directly from the tension experienced by Farrell on his first ever journey to the sites through a tranquil, “idyllic summer evening – birds singing, cattle in the field; a typically ‘Irish’ (beautiful) ‘innocent landscape’ to the jarring of the violated landscape of the sites which served as “a powerful metaphor for the violence that had taken place there over 20 years ago” (blog 20/10/09). This contrast, expressed visually, operates as another photographic strategy for disturbing and unsettling assumed knowledge of and responses to, the history of conflict and violence.

(As a slight aside, the Revisits also present an interesting contrast to the original Innocent Landscapes photographs which used more heightened colour to achieve slightly different aims. But I wonder if this slight shift from bright, saturated, colour to a more muted palette could also be seen as reflecting the temporal, political and emotional shifts that occur in the move from a conflict to a post-conflict society?)

As well as challenging mainstream history by creating new, alternative historical statements, Farrell’s work also operates in a range of other creative historical ways. It is deeply historiographical in both arguing for and offering a method for a profound critical engagement in the processes, not just content of history-making. Farrell’s work is constantly asking how we understand, interpret and imagine the past, and to what ends.

Farrell’s work engages specifically with Irish historiography, which has been fiercely contested within the academy, politics and society generally. Questions of revisionism and the role of nationalism have been critical here, and Farrell situates his work explicitly within this field by stating that his initial project was fuelled by a feeling of a “failed Republic or at least a failure in terms of the idealism of a Republic” (blog 2/12/09).

His use of photography and the provision of a varied, personalised, imaginative history also place his practice convincingly within the broader ‘new historicism’ I mentioned earlier:

  • by placing the visual at the heart of history-making, from which it’s traditionally been excluded
  • by using the nature of photography as fragmented, fluid, mutable and ambiguous to question rigid, binary, linear constructions of historical statement and process and
  • by moving away from a singular notion of text-based ‘history’. Farrell uses a complex variety of forms AS a comprehensive overall practice or methodology, which is also highly effective in evoking a range of responses.

For as historian Justin Champion says:

“Being a historian is artistic rather than scientific – historical claims to the truth are aesthetic and ethical, rather than empirical and objective” (in Peter Burke (ed), New Perspectives on Historical Writing , 1991).

Innocent Landscapes provides an excellent example of art’s ability to provide a rich, imaginative, poetic historical space. Or as Farrell himself notes, a “deep appreciation of metaphor and allegory” are necessary in order to photograph beyond what we are photographing” (blog 7/2/10).

A significant connection between history and photography is their theorisation in relation to time, traditionally with an insistent focus on the past. The re-theorisation of temporality, exploring alternatives to linearity, has been crucial in critiques of photography and historiography. This discursive interaction is one reason for photography being particularly well suited to operate as a historical site, as evidenced in Farrell’s work, which plays with time in numerous complex ways. A critical theoretical strategy has been the re-staging of time as layered, parallel, folded, looped and so on, which is fundamental to Innocent Landscapes. Farrell says his work follows “an intuitive curiosity rather than a linear continuity” (blog 29/9/09) and that the changes in the landscapes he is photographing offer a “strange and interesting exploration of a ruptured linear timeline, occurring by life itself perhaps illustrating that our stories, our histories are really elliptical in nature, constantly doubling back on themselves in order to move forward” (blog 4/11/09). This is realised in Farrell’s practice, which loops in his repeated returns to the sites and his ‘re-making’ of the ‘same’ photographs. The events and changes at the sites, and the work itself have taken place over a (long) period of time, illuminating history and photography as temporally complex and durational, rather than as singular, finite events or ‘mere’ snapshots of the moment. And of course, issues for and relationships with the families of the victims also remain ongoing.

And, as Farrell photographs actual changes to the sites over time, the photographs act as metaphors for broader social, political and historical changes. Part of this, as mentioned above, involves photographing environmental changes at the sites, from sudden shifts in light or cloud cover, to seasonal or longer changes. The reliance of the photographs on, and their expression of, this ‘natural’ time, also works practically and theoretically against linear time as part of a modernist ‘progress’ paradigm.

Not only does photography’s temporal multiplicity make it an exemplary medium for exploring non-linear time, using ‘art’ to make history also makes explicit that ‘history’ is itself a creative practice, something we do not something that is. Crucially this conception highlights that although history is about the past, and is used to imagine our futures, it is an activity that happens in the present. And I wonder if there is something particularly satisfying about photography’s broad mix of ‘artistic’ and ‘technical’ practice that offers an especially valuable framework for history.

The spatialisation of temporality has gone much further than conceptual models of ‘the fold’. A great deal of interesting work on time has happened within the ‘space and place’ field, much of which can be linked to ‘landscape’ (in all its senses). Very briefly, ‘landscape’ tropes have particular resonance in Ireland in all sorts of ways and are a fundamental component of Farrell’s work. For example, Ireland’s political, economic and social histories are deeply rooted in the land. And the production of colonial (and continuing contemporary tourist) stereotypes has also been highly visual, and deeply rooted in land and place – whether through the Romantic sublime in the South, or ‘gritty’ urban conflict on the streets of the North. And Ireland is currently engaged in hugely contested debates about development involving direct questions about heritage, history and the land. For example there has been much discussion about the preservation, or not, of important archaeological sites in relation to a massive road building program (blog 1/11/09). The blog shows Farrell as an active participant in, not mere reflector of, these debates.

Farrell also complicates questions raised by the notion of ‘late photography’ (based in certain genres of ‘landscape’ photography). However, the original aim of these burials was that they remain hidden for which the lack or fading of traces in the landscape was crucial. Here, the scars to the land are made in the uncovering not causing of violence, and paradoxically work against violence by making present, even in hindsight, that which was designed to be absent. Farrell wonders instead if his work should be thought of as ‘early photography’, “in that as the years went forward, these places were going back in time to the moment they were essentially hidden, anonymous fields and bogs…” (blog 4/11/09). By situating his work so explicitly in the landscape, Farrell deals not only with the Sites of the Disappeared and all that they entail, but signals a challenge to all these other constructions of landscape as well.

Moving away from temporality to a couple of final points; the ‘new historicism’ (in conjunction with much contemporary art practice) has borrowed largely and successfully from anthropology in adopting ethnographic methodologies. Farrell’s work, grounded in specific locations and histories, uses the ‘local’ to frame much broader historical and political questions. His collaboration with families and search teams over time and his efforts to actively involve blog users, such as an exhortation to do our homework (blog 27/10/09) by following a link for more information on a topic, also fit perfectly within new, alternative historiographical methodologies.

And, the Gallery of Photography in Dublin, says of Innocent Landscapes;

“The images bring the viewer on a multilayered journey through the shifting, unfixed nature of landscape and memory, presence and loss. Through his lens, the sites become “lieux de mémoire”, places invested with personal and political meanings.” (GOP website).

But of course in this case, part of the point is that the sites (or all obvious traces of the events that have occurred there) have and will again, ‘disappear’ over time. This “making photographs of a ‘healing’ landscape and witnessing the evidence that they had been searched, slowly subsume under nature” (blog 20/10/09) is fundamental to Farrell’s work. In this context it is the photographs, rather than the sites that become memorials to the victims. Farrell finds “comfort” in the fact that “my involvement with these sites and the people said to be buried there was not a completely futile artistic gesture of protest in that my photographs would exist as a monument of sorts, an act of remembrance in the face of voracious nature, human forgetfulness and the folly of memory” (blog 20/10/09).

In a similar vein, this work also provides an important record of ‘the Irish peace process ‘in the real’, recording and preserving temporal, political, legislative and social changes as they impact on these particular landscapes, people and events. The work may look decidedly different to traditional archival records, and deliberately resists making claims for ‘truth’, but it remains that Innocent Landscapes can be collected, stored, reviewed, as historical evidence for present and future contemplation.

Finally, it’s worth noting that as Farrell is ‘making history with art’, so Source magazine in setting up the blog, is also entering the fray, presenting itself as a new site for historical practice. In its current identity as an ‘arts publication’ and in terms of its ‘new media’ format, Source is broadening expectations of how and where ‘history-making’ takes place. This has universal impact and relevance but also indicates Source pro-actively situating itself within the dynamic interrelated fields of history, memory and public art currently unfolding in Northern Ireland.

In conclusion, I’m not sure that beauty can save the world, but I have no doubt that artistic practice is key in constructing and engaging in it or that David Farrell’s ‘Innocent Landscapes’ provides a remarkable and inspiring example of an artist making ‘good’ history.

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