Centre for Urban history

Popular Photography and Camera Culture in Ireland 1922-2000

  • Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship (£75,374)
  • October 2011-September 2014
  • Dr Erika Hanna

We still know far too little about how ordinary people used photography to make sense of the dramatic changes of the twentieth century. In Ireland, clubs like the Irish Photography Federation and Irish Photographers’ Society gained mass memberships from their foundation in the 1930s, while journals including The Camera proliferated. Skilled amateurs like Father Browne, Elinor Wiltshire and Arthur Campbell documented mid-century Irish life from pastoral visions of rural industry, to slum clearance, violence and conflict. During the Troubles, groups such as Belfast Exposed worked to empower communities in the face of negative international representation. Photographs also played a key role in social surveys and in the documenting of tradition through initiatives such as the Urban Folklore Project (1979-82). Families and individuals also took, displayed and exchanged photographs as a key part of building and understanding relationships. Photography was a popular art form and pastime that straddled high and disposable culture, while photographs themselves were objects with value and meaning. Photographic images were therefore created at the nexus of a complex set of processes, including technological advances, practices of consumption, and bureaucratic regulation.

The proliferation of photographic images had a profound impact on all aspects of Irish life, from forms of governance to patterns of conflict and personal relationships, but one which is yet to be subject to historical scrutiny. This project will take up these themes through the examination of the culture of popular photography in twentieth-century Ireland. Taking an island-wide approach, I will use this shared history of photography explore commonality and difference north and south of the border. In so doing, I will critically re-examine how north and south have functioned as post-colonial states, revealing how indigenous visual culture was constructed in tandem with, and in opposition to, images of Ireland made for external consumption. Moreover, this research project will also make a definitive contribution to the study of visual culture more broadly. The history of photography has focused on the key works of professional photographers; this project will break new ground in providing a social history of visual culture.

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