Monday, 30 January 2017

The Art of Photography


This year got off to the most pleasing of starts.

The spark was the receipt of a number of beautiful old family photographs which had remained hidden from view for over sixty years.  
Before the turn of the year, a remarkable coincidence occurred when on separate occasions, two different people in entirely different places had alerted me to their existence.

Those contacts prompted me to engage in some digging in social media.  
As a result, I realised that the son of my late father’s best friend owns a substantial archive of brilliant photographs.  Not just that, he has gone the extra mile by converting his late father’s negatives and slides into a high resolution digital format.

Before contacting him directly, I discovered that the collection provided what could only be described as a snapshot of the social history of Omagh, my home-town, from the 1950’s onwards.   
I gazed in wonderment at what looked like expertly-taken photos.  They included all sorts of civic occasions from the spectacular town carnival complete with brass bands, troupes of gymnasts, trades vehicles dressed up, and childrens fancy dress: -



to the annual car hill-climb at Syonfin: -

and the Orange Order parade on 12 July with its immaculately turned-out kilted bagpipers: -

All of these images of 1950's Omagh transported me back to my youth.  I was a participant and spectator at many of these events.   
The discovery also sent my adrenalin into a glorious rush producing a huge sense of anticipation at what else the archive might contain.

Digressing slightly (but just for a paragraph), in some ways my sneak peek at the hidden collection reminded me of a series of books published annually by our former family doctor after his retirement.  His photo books were undertaken as a charity fund-raising project on behalf of Omagh Rotary Club.   
In response to an approach from the industrious medic himself before he published anything, I loaned him a few old prints dating from the late 1920’s of my grandparents and of my father as a young sportsman.   
These appeared in some of the earlier volumes.  
Having called time on that project in 2015 after publishing volume number 22[i], the good doctor sadly passed away in the autumn of 2016.   
By dint of his efforts over two decades, I had been made awareof the value of photographs and how the effective collating of images can remind us so vividly of social change.

Having decided not to bother the keeper and owner of these hitherto unknown photographs until after the end of the recent festive season, I made contact with him earlier this month.  After a few exchanges, he kindly offered to extract photographs relating to my family.   
With impressive alacrity, he duly sent me almost fifty shots the very next day.   
Some were grainy black and white photos: -

Picnic at Mullaghmore County Sligo behind the family car, a Mayflower

a larger number were colour snaps so clear that they look like they were taken yesterday on a modern digital device: -

In the current era there is a sense of comfort in re-establishing contact with the past and the customs of your native place.   
Without adding to the fashionable hyperbole, terms like “post-truth era” and “a massive disconnect” between people and their Governments are regularly cited like code-words to describe the fundamental rationale for election results which have confounded opinion pollsters in 2016.   
The conventional wisdom seems to be that as a result of the international economic crisis of 2008 and global movement of business, the ruling political system has become an élite which has ignored ordinary working people.

Different forces appear to have contributed to the spirit of alienation and revolt.  One is the ultimate disconnection when wars displace whole populations.  Another is the impacts on communities and families caused by major economic shock, such as the closure of long-established industries.  The result is political upheaval and social change on both sides of the Atlantic.

To try and make sense of so complex a subject, the literary author and journalist Fintan O’Toole recently gave a public talk well away from the hustle and bustle of global power.  The venue was the brand new Seamus Heaney Homeplace arts centre in Bellaghy, a small village in Northern Ireland.  
As an established author himself, O’Toole was well qualified and subtle enough to place the global economic and migration crises in a literary context.  In support, he cited Heaney’s second poetry collection, “Wintering Out.”

That poetry collection, he reminded his audience, is deeply grounded in a sense of belonging.  Belonging, he urged, means different things – we belong, we feel comfortable, we have a sense of ownership, our place.  But what about incomers, immigrants, making them welcome, to feel that they belong or not.  He embarked on something of a Socratic dialogue to ponder what this sense of belonging means in practice and how might it change post-Brexit.

Whatever the future holds, the rediscovery of realistic images from the past warms the heart in a winter of popular discontent with politics.  
It also reinforces personal pride in parental and grandparental achievements and ipso facto in their contribution to the community.  Their legacy emanated from what they faced in the stark years after two international conflagrations and the most enormous period of social change in human history.  
That was to bequeath our generation with prospects and opportunities, not to squandered, and which are vastly superior to those which they faced then.

In 1905, my grandfather opened a shop in Omagh selling bicycles as well as sporting guns and ammunition. 
In subsequent years, the business diversified into other lines, particularly records, televisions, radios, wet batteries, musical instruments and - at Halowe'en, fireworks. 
This photograph (also from the long-lost archive[ii]) was taken at an event to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the business. It includes staff, family, friends, local dignatories as well as commercial suppliers.

Photography is a creative art. In the manner of a Rembrandt painting, a shaft of light shines down on my mother as she and my father sit in the middle of the second row.  Her satin dress gleams for the camera.

©Michael McSorley 2017

[i] “Images of Omagh” Dr Haldane Mitchell volumes 1 to 22
[ii]  Acknowledgement George McDermott (dec'd) and his son Patrick