Abraham Feldman lived in Raheny with his three sons, his daughter and his wife Doreen. He liked cravats, cigars, never missed a day’s work, and didn’t care much for other people’s opinions. For lunch he would bring a sandwich to Bermingham’s camera shop and talk about equipment and the weather. Most days he worked until late in the evening. When he came home, he would hand his camera to his wife and she would bring it to the room under the stairs that had been converted into a dark room. Being Jewish, he worked on Christmas Day and enjoyed photographing the same man who played Santa Claus over the years. Most people knew him as Arthur Fields, the man on the bridge.
It’s hard not to create fictionalised accounts of Arthur Fields in one’s mind. From the 1930s to the 1980s he worked on O’Connell Bridge every day, taking photographs of passers-by. The exact number of the photographs is uncertain, but probably upwards of 200,000 photographs were taken by Fields. A saying for a while in Dublin was that Daniel O’Connell guarded O’Connell Street, and Arthur Fields guarded the bridge. He struck an odd figure in his dapper presentation and his incongruous proximity to the life of the streets. He became a human landmark that people accepted for its merit – his photographs.
Nearly every household in Dublin is likely to have an Arthur Fields photograph of one of their relatives. I discovered shortly after I began my research for this article that my grandmother and grandfather were photographed by him a few days after they got engaged. Oblivious to its origins, or the photographer’s story, the photo had lived for years with me in my family’s home in Rome.
In spite of having put in years upon years on the Dublin streets, and having created one of the most vast photographic archives of Dublin’s history, Arthur Fields is a forgotten figure. His life and career’s trajectory seemed to mirror the evolution of camera technology: its mystery and exclusivity evolved into obsolescence and a collective forgetting.
Arthur’s most productive years were the 1960s, when he took thousands of photographs that showed a Dublin possessed with a seemingly easy glamour through the eye of his camera lens. And everyone is in these photos, including names as disparate as George Harrison and Brendan Behan among them. By the 1980s he had switched to Polaroid, but produced only 34 photographs, allowing his wife to put her feet up after having developed all his photographs for over 50 years.
The evolution of the man as much as the evolution of the medium is what makes Arthur’s story worth telling. His best years were those when street photography had grown popular, but was still novel enough to provide a source of excitement for people.
There’s a detached respect between the subjects and the man on the bridge behind the lens. Throughout his photos, his human subjects are emboldened by their lack of self-consciousness. Their confidence in the functionality of the photograph being taken reflects its purpose: to portray reality and verisimilitude.
There’s no external agenda in Arthur‘s photography, no questions asked nor answers sought, no working together of bigger concepts or sending of messages. Unintentionally, he achieved the journalistic Holy Grail of neutrality by documenting a city’s existence via its own people. And all for their very own consumption. The only identifiable element constant in his pictures is his pursuit of that ‘Moby Dick’ of street photography – ‘the ideal moment’. There’s a joy in the mundaneness of the everyday bustle in his pictures, a lo-fi beauty that must have had a tang of nostalgia, even when they were first developed.
The obsessive nature of the man, and his life-long Sisyphean task of taking pictures in the same location day after day, is what attracted Ciaran Deeney to Arthur. Deeney had abandoned a dead-end film project about a Caribbean island made of garbage, and upon discovering some Fields photographs in his mothers house, he and his colleagues embarked upon the similarly Sisyphean task of cataloguing the work of Arthur Fields, through his web portal www.manonbridge.ie
Ciaran and his team have spent most of their time in Ballyfermot, Raheny, and Bayside, rummaging through people’s family albums and attics, collecting and compiling photographs that might yield an image of this man and of the city he so devotedly documented.
To Ciaran, his greatest achievement lies in his ‘becoming the ultimate insider from having been the ultimate outsider’ by way of family photo albums across Dublin. A Jewish gentleman working through the 1930s and 1940s under an assumed name, pursuing an unusual vocation (which paid well, until cameras became a mass-produced commodity in the late 1960s) gave him a role that set him in a prime position outside society, where his guardianship of O’Connell Bridge and his photography could flourish.
Ciaran Deeney talks about ‘the responsibility to do something good with other people’s photographs and memories.’ He talks about not wanting to apply a slick veneer or take an angle in the Man On Bridge’s website and popular Facebook page. He didn’t want to make a relevant or ‘of-the-moment’ Dublin street photography project. He wanted a broad open-access platform. And in order to do this, he had ‘to give up on the “Why?”‘ of the whole story. What compelled him to do it? What did people of the time make of him? Did his family worry about him? How thick-skinned was he? Ciaran’s curiosity and sense of mystery about Arthur simply didn’t have a place in this space set up for thousands of people to find and archive photographs. So the idea of the documentary was born, and after having won some funding through the Arthur Guinness awards, we can expect to see some of his questions answered.
And he wasn’t niche. Ciaran emphatically stresses the uncool, deeply middle-class, suburban normality of some of the subjects of the photos, Arthur’s best clients. It’s a thing at odds with our current focus on ‘difference’ in most everything we hold aesthetically or conceptually pleasing, particularly in a form like street photography. Towards the 1970s and 1980s, when people became more accustomed to having their pictures taken, when the hippies gave way to the punks, you begin to see subcultures develop and posing becomes more common in Arthur’s photos, lending a different charm to his previous work. But until that moment, the snaps and moments are as comforting and moreish as toasted slice pan.
As cameras became more popular and affordable, Arthur’s role on the bridge began to make less sense. He had been the king of that stretch of tarmac, and now found he didn’t understand it as he used to. Those who previously had allowed themselves to pass in front of his lens, portrayed equally and identically whether they were drunks, bums, or divas, had now insularised their photographs, cut the outside world out of the portrayal of their daily lives. In his persistence in showing up to work on the bridge when the game was up, Arthur Fields became a living example of what he’d spent a lifetime creating – a memento of a bygone era. Perhaps he’d be embarrassed by the attention and upcoming documentary about his life. And perhaps its best to let his images speak for him, remove him entirely, allow the transcendent life of other people’s photographs and memories tell the story for him, as he had always intended.
The archive and web portal can be found at manonbridge.ie, where you can also upload your own Arthur Fields photographs to be part of the collection. There is also a concurrent exhibition at the Gallery of Photography in Temple Bar, while RTÉ Television’s recent Man On Bridge documentary can be viewed on RTÉ Player here.
Words: Roisin Agnew
Photography: Arthur Fields, as supplied by Ciaran Deeney.