Ross McDonnell (1979-2023) – A Tribute


Posted 1 month ago in Arts & Culture Features

Ross McDonnell was a towering figure in the creative scene. An Emmy award-winner, his work often featured on the pages of our magazine. He became a collaborator and mentor to many working on an eclectic range of projects which this year alone took him from shooting videos with Róisín Murphy in Arklow to documenting the courts and justice system of the now Taliban occupied Afghanistan for the New Yorker. And we are sure these were many more being conceived, in development or reaching fruition. He tragically drowned in New York earlier in the autumn. We have asked a few close friends and acquaintances to share some memories and tributes with us.

“His art was hanging out and making people comfortable with him. He was a master of this.” – Ross Killeen

“Ross was like a brother to me.

We met as teenagers and clicked straight away. We worked together as lounge boys in the Bloody Stream in Howth and would sit on a bench after work every night just talk for hours. Talking about movies we liked, music we were into, places we wanted to go and things we wanted to do with our lives. Two 15-year-olds figuring out what was cool and what was not. Meeting someone at that age who was just into all the same shit as you was magical.

Ross was someone in whose company you could never be bored and I would never run out of things to talk about with Ross and that remained the case throughout our lives together.

He saw the world as a small place that was easily navigable. We went on many adventures – San Francisco, Hawaii, New York, Greece, a road trip around America. He came to visit me in Brazil. Always ready to go and always looking for the next thing. We gave him the nickname – Action Man – which he lived up to his whole life.

Ross with Ross Killeen, Maui, 1999

These photos were from a trip we did in Maui. We rented a clapped out car and drove around the whole island, jumping off bridges into tiny rock pools, standing at the top of volcanos and staying up all night sharing dreams of future travels. I’ll miss the sense of adventure that he brought everywhere he went.

It was inspiring to be his friend and I’m full of admiration for the body of work he produced. His art was hanging out and making people comfortable with him. He was a master of this.

Wherever he went he just ‘hung out’. Whether it was Afghanistan, Ukraine, Mexico, New York or Ballymun, Ross made friends everywhere he went.

I’ll miss the swims, the voice notes, the energy, the action, the adventure. He was the busiest man I knew but always had time for you and was never in a hurry in your company. He brought so many great people together.

His work and legacy will inspire many and live on forever. “Living the dream” was his motto and he certainly did that. A remarkable life lived to the absolute max.

I’ll miss you brother.” – Ross Killeen

 

“From late night Dublin sessions to rooftops in Brooklyn, the adventures I’ve experienced with Ross over the years are what I’ll miss the most.” – Rich Gilligan

I first crossed paths with Ross in Dublin back in 2005 when we were both shooting photos for the late, great Mongrel magazine. I’d been aware of his work long before I actually met him and we became fast friends. Over the following 18 years we were constantly in contact, mostly down to Ross’s incredible gift of always keeping in touch no matter where he was in the world and in fairness to him, he got around. Before meeting Ross I don’t know if I’d really met anyone with that kind of energy, drive and ambition for their work. It was infectious and motivating.

Ross photographed by Rich Gilligan

His encouragement inspired me to move myself out of my comfort zones on numerous occasions and to get out into the world and make things happen. We shared so much in common beyond just photography though. From books, films, music and just his insatiable curiosity at the world around him. He was 100% a kindred spirit. Ross was never just a fair-weather friend, however, he had your back through thick and thin and when it really came down to it he was always there for me in a way that I now realize, in his passing, is actually so rare.

From late night Dublin sessions to rooftops in Brooklyn, the adventures I’ve experienced with Ross over the years are what I’ll miss the most. Life was never boring with Ross in your life. Rest easy my friend and thank you for being you.” – Rich Gilligan

 

“Ross was a prism: absorbing light and reflecting it back out to all of us around him.” – LJ Amsterdam

“When Ross first moved to New York, he fell in love with the steam rising up from the manhole covers in the street, how the headlights of rush hour traffic danced in columns of vapor. Whenever he saw the smoke illuminated by light, he felt that he was living in a movie, he felt the grittiness and the radiance of New York, and he was reminded of his creative purpose. Ross came to New York to live ‘the art life,’ a phrase he borrowed from the filmmaker David Lynch, which he used to describe a life of seeking beauty and wonder, mystery and meaning, freedom and transcendence.

Ross found freedom in racing his bike down Flushing Avenue or running across the Manhattan Bridge, bobbing and weaving through the crowds, and feeding off the energy of crowds in general, but Ross remained a director through and through. When he was on his bike, he’d yell at pedestrians, ‘Yo! Watch where you’re going.’ When he was a pedestrian, he’d yell at bikers, ‘Yo! Watch where you’re going.’ Double-parked cars incensed him. They restricted his flight and unfettered access to the city. He found artistic activation in Chelsea galleries, senseless graffiti and peculiar looking people on the subway.

He often said ‘New York is a great city to leave’ and ‘It’s so great to be back in New York’ in the same sentence. He frequently proclaimed, ‘I used to live in that neighbourhood before it was cool’. He insisted that 4pm was precisely the right time to head for a swim at Fort Tilden because the dunes would glow in hues of pink and purple and he was reminded of Ireland.

Ross photographed by his niece Eva Savage

Ross’s very favourite New York ritual was having his friends over to his apartment to make food and take photos. When he was taking pictures of me or one of his many friends, he would coax us into position in relation to the sun saying, ‘find the light.’ Find the light. This directive was not just about illuminating our faces, but about illuminating our hearts. Ross wanted us to come into the light to be fully seen in all of our perfect imperfections. Rumi, a Sufi poet that Ross loved, said ‘the wound is the place where the light enters you’. It is only by being vulnerable, open-hearted and broken-hearted that we are able to touch the grace of light. Ross taught us that. And we are so lucky to have borne witness to Ross’s exquisite light. To see the shine in his eyes. The glint in his insight. To hear the brightness of his deep belly laugh. How he glistened when swimming in the sea. Ross was a prism: absorbing light and reflecting it back out to all of us around him.

This is how Ross loved us. He brought us into the light. Ross, we hope you have found your light. And we, your friends, will continue to love you by always, always, always finding the light.” – LJ Amsterdam

 

“I can tell a good person and trusted him from the start.” – Ian Giltrap

“I first met Ross in Balcurris in Halloween of 2005. I saw him with this camera. I went up to him and said, ‘if you want to see the real shit come with me’. This is what eventually led to his Joyrider project. I can tell a good person and trusted him from the start.

Ian Giltrap with Ross

“The advice he gave me led me on the right path. I was dealing heroin and crack cocaine at the time. If it wasn’t for him I’d have been dead or in jail by now. He said, ‘you have brains up there, drugs are not the answer.’ My first child Ava was on the way at the time. I ended up doing a degree and am a qualified engineer now. You’ll never see me standing on the street again.

“It broke me when I heard the news from LJ. The last thing he shared with me was a picture of me on the back of a crushed car and his last words were, ‘I love you loads.’” – Ian Giltrap

Feature Image – Ross McDonnell by Rich Gilligan

The following are links to some of the articles about Ross published in Totally Dublin over the years.

Roadmap: Swift Justice

Joyrider – Ross McDonnell

In The Frame – Ross McDonnell – Limbs

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