During Lockdown, fashion photographer Paul Martin unearthed boxes of negatives that inspired him to publish his new book First Face: a collection of photographs of new Irish models shot in the 1990s. Brian McMahon of Brand New Retro met Paul and talked about his book, the people in it, and how an old contact sheet sparked a reconnection.
What happened to the young Irish models you photographed?
I rarely had any relationship with the people I photographed – I took their pictures and mostly I never saw them again. I believe most just settled down, got married, and had families. But then there was Caitríona Balfe who became incredibly successful as a model (Calvin Klein) and as an actor (most recently in Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast and TV’s Outlander), or Ross Hamilton, a lovely guy who had such a promising start but ended up effectively homeless. It was only while researching for my book that I realised I had no idea where most of the models had ended up, and that many of the photos had no names attached.
How did you identify the models with no names?
I asked around and posted some photos on my Instagram page on the chance that someone might recognise them. There are still a few in the book listed as ‘unknown’ but I found most of them. My biggest discovery was identifying American actress Diane Neal on one of my contact sheets.
Diane Neal from Law & Order SVU?
Yes, that’s her. She played DA Casey Novak and also played Allison Holt in Suits and Kimberly Rice in White Collar. I watched her in all of those shows, without ever realising I had done a shoot with her, right here in Dublin back in 1996.
How did that shoot come about?
In the ‘90s, models relied on an informal arrangement called testing, a straightforward exchange where photographers, stylists, models, makeup artists, and hair stylists would come together to create images for their books (portfolios). The Morgan agency called me to say that Irish model Mairead McHugh, who I had tested with before, was back in Dublin. Morgan’s probably thought I was a good bet for doing some more test shots, but just to sweeten the deal, they added, “Mairead’s got a friend called Diane, an American model she met in Japan who wants to test as well.”
Diane was only in Ireland for a week, so we set up a straightforward studio shoot using a small studio. No styling, but full hair and makeup, and we spent about two hours and produced some decent shots which I passed on to the agency. I don’t think I ended up using any of the shots because there was no fashion point. It was such a brief shoot, quite honestly we spent more time drinking in the Globe. I quickly forgot about it – until that find during Lockdown.
Tell me more about contact sheets?
Before digital, the sheet acted as the diary of a shoot and contained 36 shots, spread over 6 strips, taken one after the other. You can see the hits, the misses. One good shot is enough.
People rarely see the contact sheets – they only see the shot chosen from them.
So you posted to Instagram and Diane saw it?
Yes, and after I posted I noticed that this blue tick a/c with 80k followers had liked it. It was Diane. It hit me – she was that nineteen-year-old American model I had shot in 96.
I messaged her on Instagram: “Hi…this is you in the photo you liked…How random…How did you even come across it? I didn’t tag anyone because I had no deets.”
She messaged back, “Mairead McHugh sent it to me! I loathe social media but the beauty of reconnecting with long-lost friends makes up for much of the downside.”
First Face is on sale at The Library Project, Temple Bar.
Photos by Paul Martin:
- Contact Sheet for Diane Neal shoot, Dublin 1996
- Headshot from sheet