Notes from the Margins is a group show currently exhibiting at Gallery of Photography Ireland as part of PhotoIreland Festival 2015. It brings together the work of five Irish artists each addressing important social issues in Ireland today and presents thoughtful representations of individuals and communities often seen as existing on the margins of society, and seeks to bring these stories in from the margins and make the case for a more equal, inclusive, caring society. The exhibition features Gavin Devine’s collection I am another which documents the process of his subjects’ coming out, Ciaran Dunbar’s series The Wise which investigates life on council estates, Rory O’Neill’s examination of lives in the limbo of Direct Provision, Malcolm Craig Gilbert’s personal insight in post-traumatic stress disorder and Emma McGuire’s series Church Road which uses suburbia as its subject. We spoke with artist Emma McGuire about her background in photography and the process behind her series Church Road.
Can you tell me a little about the early stages of your photography work?
I studied English and psychology in UCD and as soon as I finished I realised that I wasn’t happy pursuing either field. I just had no creative outlet. A friend recommended that I apply to the highly regarded portfolio course at Sallynoggin College taught by Joe Sterling and Christine Redmond. They opened our minds to the world of fine art photography. I was encouraged to apply for the University of Ulster MFA. I applied and was successful.
What effect did the experience of studying at the University of Ulster have on your photographic work and on your practise as an artist?
My time at UU was both amazing and terrifying – it was quite a surprise for starters. I came from doing a one year course in photography and while I had an undergraduate degree in English which proved relevant, I had a lot to catch up on in terms of technical skills. Being probably the least experienced in my class was both a pro and a con at once. I had a great deal to learn and improve upon but similarly, this meant that I was so open to everything. I was willing to try new avenues and concepts suggested to me and see where they led. I think the biggest advantage I received from completing the course was the access to peer reviewing sessions. I don’t think we can ever underestimate the importance of opening our work to others for critiquing.
What is the most recurring theme in your work?
My current photographic practice evolved from taking pictures of people and places undergoing transition. This has been informed by my own experiences and circumstances growing up. I’ve moved around a lot and always lived in rented accommodation. I think rented houses have a strange, uncanny quality about them. As a renter you always feel temporary, as though you’re passing through. I was always very aware of the fact that our home wasn’t ours.
Who or what have been the greatest influences on your photography work?
Its really difficult to limit myself here to a few but photographically it would be the work of Robert Adams, Diane Arbus, Alec Soth, Todd Hido, Trent Parke, Rinko Kawauchi and I can go on and on! When I saw Hido’s work House Hunting I just kept thinking I wish I had made that work. I’m also influenced by American 1980s horror films, night-time, the suburbs, Halloween – all of these things interest me.
Can you talk about how you began your series Church Road?
The project began when I was walking home from work at night. I started photographing houses with lights left on, signs of habitation within. The images I was creating were pretty clichéd however, but I was drawn to them.
I had a few friends living in several houses along Church Road [in Killiney] at the time. Most of these houses are listed for demolition, so that the land can be sold for apartments. The houses along this road were built for middle-class families, however many had been neglected and were at different stages of degradation. Some were destined to be torn down and the land used for new apartments. The house I was most interested in was called Smallacre, the more I looked at this house I could see what the house and my friends had in common. At the time we were all just out of college, in that transition period of not knowing what we wanted to do next and I felt that these houses were kind of lost too.
I showed my classmates the photos I had taken and with some help realised that Smallacre was the embodiment of the project I wanted to make all along. With this house I was no longer a voyeuristic intruder, I was on the inside making photographs of my friends. Also, it simply had the aesthetic I had been searching for the entire time!
Unfortunately this epiphany came about a month and a half before finishing my MFA! As a result that last month and a half was absolutely mental. I was taking pictures constantly, it was a rush to document it all. Once the course was finished I ended up moving to a house a two minute walk away from Smallacre and so the project has continued.
Do you see your work as fitting into any particular style or aesthetic of photography?
I remember submitting my work for consideration to Source magazine and being flustered at the few categories of styles I had to choose from. I picked documentary because I’m documenting my friends living in this house and all the things that come with that. At the same time I’m very wary of calling it an honest, unbiased account – its subjective, deeply personal and I’ve taken full artistic licence. It is a narrative-based piece of work.
There are a number of portraits in the series, how did you choose your subjects?
Some people lived in this house, some people didn’t. What was important to me was that they were going through the same thing as the house itself. Secondly, I chose my subjects based on certain aesthetic qualities. I photographed my friend Hannah on a bed, she wore pink, the bed was pink, I simply wanted it to look that way.
How have your subjects responded to the documentation of themselves and their environment in such a way?
Mostly they have responded really well to it. They want to be photographed and they think that having a record of this time in our lives is a wonderful thing. Although it’s a slightly romanticised depiction, I think that’s ok. I don’t want the series to come across as too depressive. We may be feeling slightly lost and aggravated with our options but we are also having a great time.
You describe this series as an ‘ongoing’ project. Do you have an idea of where you would like to take it from here?
I think it’s got a couple of years left in it while the houses along Church Road still stand. I don’t feel that I have got the best photos I can out of the project. I still feel that there are a lot of great shots there and that while these people are still in this situation it’s important to keep documenting that.
Being the only artist in this exhibition whose work was made in Dublin, what would you like the Dublin public to take away from this exhibition?
I hope some people can empathise with the places and people featured in the work and that maybe they see themselves at a certain age or point in their lives in these portraits. I also hope that the work inspires some discussion about much needed rent control in Dublin.
This is the first year of the Solas Prize, a new collaboration between Source magazine and Gallery of Photography Ireland it is an international photography award with prizes of $11,500, an exhibition in a major photography gallery and publication in a leading photography magazine. What do you think of this prize as an opportunity for Irish and international photographers?
I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for photographers, though mainly because of the lack of restrictions placed upon the requirements for inclusion – it’s simply a photography prize for Irish artists or those who made work primarily in Ireland. Too often we are asked to place our work into strict categories or distort its intended meaning to be considered for prizes, but this prize will be awarded to the best work and that’s it.
Finally, what does it mean to a young artist to be involved in a group show such as this?
I was ecstatic to be asked to be a part of this show. I’m so appreciative of the people at Gallery of Photography, in particular the curator of the show Trish Lambe. In photography today there are more opportunities than ever to get your work out there but that also means that occasionally you can feel lost in a sea of all the different competitions and festivals. It’s just so nice to feel that you’ve made something that people want to see and that’s relevant to a certain time.
Notes from the Margins runs until the 9th August 2015 in Gallery of Photography Ireland’s main space. A series of talks and events will take place during the run of the exhibition the schedule for which may be found at www.galleryofphotography.ie
Check out a selection of must-see exhibitions at this year’s PhotoIreland here
Words & Portrait: Jocelyn Murray Boyne
Images: Emma Maguire