“I wanted to make something that felt more personal but didn’t want to make something self-indulgent. I wanted to make a beautiful object”
Eamonn Doyle has good reason to remember April 1st, 2014, as life-changing in seismic polar ways. It was the day in which celebrated photographer Martin Parr took to the Hard Core Street Photography forum on Flickr and told its 57 thousand or so members to take a look at i, Doyle’s debut, self-published book. He hailed its “beautiful printing, and great images” adding that “on top of this, the simplicity and directness of the images is brilliant.” It was also the day Doyle learned his mother Kathryn was diagnosed with cancer.
Doyle was already a monumental independent figurehead on Dublin’s club scene. Anyone engaged in club culture in the nineties and noughties will know him through his seminal D1 label, club nights and its offspring, the Dublin Electronic Arts Festival (DEAF). However, after being submerged in that scene for over 20 years, he rekindled his original passion in photography and found a second calling which others have amplified.
“I’d studied a diploma in photography in Dun Laoghaire, a year behind Niall (his designer) and Rory (Panti). Then I tried to go back into Fine Art and do Photography but they absolutely wouldn’t accept it. I had great ideas of becoming a documentary photographer with romantic notions of war and conflict. And then it absolutely didn’t happen.”
Besides some travelling in Latin America and the Caribbean, he was always drawn to the inner city, off Parnell Street, where his family had business roots and Doyle has been living for almost 26 years. “I felt I should really be back in Dublin. When I was in the West or even here out in Sandycove, I was still drawn to this part of town. There was something specific about this area where I felt comfortable.”
Having admittedly tired of the music game: “it became less interesting with the onset of digital. Part of the thrill was to see what records a DJ has brought in their bag. Suddenly they showed up with a laptop,” Doyle put out i in 2014. His was a shadowing presence capturing, mostly, elderly people as they went about their lives in the inner city. Shot from above, and usually behind his subjects, i captured both strength and frailty, imbuing ordinary actions with greater purpose. Out of that limited edition of 750 copies, he posted two – one to Alec Soth and the other to Parr.
“We did a launch here and sold 60 books or something. I was hoping one of them might like it and put it on a list so over time I could sell the books. I had never met him (Parr) but I’d seen he had become an important figure in the photobook world and I was specifically interested in making one with Niall. It reminded me about vinyl and collectibles.”
“He really loved it. It seemed fresh to him and I was blissfully unaware of the previous 20 years of contemporary art photography. I guess there was something he hadn’t quite seen. It wasn’t necessarily ground-breaking, it was photographing people from behind at an angle. It was still within the genre of street photography.
Parr’s enthusiasm catapulted Doyle’s work from relative obscurity to global recognition overnight. “The place just lit up,” he recollects. “Instantly, orders came in. People were arguing with Magnum heads, ‘is this the real Martin Parr?’ The people thought it was an April Fools joke.” He sold out the entire run within a fortnight and had gallery representation from Michael Hoppen in London within a fortnight. Within two years, Doyle had a show at the prestigious Arles Photo Festival.
Doyle went on to create ON and End, drawing his friends Niall Sweeney and David Donohoe further into his creations through design and soundscapes. ON saw him back on the streets but this time shooting in monochrome from below, adding an air of urgency, dynamism and, at times, menace. The interplay between the street upon which these people walked and the environment which framed them instilled an energy to his compositions. End, which wrapped the trilogy, saw him layering design by Niall over images leading to a more fractured and abstract look with a splicing of images and disciplines. The trilogy was complete but the direction was taking shape, albeit in a more amorphous way.
“I’ve taken a step back from Dublin a bit in the last year or two. I’ve become a slight bit more reclusive. Your filters go up. I still spend a lot of time doing nothing. I still love being in the city the possibilities of being here. I’m out of the loop in terms of what’s going on in terms of club culture. You’re just older,” he states.
When considering his next step, Doyle explored the connections between the West coast of Ireland and the West coast of Africa. “It went back to Bob Quinn’s The Atlantean Trilogy in the ‘70s. These connections were inherently understood by musicians and storytellers but not part of the national story. I had started to shoot around this time last year. I went to Connemara and was really struggling, I couldn’t get into it but my mum had just died and her illness coincided with everything that was happening with my photography.”
“My friend brought me to Renvyle House and while we were driving in I saw this figure in a black veil just scooting across and into the hotel. I had already been thinking to myself I might allow myself contrive these images. It turned out she was in a play with her partner based on Yeats’s Seven Muses which she was playing. For each one she played she put on a different head scarf.
The next day I drove to Valentia Island to source slate from the mine for my mother’s headstone. It’s this huge big cave on the top of the hill. I drove in and there was this grotto with the Virgin Mary. And Niall had designed the headstone. It all came together then, I knew what to do. I wanted to make something that felt more personal but didn’t want to make something self-indulgent. I wanted to make a beautiful object.”
The death of Eamonn’s mother Kathryn (K) lead to the discovery of boxes of letters his mother had written, unbeknown to him, to his brother Ciarán who died suddenly at the age of 33, almost 20 years ago. “He had been skiing in France and just sat down and died.”
“When she (Kathryn) died, I realised it was the end of her grieving for Ciarán. It dawned on me that this was the end of mourning. This weight had lifted. She never recovered from his passing. He was the first born. In some ways they were prayers even though she wasn’t an overtly religious person. We discovered all of these letters and it was kind of heart-breaking. I wanted to acknowledge them somehow. I ended up scanning them all and layering them on top of each other.”
The result is K, by far Doyle’s most personal work to date suffused with a haunting, spectral quality. As Colin Graham writes in the current issue of Source: “If Doyle’s previous work allows for an aesthetic in which the scarf, for example, is part of the woman who wears it, then in K, the writhing, tortured, pained, elegant, and contemplative human shapes which are under the fabric, are also revealed, very fully to be both surface and depth.” K comes from the very raw and personal place of bereavement. There’s a statuesque quality to the figures, a shrouded veil of grief, almost like a Virgin Mary being transported whilst hidden from view.
Whilst discussing why he didn’t take advise imparted to him after the success of i to simply wait a few years before releasing new work, Doyle discusses observations he made from working beside DJ and producer Mark Broom back in his D1 days. “I would spend two to three weeks making something until it died and I was observing others. Keep finishing. Don’t be trying to make a masterpiece everytime. Letting go is the only way you can move on.” In K, Doyle is letting go not just of a photobook creation but of a beloved mother.
K launches in Hens Teeth on Friday November 23 (please note location change from print edition). Presented by D1 / St. Patricks Festival & The Library Project, the book is designed by Niall Sweeney and includes a 10″ vinyl picture disc by David Donohoe. It will be a limited edition of 1000 copies.
Made in Dublin combining Eamonn Doyle’s first trilogy will be published by Thames and Hudson in March and coincide with an exhibition in the RHA Gallery. An exhibition of his work will also be take place in the Mapfre Foundation in Madrid next autumn.
Eamonn shot Wolfgang Tillmans for Totally Dublin in our November issue.
Words: Michael McDermott
Photo of Eamonn: Malcolm McGettigan
All images courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery
Check out Eamonn’s picks of five photographers who inspire him here