Popular photography and camera cultures in Ireland, 1922-2000

We still know far too little about how ordinary people used photography to make sense of the dramatic changes of the 20th century. In Ireland, photographers such as Father Browne, Elinor Wiltshire and Arthur Campbell documented life: from pastoral visions of rural industry, to slum clearance, violence and conflict. During the Troubles, groups such as Belfast Exposed worked to empower communities in the face of negative international representation. Photographs also played a key role in social surveys and in the documenting of tradition through initiatives such as the Urban Folklore Project and the Irish Folklore Commission. But photography was not only the preserve of professionals and elites: clubs like the Photographic Society of Ireland and the Dublin Amateur Photographers’ Club gained mass memberships, journals including The Camera disseminated technological developments, and cameras steadily decreased in price and became available to all. Families and individuals took, displayed, and exchanged ever increasing numbers of photographs as the century progressed, and these images became a key part of marking life stories and understanding relationships.

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Girl taking her first steps, Wicklow, c. 1950.


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Family, Drumreagh, Co. Down, c. 1925.

Photography was a popular art form and pastime that straddled high and disposable culture, while photographs themselves were objects with value and meaning. Photographic images were therefore created at the nexus of a complex set of processes, including technological advances, practices of consumption, and bureaucratic regulation. My project turns to these practices to examine the culture of popular photography in 20th century Ireland. Taking an island-wide approach, I will use this shared history of photography explore commonality and difference north and south of the border. In so doing, I will critically re-examine how north and south have functioned as post-colonial states, revealing how indigenous visual culture was constructed in tandem with, and in opposition to, images of Ireland made for external consumption.

Moreover, this fellowship will also make a definitive contribution to the study of visual culture more broadly. Photographs are increasingly being used as primary sources by historians. But I want to interrogate how they have been used to date, and consider photographs not as sources for the writing of social history, but as objects which have a past of their own, and which have shaped ways of life and ways of experiencing the world. I am interested in two broad questions: firstly, how did the increasing availability of photographic equipment and the proliferation of photographs impact on the form of daily life, and the way people understood the world around them, during the 20th century? And secondly, how should historians deal with the enormous number of photographic images produced during this time? These questions are particularly pertinent in an Irish context where images and representations have had a tangible political significance, and where battles over representation have become part of broader conflict. However, it is intended that this study will have an impact and reach far beyond Irish history, engaging with ongoing debates regarding the place of representation within the writing of history and historical epistemology. In exploring these questions, this project will break new ground in providing a social history of visual culture, and provide a forum for exploring visual methodologies.

Dr Erika Hanna
University of Leicester

Erika was awarded an Early Career Fellowship grant in 2011.