Northern Ireland: 30 Years of Photography is the winner of the Michael J. Durkan Prize for Books on Language and Culture. The prize is awarded by the American Conference of Irish Studies.
The awarding of the prize is a great testimony to the collective effort put in to the publication and the exhibition by Belfast Exposed and the MAC, and in particular to the work and talent of exhibition curator Karen Downey.
Colin Graham’s Northern Ireland: 30 Years of Photography is — thankfully — not another compendium of romanticised images of the Giant’s Causeway or the Mountains of Moune, nor is it a record of significant photo-journalism from the years of the Troubles and the Ceasefire. Rather, this generously illustrated and exquisitely produced study examines art photography from the North within a context of international aesthetic practice that for the past half-century has favoured — as Graham writes of Patrick Zachmann’s work — “photographs of nothing or very little happening”. Street photography, urban wastelands, “what is ‘unremarked, forgotten, cast adrift'” — through Graham’s eyes we see how these emphases signify within the particular socio-political realities of Northern Ireland. Photographers like Zachmann, John Duncan, Paul Graham, Sean Hillen, Vicgor Sloan, Paul Seawright, and Willie Doherty — to name only a few — see “Belfast [as] a city of ruination, closed off, walled, fenced and accumulating the filth of living”; see “accretions of dereliction in a rural landscape, an imposition of politics on the ground”; see “the effects of division and violence … manifest [in the borderlands] as striations, barrenness of infertility” — a landscape where “the ghosts of the past” insidiously bleed through, “a landscape waiting for something to occur”.
The committee members found Colin Graham’s analyses of these photographs “compelling”, “politically and theoretically savvy”, “ground-breaking”. One praised Graham’s “depth and consistency”; another was impressed that his consideration of “the intentions and interpretations of visual art — artistically, intellectually, and politically — would have as much interceptive validity in other contexts”. Personally, I just couldn’t stop reading. I’d look at photographs, perceive — I’d believe — their significant aspects, and then find myself exhilarated by how much more I could comprehend with the assistance of Colin Graham’s analyses. “I present photographs as unreliable witnesses,” Willie Doherty says. Colin Graham helps us sort through the subtleties and contradictions of such work. “It is the kind of photography,” he writes, “that looks hard and looks long. It wonders and, through our own consideration of its images, it makes us think.”