Village in the City

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From the IAR Archive
Fiona Kearney reflects on Jeanette Lowe’s 2013 exhibition at the National Photographic Archive, Temple Bar, Dublin, which paints an intimate portrait of the residents both past and present of Pearse House Dublin

Photography preserves and creates memories. We gather people together for the camera, smiling families and friends crammed into the frame, posing for posterity with happy faces. This image becomes the touchstone for all that happened beyond that one moment – the events, conversations, commotions and everyday activities – that unfold away from the camera lens.

In this way, pictures shape our present too, prompting us to recall certain moments from the wavering past in our minds. In Jeanette Lowe’s exhibition ‘Pearse House: Village in the City’ there is a sensitive exploration of the way in which photography provides personal and social records of place. Taking the inner city location of Pearse House flats where in the 1930s, her grandmother Bridget Ashmore was one of the first residents, the artist weaves bygone narratives with contemporary observation.

Lowe has assembled old photographs contributed by local people to create an idiosyncratic archive, one based on the history of the flats as it is remembered and preserved by those who live in the area now (Fig 4). Her award-winning work extends and dialogues with these earlier images. Her own photographs range from formal studies to documentary portraiture. In Washing Lines (Fig 5), we see rows of drying laundry from above, a precarious composition as if we were perched on a balcony ledge of the flats peering over at the colourful children’s playground and community clotheslines below. Stairwell is a more sombre arrangement, the elegant curve of the bannister leads to a barred window but the golden light and gentle yellow-brown hues of the photograph soften the rundown appearance of the stairwell and establish a sense of nostalgia in the present day. In another picture of a landing, we see equations and unsolved sums written on the wall alongside names spelled and crossed out, as if the musings of a copybook had somehow spread to public walls.

Light is an important element in Lowe’s photography. It is a presence that suggests the significance of time to her project, as shadows stretch and creep around the Flats, and sinewy shapes of sunlight mark out corridors and passageways, underlining the transition of hours as well as people (Fig 2). Sometimes in Lowe’s depiction of the Pearse House Flats, we catch a glimpse of original architectural details and hints of the building that is so brand new in the sepia tinted prints from the mid 20th century. Marking out the centre of the photograph Pearse House Vista, we see a line of concrete pillars; their repeating silhouettes cast as contemporary sundials under a bright blue sky. Two luminous points gleam fluorescent yellow in the distance and we pick out human workers in Hi-Vis vests on maintenance duty. This hint of daily work and public chores crops up in both the historic and contemporary photographs.

Community is both people and place, and it is in Lowe’s portraits that the strongest connection is made to the past of Pearse House flats. The photographs she has collected from other people’s lives are predominantly of family and friends (Figs 7& 8). Their unfamiliar faces stare out at us with an intimacy that we usually associate with our own personal photo albums. In her contemporary representations of the inhabitants of Pearse House Flats, the artist sets up a close proximity to her subjects even though many of those photographed retain quite formal poses, linking them back to the conventional stance of those in the early pictures. Most of her present-day residents remain unnamed or identified only by their actions such as Beach Boys. Beach Boys  captures the exuberance of youth – two young boys rushing to the beach on a sunny day – stopped in their tracks by the photographer (Fig 6). The girls and boys in the old photographs are similarly suspended in time.

The photographs she has collected from other people’s lives are predominantly of family and friends. Their unfamiliar faces stare out at us with an intimacy that we usually associate with our own personal photo albums

Lowe concentrates on children – they are much more predominant than adults in her photographs and this establishes a motif of future and growth within Pearse House, one that overrides the ever present bars and railings in the flats’ architecture. Their energy and playfulness seem unfettered by grown-up supervision. There is a pervading freedom, the open-ended promise of long, hot childhood summers (Fig 3). Only photography can still time, and already the children in Lowe’s pictures will have grown older and away from the games and unwariness of youth. Perhaps, this is most poignantly expressed in the picture Expectant where we see a pregnant young woman on the balcony of her flat, her face reflected in the window, pensive. Her waiting is already over, her child born outside the chronicle of this exhibition. Lowe’s project is not to follow any one individual but to kindle the continuing life within the flats, and connect it to the histories of residents that have gone before. The balance in her imagery between portraiture and still life, enables us to peer into the fascinating detail of identity within a wider meditation on the passing of time.

Jeanette Lowe ‘Pearse House: Village in the City’ National Photographic Archive, Temple Bar, Dublin, 2013. 

Fiona Kearney is the Director of the Lewis Glucksman Gallery, Cork.

Photography ©Jeanette Lowe except for Figs 4, 7&8.

From the IAR Archive
First published in the Irish Arts Review Vol 30, No 3, 2013