Illuminating Art & Ideas
Irish Writers is a series of contemporary photographic portraits of Irish women writers. Writers photographed include Moya Cannon, Marina Carr, Anne Enright, Rita Anne Higgins, Jennifer Johnston, Paula Meehan, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Medbh McGuckian, Sinéad Morrissey and Mary O’Donnell. Originally commissioned by Cavan Arts Office to accompany a literary festival dedicated to women’s writing, the portraits stand as a contemporary visual record of significant women writers of fiction, poetry and drama working in Ireland today. The commission aims to highlight and support increased national, and international recognition of women’s writing from Ireland in recent decades, and modestly proposes to render the face of Irish women’s writing more visible. The exhibition consists of twelve portraits. The portraits are also presented in the form of a poster entitled Irish Writers.
‘Of all photography’s grand illusions the most unnerving is that of eye contact, the imagined encounter with the photographed person. No amount of theorizing, or of simple sane logic, can ever really take away that lingering sense that we are being looked at from within the image, a sense that is capable of renewing itself again and again as we return to a familiar or treasured picture.’ (David Chandler, Professor of Photography, Plymouth University, UK)
The analogy of ‘being looked at from within the image’ seems appropriate to the experience of literature and poetry. Discovering oneself in a character or situation in a work of fiction has a similar, uncanny quality. Eye contact with the writers in these portraits is unavoidable. Their gaze is compelling, the close framing and backlighting pushes them forward, towards us, inviting us to engage with them. Ursula Burke has created a different space of encounter with individuals whom we know, for the most part, through the written word.
The Irish Writers portraits follow in a long tradition of studio portrait photography developed around the gaze and the relationship between photographer, subject and viewer. In the earliest daguerreotype portraits, subjects were required to hold their pose for exposure times of two minutes or more, which often resulted in stern, wide-eyed expressions. Early modern portraiture, such as that of the French photographer Nadar, employed the subtle effects of light and shadow to enhance the intensity of the gaze and to imply psychological depth. Chiaroscuro techniques drawn from classical painting were used to create brooding, atmospheric portraits, which sought to reveal the inner truth or essential character of the subject. In the post-war years, through the iconic work of photographers like Irving Penn,Richard Avedon, David Bailey and Robert Mapplethorpe among others, the studio portrait became less about expression and more about performance. The studio became a space of open interaction, where photographer and subject collaborate on the creation of an image.
Ursula Burke is interested in this process of collaboration between photographer and subject in the construction of an image and an identity. Through her PhD studies, she has researched questions of representation, particularly representations of Irish identity and the role of photography therein. Her Irish Writers portraits represent a series of encounters, and a series of creative collaborations. Her subjects appear at ease, confident, and very much engaged in the process.We, as viewers are beckoned into the relationship, invited to take a closer look and to consider what these women have to say.
Ursula Burke is a multi-media artist based in Belfast, Northern Ireland, specialising in photography and sculpture. She is currently undertaking a practice based PhD at the University of Ulster, Belfast, exploring issues of representation and identity within contemporary Ireland. She has exhibited widely both nationally and internationally. Her work is held in the collection of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the State Art Collection – Ireland and in private collections. She was shortlisted for the Golden Fleece Award in 2011 and the British School at Rome Residency in 2010. Her work will be represented by the Golden Thread Gallery at SCOPE, New York in March 2012.
Karen Downey is currently Senior Curator at Belfast Exposed where she has worked on the development of the exhibition, archive and publication programmes since 2001. Highlights include exhibitions with Allan Sekula (2011), Taryn Simon (2011) and Hans-Peter Feldmann (2010). New work commissions include Mark Curran, John Duncan, Factotum, Melanie Friend, Kai-Olaf Hesse, Claudio Hils, Daniel Jewesbury, Anthony Luvera, Mary McIntyre, AislingO’Beirn and Donovan Wylie. Karen Downey also works as an independent curator. In 2009 she curated Northern Ireland’s presentation at the 53rd Venice Biennale with a solo exhibition by Susan MacWilliam. In 2011 she curated Versions and Diversions at Temple Bar Gallery and this year she will curate the 60th Anniversary Exhibition for the Arts Council / An Chomhairle Ealaíon.