“Queensberg Bridge, New York, 1964” by Evelyn Hofer.
“Evelyn Hofer - Dublin and Other Portraits” opened in the Gallery Of Photography last night as one of the keystone shows of the PhotoIreland Festival whose official launch was celebrated just hours after.
As a general rule, I try not to judge shows based on their openings. It’s always really crowded, half the people there are only there for the wine and the other half want to show off how much they know about art by talking too loudly in the hope of sounding interesting. This is an exception though because photography exhibitions rarely make such a sudden initial impact on me. I had never come across Hofer before so setting foot inside the G.O.P. was going to be my first interaction with her work.
I’m going to be honest upfront and say a lot of formalist black and white photography doesn’t interest me. I know it’s a cardinal sin to disregard such a broad spectrum of work and that I should respect it for it’s context in the photography timeline but if I’m truthful, it just doesn’t hold my attention. Classical portraits and dustbowl imagery, almost all of the FARM Administration work and the vast majority of old timey Irish photography all fail to grab me and shake me the way other genres do. Don’t get me wrong, I respect the craft, but I don’t think I’m obliged to say it commands attention just because I’m a photography student.
When I entered the Gallery of Photography last night, it wasn’t even my intention to look at the show. I could see through the front window that several uniform black and white portraits and object studies hung on the main wall ,semi-obscured by opening visitors, and already I didn’t have high hopes. My main objective was finding where the PhotoIreland catalogues were being held as I was volunteering this year and wanted a hard copy exhibition guide of what’s on. I wandered around the first floor and couldn’t find any but something caught my eye that I couldn’t see from the window. It was a colour landscape photograph of Dublin. It didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the show, or should I say, with what I personally thought the show was.
It was vibrant and unlike how I’d seen the grey stone city of Dublin before. I’ve lived here all my life and I’d never seen it look even half as charming as it did in this framing. I didn’t know what to do. I had foolishly pegged the exhibition as inspid before I had even toured the complete body of work. It was such an arrogant rookie mistake and the gravity of it sunk in with childish embarrassment. So I stood in front of this piece for two or three minutes and my quest for catalogues was instantly forgotten. There were several more colour pieces within jumping distance and I was dumbfounded at each one. The clarity, the delicate craft of high quality prints, the satisfaction of colour. It was impressive, and it was overwhelming.
I proceeded upstairs and found everything I could have hoped for and more. The title “Dublin and Other Portraits” could do with serious revision. I was totally thrown by it and this selection of work is so much more than that. The top floor of the gallery is predominantly made up of Hofer’s American photography. And I was overjoyed. The select number of Irish colour images outshine the monotone contingent and as far as I could tell, the complete catalogue of American work was shown in colour. The ensuing result is the top floor gallery being the undeniable highlight of what is being marketed as a significant part of the PhotoIreland festival.
What I wish, was that this show held a stronger focus on the colour, whether it’s American work, Irish work or otherwise, I’d just love to see it constructed in a different direction. I understand the focus on Ireland with a small selection of other material due to the “Migrations” theme of the festival but I think this could have still been accomplished with a spotlight on the most aesthetic work as opposed to a curation strategy that seems to be composed around historical context. Regardless of it’s flaws, “Evelyn Hofer - Dublin and Other Portraits” is essential viewing for anyone within visiting range.