The Incoherent Light

Darragh Shanahan - Love is a Stranger

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Often the limitations (or possibilities) that are created by using a particular kind of photographic tool can actually be an impetus in producing a body of work. One such formal “prompt” serves as the point of departure for Love is a Stranger, a new book by Dublin-based photographer Darragh Shanahan. Here it is the use of a plastic half-frame camera that could be applied in a free, intuitive manner to record and to reflect on a diverse series of encounters, while producing two adjacent images in the space of a familiar 35mm frame. The danger of this approach, of course, is that a specific technique can overwhelm the content of the pictures - or replace it entirely. Fortunately, that is not the case here.

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The book is a diaristic collection of otherwise fugitive moments that stack into cinematic blocks thanks to the formal possibilities offered by the half-frame format. This can most readily be seen in a key sequence that occurs towards the end of what is a relatively slender book, where four images - two diptychs made up of adjacent negatives - fill facing pages with a sense of movement that crosses not only the frames, but entirely distinct moments in time. Photography allows us to see and to re-experience these contingent events, making some kind of tentative order from what seems, at first, to have none at all. However arbitrary the rules or devices that we use to shape our lives, they remain necessary illusions.

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There is no straightforward progression to the images, but they nonetheless form a very cohesive whole; the book is a flow of scenes and observations that are unified by the gaze of the photographer. This notion of a person moving through the world is also grounded by an implicit reflection on how those experiences might be understood. Uneasily situated somewhere between memory and fact, a photograph is not the only possible view, but a single version of events, subjectively accounted for. This is awareness is re-enforced by the double images on the opening pages, repeating the same scene from slightly different perspectives. It returns us, as well, to the ambiguity of the title.

The images are printed in stark monochrome on coloured paper stock - pink, with the centre pages switching to blue. Like the choice of format, this is a strong design touch that compliments the images rather than overpowers them. Finally, then, this book is an ambitious personal narrative presented in such a way as to extend its scope beyond the seemingly modest (but by no means uninteresting) premise of responding to events photographically rather than, for want of a better word, conceptually. Here the past and the present overlap in suggestive, often intriguing ways, but fail to resolve into any sort of convenient ending. There’s always more to come - and much that has been forgotten.

(Unfortunately, Love is a Stranger sold out its limited edition printing and so is no longer available. Despite that I thought it was still worthwhile to review, even if pictures don’t really communicate the all-important “feel” of a book. I also hope this will the first in an ongoing series of such reviews).

Philip Rodriquez

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Part of what works so well about Philip Rodriquez’s series Fine Art is the witty sympathy he suggests between the landscape images that form the “background” of the individual pieces and the painterly interventions layered on top. The interplay of references that tie the mythology of the American landscape to the self-conscious gesture of the abstract painter traces the seemingly formal upheavals of mid-century modernism to their historical roots.

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"These photographs are deliberately puzzling; the spaces within them can shift abruptly, their structures are porous. What they return to is the sense that representational styles or strategies are deeply linked to their social and historical context. The ruptures of modernism were possible only in the wake of immense social change. The transition within photography to the intangible spaces of digital technology has meant that artists have been freed from the specificities that once seemed essential to their medium, but it also means we have to think of photography in new ways. O’Keefe makes use of this cut-and-paste age to blur the line between real and imagined space."

- Erin O’Keefe: Surface and Depth.

I wrote this piece for a recent issue of Prism, an online photography magazine, and it can now also be found on their blog at the link above.