“The photographs are like black and white time machines that bring back the desolation and danger of the Troubles.
The images have a documentary accuracy, but it is the aura of melancholy witness that marks them as the work of Seán Hillen.” – Seamus Heaney
The Exhibition was opened on 26th July with a moving speech by author and producer Don Mullan which can be seen on YouTube here.
The National Library of Ireland Photographic Archive announced with the launch of PhotoIreland 2012 that it had acquired in 2011 a collection of c.600 photographs to be known as The Seán Hillen Collection.
Elizabeth Kirwan, Director of the Archive said it is 'a significant addition' to NLI’s photographic collections which are well-known and include the Lawrence and Independent Newspaper collections.
The photos of documentary subjects related to Northern Ireland are being acquired in the form of 35mm film negatives and associated high-resolution digital scans.
Seán Hillen has indicated that he will make donations of further related material to the NLI in the coming years
An exhibition of over 50 images as a Featured Exhibition of the PhotoIreland festival will open in the NLI Photographic Archive gallery in Temple Bar in Dublin on 26th July and will run to 30th September 2012. More info
Between 1979 and 1990 Newry-born artist Hillen created this collection of mostly black-and-white photographs recording the ‘already surreal‘ life as he saw it in Northern Ireland.
Attending art schools in London, and travelling back-and-forth to take the photos, Hillen says he felt increasingly compelled to document what he saw and ‘distil some record’ from life during the conflict, notwithstanding the complication that photographing the ‘security forces’ at work was by definition illegal. He brought to his photography a point of view perhaps made more strange by the move to London, and an engaged and informed eye - Hillen had grown up listening to gunfire almost nightly and had himself been arrested for stone-throwing as a teenager.
He believed in getting close to his subjects, quoting Robert Capa: “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” and used almost always a very wide lens which acts as a perspective device and tends to suck the viewer into the space of the photo.
Aged 18 in 1979 he photographed the 12th of July parade in the centre of Belfast, and then some years later events at ‘The Field’ outside Newry where the equivalent Orange marchers assembled, speeches were delivered and chips and ice-cream consumed.
Several of the photographs later formed the basis of Hillen’s photo-collage artworks which are themselves widely studied and held in a number of Museum collections.
Hillen also co-designed with Desmond Fitzgerald the Omagh Bomb Memorial.
In 1981 he photographed the massive funeral of Hunger Striker Patsy O’Hara, and a long sequence in the ensuing rioting around the rubble of buildings at Derry’s ‘Aggro Corner’.
There is an engagement sometimes with the people featuring in the photos which verge on portraits whilst others engage the camera more uneasily, overall a sense of complex human beings caught in a maelstrom of allegiances and antipathies.
Individual photos also convey arresting dramas- an older woman walks down the Falls Road where a freshly-destroyed cinema tumbles its once-ornate innards on the pavement beside her.
A neighbour of Hillen’s shows the enormous bruising caused by a plastic bullet fired during his arrest, and at a moment of pause in the rioting, a teenage stone-thrower stares down the camera through eyeholes cut in his Celtic-scarf mask.
A very different sequence takes us with people at a slightly magical 'Mass Rock' event at a giddy height in the foothills of Mourne Mountains.
There is a compelling beauty to many of the images but an undercurrent of menace often remains, reminding us of the psychic as well as physical cost of the conflict as well as its nearness in history and its increasing distance too.
Roy Foster, Yeats’ biographer and Carroll professor of Irish History at Oxford said:
“the exhibition demonstrates once more Seán Hillen's unique vision, and his eye for a powerful and disturbing conjunction of images-
applied to the stark tragedy of the Northern Ireland experience thirty years ago..
striking, haunting sometimes bleakly beautiful: a record of historical importance but also much more.”
Temporary webgallery of around 100 selected images: http:///www.seanhillen.com/NLI
Larger low-resolution webgallery: http://www.seanhillen.com/OldPics5/index.htm