Portraits from The David Kronn Collection is currently at The Butler Gallery in Kilkenny (until 22 February 2015). I wrote this review of the Second Sight selection of works from the collection during its run at the Irish Museum of Modern Art last year. CLH
Second Sight – The David Kronn Photography Collection
By Cristín Leach Hughes
David Kronn has been collecting photographs for more than twenty years. In 2011, when the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) first showed a selection of works from his vaults, the New York paediatrician owned around 450 images. Just three years later, there are over 550 and counting. It’s safe to say he’s hooked. All of these photographs are promised to IMMA, in the form of ongoing annual bequests.
The exhibition Second Sight marks the donation of fifty more works owned by the Irish-born doctor to the museum. The idea this time around is to showcase the new offerings alongside photographs, the majority of them by Irish artists, already housed at IMMA. The overarching theme, if there is one, is that no image goes unquestioned: it’s one way for the curators’ to shake things up when faced with the requirement to manufacture a cohesive show of images united ultimately only by their use of a lens.
One of Second Sight’s promises is a reassessment of the ways in which Ireland has been traditionally shown on camera. Kronn’s collection includes John Hinde’s On the Road to Keem Bay, Achill Island, Co Mayo, shot as part of the Englishman’s infamous, now retro-iconic, 1960-1975 Irish postcard series.
Twenty-first century hand wringing over the manipulative trickery of photoshopping and colour filtering looks somewhat silly in light of the deliberate deception of Hinde’s artfully engineered tourist bait. Kronn’s large, framed print of this Achill Island shot offers a richly-toned vista of sea green bay, lush mountains and hazy blue sky in which three observers sit at the edge of a dirt track above the spectacular view next to their car. The woman is wearing a yellow cardigan and shoes.
In an actual postcard version also on display, the woman’s cardigan and shoes are pink; the pale blue, short-sleeved shirt of one of her male companions is now yellow instead. The sea is turquoise, the sky more blue. Images from Irish photographer Anna Rackard’s 2012 Postcards series are shown alongside these two. Rackard set about updating and reacting to Hinde’s work by constructing similar scenes with figures of different ethnic backgrounds.
Her work knowingly jostles against the false set up of Hinde’s scenes, not least by making us question who or what can be considered “Irish”. Her image of Powerscourt Waterfall features a woman in an orange hat, her brown face turned away from the camera towards the spectacular natural phenomenon. Is this an image of a tourist or a local? She looks almost pasted in.
This question of constructed reality runs throughout the show, even when the work can be readily labelled documentary, as is the case with the hugely influential American photojournalist Dorothea Lange (Group of Men, Ireland, 1954), or German-born Evelyn Hofer, who shot pink-sock-wearing football players in the Phoenix Park and an oddly upbeat-looking trio of rakish Dublin gravediggers in 1966.
In 1966 Hofer also took a chilling photograph of two boys watched over by a priest with his hand on his hip. There’s pleading in the eyes of one and a refusal to meet the gaze of the camera on the part of the other. This image, Orphans, hangs next to her portrait of two young waiters at Dublin’s famous Jammets restaurant, taken in the same year. The contrast between the lives of both pairs of boys couldn’t be made more explicit. These two images alone are a remarkable portrait of young male experience in Dublin in the 1960s.
Almost fifty years later, the American photographer Doug Dubois shot a series in and around a housing estate in Cobh, County Cork to produce what he has called “a somewhat fictional, somewhat documentary coming of age story.” His group portraits are superb: lively, multi-kid scenes of interaction, affection, alienation, aggression and play.
Personality-filled faces aside, images of Ireland have always veered heavily towards images of the land. Kenneth O’Halloran’s 2014 Croagh Patrick shot, Pilgrim’s Progress is a reminder that no matter how much things change, some things remain the same. Patches of pink, yellow and blue clothing echo Hinde’s old postcard requirement of a splash of colour “to off-set the very beautiful but often monotonous tones of the Irish landscape” as he once put it himself. A snake of tiny human figures ascends an awe-inspiring mountain under a cloudy blue sky. It’s an image of Ireland, but in the wider context of Kronn’s international collection, it is also allowed to become a more universally meaningful depiction of the nature of human endeavour.
This is where the addition of this vast collection of photographs to IMMA’s stocks comes into its own. It allows works by Irish photographers, including those in IMMA’s current holdings, to be shown in an international context.
The rest of the show contains fewer images of Ireland, but the ones that are there are frequently relieved of their explicit “Irishness” by being placed close to images whose origins have nothing to do with that.
Three of Irish artist Gary Coyle’s photographs, taken during his daily Forty Foot swim in 1999, 2004 and 2005, offer gorgeous swimmers-eye level images of ever changing sky and sea. They hang with brand new connotations near Japanese photographer Asako Narahashi’s 2002 shot from his “half awake and half asleep in the water” series, in which a plane flies low at an odd angle to the watery horizon. Also taken while swimming, this is an ominous image that conjures connotations of a pre-crash or pre-drowning scene.
One of Irish artist Gerard Byrne’s newsstand images, with its ever-evolving time-related title, is shown alongside American Berenice Abbott’s frozen-in-time style New York hardware store photograph from 1938, to great effect. Two of Kilkenny-born Richard Mosse’s shocking pink portraits of Congolese fighters, purchased by IMMA in 2012, hang next to Lagos-born Simon Norfolk’s 2011 Afghanistan shot in which a man holds a sheaf of multicoloured balloons as he stands in a bombed-out vista.
It’s useful and gratifying to see Irish photographer Amelia Stein’s rage-fuelled 1998 head shot of actor Barry McGovern stand up next to Annie Leibovitz’s masterful 1997 portrait of the artist Louise Bourgeois, shot in New York.
Kronn’s collection is full of compelling and unusual portraits including Israeli-American photographer Elinor Carucci’s blurred laundry-folding scene, Grandma and Nataly (1999) and Nicolai Howalt’s unsettling 2001 diptych which shows a young Danish boy before and after a boxing match.
There are a large number of images by Mexican photographer Graciela Hurbide, whose work deserves a show of its own, and her compatriot Lola Alvarez Braco, famous for photographs of her close friend the artist Frida Kahlo, one of which is included here.
The final room contains only work by Daido Moriyama, a Japanese artist who takes deliberately disconcerting “anti-photographic” photographs. Part of the Japanese Provoke Movement of the 1960s, his work here includes a 1980 image of a man walking a pig and one of a glowing, cross-eyed child, taken in 1974. In an exhibition well-packed with striking portraits, evocative war-related works and various versions of social documentary and constructed reality, Moriyama’s are the most provocative images in the show. It’s a really good place to end an exhibition that forces us to ask ourselves what exactly we mean when we say that someone has taken a good photograph.
Second Sight – The David Kronn Photography Collection, Irish Museum of Modern Art, 2 August – 9 November 2014. A version of this article was first published in The Sunday Times, Ireland on 14 September 2014.