The Francis Street Photographer: a review

This review first appeared in The Andersonstown News

 “I THINK what you have here is a goldmine”. That was Fr Brian D’Arcy, commenting at the start of this documentary showing Dublin long ago (THE FRANCIS STREET PHOTOGRAPHER RTE ONE).

The programme was built around Suzanne Behan (no, Virginia, not those Behans) who discovered a box belonging to her grandfather,  John Walsh, which contained 70,000 negatives of photographs he took over the years.

Suzanne has had the negatives printed, and we watch as John’s daughters, now ageing women, react to these frozen moment from the past, they themselves featuring in many of them. Virtually all the photographs are in black and white. “Sure that’s the colour we were back then – black and white!” a man assures them, and they all laugh. “As long as there’s photographs like these”, he adds,  “those people will never be dead. They’ll never be dead.”

None of John Walsh’s photographs is artistic, in the sense of posed or carefully arranged or with clever lighting. It’s just ordinary people doing ordinary everyday things.

There is one exception – Eileen of Eileen and the Cadets. If you’re under forty, chances are you’ve never heard of the Cadets nor Eileen. Grown-ups like myself will remember them as big on the showband circuit in the 1960s. But here Eileen’s no celebrity – just another young woman from Francis Street, frozen in black-and-white time by John Walsh. As the women gasp and identify people in the pictures, you can almost see nostalgia fill the room, almost hear the women thinking “My God – was I ever as young and alive as that?”

An added layer of poignancy is added by the fact Suzanne Behan had time to explore and organise all these photographs because she has been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. The programme wisely notes the sad fact and moves on. This is the story of a photographer and the treasure-trove he’s left.

A woman caught in a kitchen, looking over her shoulder and smiling. A group of young lads, all tight suits and Tony Curtis hairstyles, grinning at the camera. This is the Liberties in Dublin, what’ s referred to as a “vibrant community”.  There is a man kissing a woman in a hallway, a fat man smirking as he sweeps a middle-aged woman off her feet at a local dance, a baby on a bench staring solemnly at the camera. Sometimes the people are smiling, sometimes – especially John Walsh’s own family – they look bored or even a bit irritated  by the photographer. All of the. pictures have a stripped-down quality : people without the padding of prosperity, determined to live life as fully and intensely as they can.

Maybe not a gold-mine, but a treasure-house of the way they were.

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