Portraits from The David Kronn Collection
In association with the National Programme of the Irish Museum of Modern Art
10 January – 22 February
Review by Darren Caffrey
“This exhibition came to the Butler Gallery from the National Programme of the Irish Museum of Modern Art and is drawn from the exceptional collection of photography amassed by Dr David Kronn, an Irish-born paediatrician with a specialty in medical genetics, who lives and works in New York. Dr Kronn has built an extraordinary photography collection over the past twenty years, which is a promised gift to the Irish Museum of Modern Art to be enjoyed by the Irish public into the future. The overall donation will substantially increase IMMA’s photographic holdings and provide an historical, contextual and expanding framework essential for the understanding and appreciation of modern and contemporary photography. ”
Today I seen a number of pictures. Many of them were interesting, some fascinating. All were framed photographs of some sort and all had something of the nature of man in their making. Covering the varied art that is the photographic image, this selection provides a sample indication as to what has been done by people using their camera as a creative tool. Not alone a camera but also an eye captured by what is viewed. These are the two main, and in essence, singular ways a photograph comes to be. The connection however between the lens and the viewer is not mechanic. It is most likely intuitive. It is not likely that thought can appreciate time in the way that light affects the emotions. While an image may be composed, the composition cannot be certain. Unless the image is a neat contrivance or a simple apparent quirk of chance, it will remain outside of the reach of even the myriad technologies of man.
Lights and darks make up the content of the frame composed by Daido Moriyama in his work ‘Stray Dog’ depicting a dog he saw once. The dog was looking over his shoulder, down to the ground with his head, his mouth open to a bite or a gruff bark or a breath. His body works within the frame as splodges of fluffy and edgy black and soft focus dusty air, as though he really is a dirty dog in the glare of an always rising sun. The subject’s shabby appearance is left to be understood as a part of us also as we view this one image taken in Japan in 1971. Its features are merely an expression of what the image has failed to account for. The legs begin and end as though there is no need for depth in order for the dog to stand upright. The head borrows nothing of the slope of the dog’s back but it is still easy to comprehend that the shape is a definite one and that it is, without any shadow of doubt, a dog.
The mystery with which this photographer has intentionally fragmented the forms of visual knowledge and resorted in the end to deathly tones has no lasting hold. We see the dog and see a dog we know and see a dog on his terms as a dog we never really knew. That’s not a trick of light or perspective, although each component is fundamental to the making of a photograph. This is a trick of the mind. You can relate to what is not present. You can make, and as such, be a part of the distance. You can operate as the bridge between the two worlds of dog and man, of man and nature or of any similar distinctions you wish to make. The photographer has made all effort to provide a spot to stand and nothing more. The real dog was spotted perhaps only once ever by this photographer but his symbolic form is clear to see. This particular image spares the viewer their need to resolve form and function, and as such, provides the viewer with a second space. The mystery is born within the constraints of only the dream, and it is this space that Moriyama’s subject exists.
Other forms of photography might take a more literal approach to the distance between the subject and the object. A work by Dorethea Lange showing three men in full composure, perhaps knowing, but unperturbed by anything of how they might look. These three men are looking elsewhere. In this simple example of the famous photographer’s work, the subjects possess an interest simultaneously greater or higher than that of the photographer. They look elsewhere and in so doing they stand out. They are not publicly aware in the same way. These three men operate on a plane of non-existence for the image maker. They have feelings which drive interests and these feelings are felt beyond the frame of the image made by Lange. This product of otherness is both attractive and interdependent. Without the men’s own shared or even individual interest, this image would fail to mean anything more than the fact we cannot know the subject of their gaze. Their concerns remain elusive but the title informs us that this group of men were in Ireland in 1954.
With the possibility that these three men could share interest which is for them greater than the function of formal or aesthetic intention or the photographer’s behaviour, we realise that our interest also is more than the knowledge we possess. Perhaps, like the stray dog, our interest is better understood as undefined. What is definite of this image by Lange is exquisite, details are observed where necessary to make the work and its statement clear. Of course the clarity is a distraction from the game of playful exchange between the subject of the men’s gaze and the subject of the photographer’s gaze and the subject of ours now in the gallery as we see what Lange and now David Kronn has shared with us. This is not only a feature of photography, it is a feature of the public nature of the image. If it is not singular and sacred, it may just become commonplace. If it is not shared, how will it ever be coherently understood to aptly reflect public life.
Another marvellous piece of photographic study is ‘Pickaroon’ taken by Fergus Bourke in 1966. This image tells the story of a girl on a street near a built up industrial ground at a time when heavy industry and ordinary life met without the politeness or manners we now come to expect of such publicly regulated activities. The girl bends down in a setting choked by the hard work needed to produce the hard men who might survive such a life. The harshness is not picked up by the camera though, instead we are presented with a decidedly different tale and we are all the better for it. The life of modern man has come to be about developing a story out of the story which blocks him in. In the case of this young girl, the rock she leans to pick up is coal for the fire at home. She has her pram with her so that the story can be about play as much as it is so obviously about work. It is this consistency of vitality which marks the human desire to remould and to warm up the bleak contrasts of both light and dark, in black and white and colour imagery. No doubt we want the story to be a good one. If some forced reality is part of making that story real then we are all the more encouraged to take it on. Probably the life of the subject is only interesting in response to a shared space we seek to protect, whether that be called public or community or family or even foe.
In ‘Pickaroon’ the smog which results from the work of industry brings these contrasting tones together as one beautiful haze. The title of this image is a phonetic version of the words ‘pick around’. It suggests Northern Britain in a time and a place where coal was the fuel of the age, unquestioned and unparalleled for its practical advantages but also Bourke’s title refers to the very community of which this girl is only one. For the girl who alone appears to gather the lumps of coal which fell from a passing truck, work is not a public act but a matter of the spirit. In this image we see how she will continue to make it fun so long as she can protect her spirit from the pressing and burgeoning forces of modernity and the men who make it. Obviously this photograph provides a romance beyond any contemporary function, for we know well how the direct effects of mass production and mineral extraction are no longer felt so close to home. If you could say that Bourke’s image depicts the authentic life of this young girl and others of similar communities, can we also say that the provision of this image within a wider context of public appreciation is a request that we accept our lot for the continued benefit of a prescribed social development.
Whatever way you look at a gift horse, you should, once its yours, look at it directly in the mouth, between the jaws and under the hooves for that matter. The selection shown in Kilkenny was drawn from an exhibition of even more photographs from The David Kronn collection. All of which will some day be the housed in IMMA as part of a personal contribution by Kronn to the future of the gallery and museum. It is obvious that Mr. Kronn, born in Ireland but living his life as an American, has a keen eye for what makes a rewarding image. And yet, capturing images of the world around us is a very popular thing to do these days. This is at the same time as official surveillance operates 24/7 in much of the public or private spaces where people pass.
Very different forms of capturing images produce radically different results. So it’s probably a good time to look again at what we value about the images we make of each other in the world. It could be that we are to find ourselves in the future looking at images taken without any obvious intention, providing us the opportunity to interpret the nature of accident in direct relationship to that of intention. Equally, if progress remains inextricably tied to our relationship with technology, it might be good to know what, if anything, traditional photography evokes in us and what it expresses for us that the semi-automatic instant flash and silent hum of the digital medium cannot achieve en masse. These pictures and the rest of Mr. Kronn’s collection are surely as good a place to look as any.