Belfast people of yesteryear and today captured by Kirk’s unique vision

Hugh Murtagh, one of Kirk's subjects 40 years ago, as he is today  PIC: Bill Kirk courtesy of Red Barn Gallery
Hugh Murtagh, one of Kirk's subjects 40 years ago, as he is today PIC: Bill Kirk courtesy of Red Barn Gallery

Photographer Bill Kirk has dedicated his career to capturing the truth of Belfast, its streets and its people. He tells JOANNE SAVAGE about a new project to re-photograph the same subjects he captured 40 years ago for a compelling new exhibition

Skinheads outside shop fronts, women in sculleries with their rollers in and so many pots and pans, mods and punks hanging lose in bars, football supporters, Terri Hooley in very 70s white shoes, children playing in the gardens of tiny terraced houses, old couples sitting on sofas that had seen better days.

Devoted to artistic image-making, Kirk, now 77, captured hundreds of images that tell the truth of an era in Belfast’s history; these were captured in two publications of note, Sandy Row (1974) and Images of Belfast with Robert Johnstone (1983).

Kirk confides that he first decided on a life behind the lens because he wanted to capture the truth of what was happening here as conflict began between orange and green factions.

“When I became a serious photographer it was at the beginning of the Troubles here.

“We were all living in a fog of anxiety.

“I was trying, through photography, to make sense of what we were all up to.”

It had been important to Bill to move outside the Belfast Protestant enclave where he lived to move into Catholic areas too so that he had a vision that was multi-dimensional.

“I remember going into Bombay Street after the burnings and the tension that I felt was intense. But it was important to capture what was happening to people.

“The truth of people and the situations they are in is always perfect material for the camera.”

Now, in collaboration with the Red Barn Gallery, Kirk has rephotographed some of his subjects from 30 and 40 years ago, movingly capturing the passage of time. In addition to this Kirk has been working with the Red Barn Gallery and with Belfast author Glenn Patterson on a project to find out more about the lives of the subjects pictured and how things have changed for them over the decades since they were first photographed.

The ongoing exhibition is a fabulous collection, the old juxtaposed beside the new, the changed fashions and haircuts, wrinkles, furnishings, postures, landscapes, greying hair - all of it telling whole stories about lives lived, experience gained. And with pictures a dense story is just instantly captured, so much about time’s unstoppable march frozen, and made especially eloquent.

“This is work in progress,” says Bill, now 77, a former student at Belfast College of Art, “I had this idea of looking at old pictures and then updating them with new pictures to see how things have changed - the distinction between the two and how they show how times have changed and how people have grown up.

“I’m aiming to produce a collection of 40 pictures, 20 of the new beside 20 of the old and then working with Glenn Patterson and other young writers at Queen’s University to try and compile stories about the lives of the people in these photographs.”

The idea for the exhibition came about when Kirk ordered a taxi and the driver asked if he was in fact the same Bill Kirk who had photographed him as part of a group of skinheads in the 1980s.

“So suddenly, then, I had this idea to get all the skinheads who had been in that old photo together to pose in the same way again.”

To date Kirk and the Red Barn Gallery have traced 11 subjects from the vintage pictures and are hoping more who have already been captured by Kirk’s skilled lens will get in touch to be rephotographed.

Times have changed, as have technologies.

“Obviously now I am working in digital and they have multiple modes and I do like to be simple and maybe old-fashioned in my approach. I feel I’m not as quick and instinctive as I was years ago,” he added.

But one thing Kirk, who now lives in Newtownards, has not lost, is his eye for an evocative, startling image, one that always tells a thought-provoking story.

What does he feel makes the magic of a successful image?

“Capturing something real and spontaneous,” he says. “Or a certain look in someone’s eye. I see myself less as a maker, more as a receiver of images.

“Sometimes I would imagine myself as an outside observer, as though I had just landed from outer space, and being surprised by so many things, and seeing reality in a different light.”

Belfast author Glenn Patterson is the main writer overseeing the collection of stories of those pictured.

He said: “What we are fortunate to have in the Red Barn Gallery is a glimpse into the second acts of the lives of people who we last saw in Images of Belfast. If a photograph preserves a moment in time then these new photographs have the effect of freeing it, turning it into movement.”

Where Are They Now? by Bill Kirk is at the Red Barn Gallery, Rosemary Street, Belfast, until September 27.