The Light of Other Days

Peter Welsh, County Sligo, 1992
Peter Welsh, County Sligo, 1992

Jim Maginn tells JOANNE SAVAGE about his newly published collection of photography and muses on what makes a great image

THIS evocative collection of black and white photographic portraits of Irish traditional musicians captures people in song by hearths or laughing in armchairs with instrument slung across knees, or as in the cover image of Tommy Keenan, staring wistfully and earnestly into the lens with violin and bow in hand as though ready to play at a moment’s notice.

The Light of Other Days is a selection of Lurgan-born Jim Maginn’s photographic archive of traditional Irish musicians 1985-2012, and as the artist makes clear, he sees the essence of a great photograph as being all about the capturing of ‘decisive moments’.

“A great photograph is about decisive moments. And clarity of composition. You have to think about proportion and about where you are standing in relation to the subject when you take a photograph.

“It has to look good; it has to look right. Some people believe in the rule of thirds but so many great pictures actually break this rule. Eve Arnold, a photographer who I greatly admire, said the best images are all to do with the relationship between the photographer and the subject. And I think this is very true.”

Maginn’s focus is all about the person being photographed and freezing within the frame something about the integrity of the subject, capturing them laughing, singing, or playing their guitar, bagpipes, mandolin or violin, or in quiet moments when something of their inner, truest self is revealed to the camera. Accordingly he sees himself as part of what he calls a ‘humanist tradition’ of photography.

“I wouldn’t say I like to stage photographs in any formal way, it’s more about hanging around with people in their living rooms or being with musicians and singers off-stage or in backrooms, waiting for a moment when everything seems to fall together to capture something about who they really are, what they’re about, what they’re feeling in that instant.”

There are innumerable winningly intimate shots in this collection: Maggie Barry with a mandolin, her fingers dripping with rings, stares into the camera with a look that is intense, accusatory, her thinness and wrinkles suggesting age and certain strain; David Hammond seems to be delivering an anecdote or the line of a song, his eyelids half shut as he leans on his guitar - is he lost to daydream or reverie, tipsy or somnolent?; Packie Manus Byrne plays his tin whistle - he may be an old man but there’s still the glint of youth and wit behind his glasses, a mischievousness undimmed by the years; Peter Welsh throws his head back laughing, seated in a floral armchair by a mantelpiece, what looks like a wooden flute on this lap; Sheila Gillespie sings in her Londonderry living room in her knitted cardie, beside a vase of daffodils; Sarah Anne O’Neill laughs in the middle of a country road with hands on hips, her patterned dress revealing the aesthetic of a bygone era; and Julia Clifford with her white curls, glasses and animated expression, holds a most unusual instrument referred to in local parlance, confides Maginn, as a ‘violumpet’.

Jim, who has been based in Belfast for the past 20 years and teaches photography at the University of Ulster and the Belfast Metropolitan College, began taking photographs in the 1970s. Even today he sees his practice as continually evolving and improving. He is most inspired by the photographic work of Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and Henri Cartier-Bresson, because “their work is a continuing and compassionate engagement with people”.

“The pictures I love most are those which pin down the experience of the moment,” he adds.

To quote another of his favourite photographers Eve Arnold - responsible for the famous 1968 picture of Queen Elizabeth II smiling under an umbrella in her trim cerulean coat and navy blue hat, her smile wide and natural, her expression showing a momentarily escape from the stiff upper lip and reserve demanded of Royals at photocalls: “If you’re careful with people and if you respect their privacy, they will offer you part of themselves that you can use, and that is the big street. It has more to do with the relationship of the photographer to the subject than it has to do with anything else that might be happening.” Finding the part of the subject that produces the vitally eloquent image is the terrain of the gifted, artistic photographer.

As Ciaran Carson, a musician, poet and novelist featured twice here in the compendium of black and white shots (and seen sporting quite a moustache in the image of him from the 1980s) writes in the introduction: “The photograph is an action shot of sorts, a narrative. The apparent happenstance of the photograph comes from years of practising looking and of deciding when to take that moment rather than this. Old-fashioned it may be but the term ‘decisive moment’ is appropriate, the photographer aiming to capture a fleeting moment, the right moment: a happening, an event.”

This collection captures the fashion of the 1980s and 90s with some contemporary images too, the faces and stance of musicians at their ease, the wrinkles and the beauty of their profiles, the faraway look of the singer mid-verse and the earnest intensity of the artist in repose.

The Light of Other Days by Jim Maginn, with foreward by Ciaran Carson, is published by the Red Barn Gallery (priced £20). You can also view the collection at the Red Barn Gallery, 43b Rosemary Street, Belfast until November 28. Visit or call 02890 231901.