Sunday, 13 June 2010

Castles of Ulster: the photos of Jonathan Olley

During the 1970's, most of my childhood holidays were spent in the Republic of Ireland. My late uncle Patrick would drive to Belfast to meet my family. Driving westwards to Letterkenny in County Donegal, we would pass through Belfast and Derry on the way to the border. This was the height of "the Troubles" but those two words didn't mean much to me. I think I knew that there were "Catholics" and "Protestants" and that I was a Catholic but that would have been the extent of my sectarian awareness at the age of seven or eight. In my innocence, this little Catholic boy particularly looked forward to passing through those city areas where the pavement skirting was painted red, white and blue as if for a party.

A car with a Republic of Ireland number plate must have been an automatic cause for suspicion and, at checkpoints, we would be pulled over by the constabulary. Rolling down the car window, my uncle would hand over his driving licence to some officer whose shoulders and head were cropped by the frame of the window. The licence would be casually examined, handed back through the window and we would be waved on. On one occasion, I remember uncle Patrick was asked to open the boot of the car. As he made to get out, I felt an involuntary spasm of anxiety. But my most vivid memory, sitting in the back of the car, was the sight of an automatic weapon, held snug against an officer's hip with a meaty hand. The sten-gun looked so heavy and serious, so unlike the plastic guns that I had played with. But there was no playtime in Ulster in the 1970's. "Next to the fresh grave of my beloved grandmother," wrote Paul Durcan in his poem Ireland 1972, "The grave of my firstlove murdered by my brother." Yet little boys on their holidays knew nothing of such internecine realities.

What I had become familiar with on these car journeys were the police stations and barracks that we passed. Of course, I had no idea at the time what function these buildings served but I sensed that their purpose could only be sinister. A building that had to protected by a carapace of wire mesh and razor wire was no ordinary domicile. I had never seen anything like these buildings before. With their tiaras of radio masts and satellite dish jewellery, they were other worldly creations set in the "terrible beauty" of Northern Ireland.

It was these buildings, their presence ideologically transgressing the landscape and streets, that the photographer, Jonathan Olley, took a professional interest in. His work is a conscious move away from photo-journalism, the recording of an historical event as a documentary imperative, to a more contemplative consideration of subject matter. Images are used in a metaphorical manner, where an immediate narrative is eschewed in favour of the slow release of ideas and associations. In this way, no ideological positions are imposed on the work, but images are allowed to give up their meaning. This aesthetic stance raises Olley's work above the kitsch where emotions are faked and the photograph becomes no more than a circus of technical effects. His preoccupation is not with concept, propaganda or novelty but with something more nuanced and complex: the truth of what he sees.

The Castles of Ulster photographs find their truth in an historical continuity with the past, thus the collection's title. In an essay, Everything Changes, Everything Stays the Same, the architectural historian, David Brett, argues that Jonathan Olley's photographs "bring out the primeval conditions under which such structures are built, and how they are compelled, by hideous necessity, to follow certain rules, which were laid down hundreds, perhaps thousands of years ago...rules of brutish utility."

Brett traces the evolution of these buildings beginning with Norman motes and baileys. These were enclosed camps that could man a platoon and withstand the attack of slung boulders or flaming faggots. "The mote and bailey reached Ulster with John de Courcy and has never quite left, " writes Brett, "De Courcy and his successors quartered the countryside with a network of connecting motes." With time, these morphed into castles, those architectural statements of power and resistance written in stone. During the Troubles, the bastard children of mote, bailey and castle were the police station, barracks and watchtower. The architectural styling may have changed but their ancestral purpose and significance remained stubbornly embedded in these buildings. By situating his photographs in this historical context, Olley allows his work and the viewer to chew, in Seamus Heaney's words, "the cud of memory."

The silent drama of the photograph, Golf Five Zero watchtower, Crossmaglen, provides a repertoire of visual gestures that recur in many of the images in the collection. This particular photograph is of an urban landscape - a street with a scattering of cars - but one where only the vestigial traces of human activity and life are present. "Some images do contain individuals," remarks Olley, "but I found during the editing process that including them robbed the alien presence these structures exude and therefore, in my view, to include passers-by made less powerful imagery." Paradoxically, this absence allows the buildings to articulate in a non-verbal way the unspoken truths that human testimonies struggle to describe. Where human beings have a tendency to rationalise and excuse, especially in conflict situations, these buildings speak directly without obfuscation. It is the viewer alone who is left to dialogue with the photograph in an uneasy face to face.

This malign structure, like something escaped from the imagination of H G Wells, has shouldered its way between family homes and chemist. The watchtower is a construction of unforgiving, jagged edges that mirrors the sectarian divide it watches over. There is no attempt to have this building sympathise with the surroundings or disguise the fact that it exists as an instrument of surveillance. The real purpose of such buildings is symbolic. They exist as a symbols of control. To work, symbols need to be seen and speak in a direct manner. The fact that this building is protected with a cage of mesh and CCTV shows that it is a fully operational symbol, hated and feared in equal measures by the local community.

Juxtaposing the domestic and the military creates stark tensions, but it also reveals the resilience of the quotidian. Olley describes these domestic buildings as "being 'politically invisible,' part of the non-violent resistance..." The daily rhythms of life defiantly continue through their presence. They will not be altered by the occupation of a squatter force. The chemist will remain open. Prescriptions will be handed over and medicines collected. Gardens with manicured lawns and plaster ornaments will continue to be cared for. Though communities are forced to live under the shadow of uncertainty and brutality, the front doorstep and backyard remain pockets of domestic resistance. They will not surrender.

Many of these photographs have a ghostly frame, soiled edges. This has occurred in the development process where the Type 55 Polaroid film stock has met a backing frame and not produced a clear, consistent image. The photographs are left with a smudged border. Jonathan Olley has chosen not to crop these photographs but to leave them with their lesions and liquid blemishes. "I think most of all I'm not attempting to hide the medium. Some would say it is not "professional practice"," Olley admits, "Though that sort of criticism tends to come from individuals who, in my humble opinion, "have bought the wrong ticket" and misunderstand the message behind the work. I suppose [this is] the difference between art and documentary."

These borders also point to the way that political realities bleed in unpredictable ways into the crevices of ordinary life. They cannot be easily framed or cropped. Depending on your viewpoint, they slip in and out of focus. At the very margins of vision and understanding, the present is brought into chafing proximity with the past, the political with the domestic, religion with the state. "Provided that the police and judiciary do not treat people from all sides of the sectarian, religious, class and racial divide with equality there will always be the opportunity for unrest," warns Olley. It is for this reason that the margins are an essential component of this artistic project.

In his photographs, Jonathan Olley attempts to order the historically contingent and endow it with a significance beyond itself. These photographs are more than documents of a time and place, but indicate wider concerns, historically and socially. The camera, Jonathan Olley suggests, can speak the truth.

Some of the Castles of Ulster photographs can be seen in the Tate Modern Exhibition, Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera which will travel later this year to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and in 2011, the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.
Castles of Ulster, Jonathan Olley, Factotum Books ( 2007

With thanks to Jonathan Olley for giving permission to use some of his photographs in this blog post.


  1. This blog post seams highly poignant, especially with the current news stories. The stark reality of Jonathans photography showing the brutal cold architecture of these structures, frozen along side domestic properties is chilling and an education to me, who's age and background meant that I too, although aware of some politics as a young person remained an innocent outsider.

    The towers stand like skeleton memorial tombs and a reminder of an unchangeable historic past. But to see before us the carefully manicured garden, makes one hopeful that the unity of Love and nurture can also be the same watch tower that helps to dismantle such solid and emotionally sad structures. I pray.

  2. These Images are facinating and I am so pleased martin has incorporated some of jonathan's work in this excellent weekly blog.I remember too well the political isues surrounding the country at that time , but was very naeve about the reality. The tranquility hidden behind such monuments do suggest a definate contrast between two completly different worlds at that time. Peace was always in the background!