Troubled Times

British Journal of Photography,

25 May 1989

Troubled Times

Brian McAvera reviews the work of Victor Sloan in the context of the ‘Troubles’ of Northern Ireland.

John Russell Taylor once headed a review of Peter Brook’s film of Lord of the Flies with the legend: ‘the limitations of intelligence’, picking up on the truism that a cultured and intelligent sensitivity did not necessarily produce an artwork. At the other end of the scale, the exuberant, overwhelming imagination which spawns remarkable images with the fecundity of a rabbit, needs discipline: Orson Welles, speaking of his Chimes of Midnight – that remarkable Shakespearian adaptation - noted that he had edited out many of his most compelling and beguiling visual images because they were extraneous to the central trust of the film.

Much so-called 'art’ photography slides between these two oppositions. On the one hand the images can make us aware of the intelligence, the cultured finesse, the sensitivity of the photographer; on the other hand a different set of images pitchfork us into a visually inventive potpourri – the unrestrained and undisciplined imagination cresting a wave without substance. Often, especially with the former, more austere, often documentary-in-style work, the response has more to do with the sheer appreciation of craft than with aesthetics. I remember Richard Hamilton, discussing the various print-making processes that he used, remarking that his main audience was probably print connoisseurs or people like the local letterpress printer who would exclaim: ‘How on earth did you do that!’ The seduction of craft can easily mesmerise the cognoscenti into substituting the word ‘art’ for ‘craft’. But technically is only a means to an end.


Obviously the old chestnut of form and content is being dangled for resuscitation. What Peter Turner would call authenticity, honesty and truth need to be co-mingled with artifice in order to produce that exploration of experience and perception that we call art. And artists in the photographic medium are as rare as they are in any other medium. It’s at this point that I would like to discuss the notion of the manipulated image, especially in relation to notions of authenticity, honesty and truth. Virtually since photography began – but in particular in the latter end of the twentieth century – manipulated photography has become fashionable. Over the years artists/photographers have learnt that the pristine photographic image can be a template for their concerns – rather like the baseline of a fugue. They interfere either with the negative or finished print or both, layering it (toners, watercolour or any other additive process); subcutaneously reinventing its seeming two-dimensional anatomy (slicing, scraping, incising, rubbing); using it as the pretext for major surgery or a transplant (tearing it, burning it, or collaging); and even breaking free from the confines of the single frame by juxtaposing or sequencing, be it a simple narrative or associative sequencing, a frenzied overlapping layering, or even an explosion which partakes of the nature of a mural-like installation. Obviously, much of this is an attempt to simulate the images, processes and status of fine art, especially in its late twentieth century manifestations of the combine, collage, mixed-media work, and more traditional photomontage.

At the risk of oversimplifying, I would suggest the following as a speculative proposal. Manipulated images in the vein of toning, hand-colouring, or use gum bichromate printing, tend to simulate or aim for the aesthetic charge of painting, whereas photomontage and allied forms tend to thrust towards social or political comment Рthe content is predominant. The latter also emerges strongly in times of social and political stress be it a Heartfield or the photo-montage tradition in Eastern Europe. At which point I end up in Northern Ireland, clearly an area under stress; a pressure cooker in which truth, honesty, integrity and likeminded concerns are strained to their utmost. In the north 20 years of photojournalism and television pictures have reinforced the truism that photography lies; that the single pristine image is converted to propaganda with the utmost of ease (England has the Falklands for comparative purposes). Seeing is believing only to the innocent eye. The single image simplifies substance into an ideology. The soldier with his looming weapon, dominating a small child (to take only a recognised clich̩) is a propaganda statement, not an exploration. Such images are incapable of breathing the oxygen of content; they deracinate the complexities of history and politics and social articulation; they fasten onto myth, propaganda and state control with the ease of the practised liar.

In the north of Ireland the response to this is various. Someone like Willie Doherty uses images and (often poetic) text, to point up the variant possible readings; to locate political and historical undercurrents; to set up a resonance, like the spark of metaphor between image and text. A Paul Seawright extends the textual idea by photographing places where sectarian murders took place in such a way that they could be anywhere – Leeds, Manchester or Glasgow, as well as Belfast – but appending cool yet horrific narratives of the murders themselves. A Peter Neill tries two strategies: that of setting up a tableau to be photographed which acts as a form of sociological iconography of the North, or by sequencing his images into metaphorical narrative.


With Victor Sloan, to my mind the most powerful photographer/artist working in Ireland, there is a combination of techniques. As if to confound my earlier formulations, he blends the aesthetic/painting tradition with that of sequencing and multiple imagery, within the one frame. His search is for honesty, truth and authenticity amid the quagmire of myth, dissimilation and revisionist history that is the lot of the North. He works in series. Each exhibition is a controlled exploration of part of the Northern psyche. The Walk, the Platform and the Field series, in which he manipulated both negative and finished print, had as his baseline his photographic images of the Twelfth of July celebrations: the glorious history of King Billy as perceived by one section of the population. The surface festivities bedecked with celebratory Orangemen in bowler hats and proudly-held swords were manipulated to reveal the latent violence underneath: the latent became patent. In his next series, Drumming he took on the entire siege mentality of the Unionist North, revealing it as a millennial state of apocalypse. With Birches he extended his range by taking on the myths of that most potent of images: the rural Irish countryside; that idyllic paradise of blue skis and seeming innocence. Consider one image: Turf.

In its cold sepia look, its classical framing (a curving diagonal almost bisecting the frame) and its seemingly traditional subject – a pallet of recently dug peat, straw, a rural landscape with creamy skies – this could almost be an image belonging to the oeuvre of those traditional Irish photographers such as Welsh, French or Alexander Hogg. But its attitudes, its tone and its means are modern. Sloan no more believes in the myths of rural romanticism or domesticity than you or I. Peat may indicate romantic boglands, but the pallet indicates hard backbreaking work and cash crop.


The Twelfth marchers proudly carry their Twelfth of July banners, asserting their tradition, unbroken from King Billy to the present, but the tone - undogmatic, questioning – asks the essential question of any tradition: is it still relevant to the here-and-now? The means – the toners, the scrake of hand-made mark – both assert and reassess the nature of political commitment: idealism or intransigence; traditional strengths or archaic survivals. Thus the sky blends the red, white and blue in loyal affirmation, while the few scrakes that rend the surface suggest the possible fragility of the marchers’ position.

It is both critique and celebration, rather than a romantic gloss or tacky ‘promo’, Sloan is sufficiently committed to his heritage to explore it honestly, weighing up the freightage of the past but sieving it for the benefit of the present. Tradition cannot be blinkered he seems to say; but its strengths are the building blocks of the future.

The point of this analysis lies in the nature of the complexity of response required. The manipulated image is the method by which he bypasses the soiled coinage of photographic ‘honesty’, ‘truth’ and ‘authenticity’; the method by which he explores the context of the North; the method by which he introduces a complex personal response into a seemingly documentary photograph. The gift that he has been given – though it is a double-edged one – is the gift of the Troubles; his response is the production of work whose meaning, and aesthetic charge, operates like that of an artwork – leaching out slowly each time that you gaze upon it.

Brian McAvera