some thoughts on
Irish artist Miriam O'Connor's various photographic collections, conceived over nine or so years, accost with their vividness and depiction of colours and shapes spied in the ordinary world by a wandering and apparently artless eye.
Her images often concern people - but paradoxically people we don't actually see. What we do see is what they have left behind, either in the short term or from a more distant past. So we find a cardigan previously draped by someone on a clothes stand, a plate of half eaten sandwiches when all attendees have returned to a seminar, microphones or a lectern awaiting a speaker or possibly abandoned once the speaker's job is done, the corners of twin beds bereft of occupants.
When people appear bodily they will have been shot from behind or cropped from the shoulders downwards. Faces are never captured - unless it's on an image encapsulated within an image. Individuality, personality, is not expressed by the conventions of portrait but through other means and details. Thus a man in a dowdy sports jacket stands before a dull wall, his unkempt hair fanning collar-wards, its colour the same as the fine stripes of his jacket. The detail is characterful, far more fascinating, than a full stereotypical face to lens shot. Similarly, a woman in bright clothing stands direct to camera, as if posing for the photographer, but is shot only from shoulder to hip; what we learn of her we must learn from her attire; paradoxically, and humorously, she wears a name tag, conveying amongst the wealth of personal visual traits this least informative and most conventional of nomenclatures.
Crucial to the above is the aforementioned use of colour, and that includes background. The matching, tonal blandness of the wall behind the male in the checked jacket subdues the whole palate; it projects a complementary hue across the image and engages with the mood. Likewise, in an image where a mantelpiece holds aged, sepia photographs, the whole of the photographic canvas is muted in the browns of a gentle, weary tarnish. Conversely, boxed rhubarb becomes vividly glorious, startling in its richness, when captured before a greyish, mottled floor. The twin beds are excessively vibrant with multicoloured, silken bedspreads but are also flatly co-joined by a bright, coiffured, green carpet, enhancing and maintaining the slightly surreal saturation of the image.
Colour is also deployed with more caustic results. An electoral poster affixed to a railing presents an aging politician staring tiredly from his background of “hot-dog mustard” yellow. Absurdly, three identical posters have been tacked side-by-side, giving us political triplets ensconced in a hopeful, tawdry glare.
Colour works to imbue standout objects with intent, almost personality. A hedge in a bed of tidy stones and set against a conventional brick wall has a healthy green unruliness which makes it beckon us to join the rebellion against regimented bricks and raked bed. Red chairs encircle a boardroom table where no one is present; arrogantly almost, they appear to hog the area, excluding us.
More tenderly, an image depicts what appears to be an institutional bathroom. Its green walls and affixed mirror await the ablutions of someone who has previously defined their space in one corner, tidily, by leaving a pink wash-bag, turquoise mouthwash bottle and bright orange container of perhaps shampoo; everything they need to keep themselves clean. The vibrancy of these small colours adds the image's humanity and poignancy.
The framing of all shots appears uncalculated; it matches the eye, snags on details, on shape, colour and colour complements. Photographic conventions are broken; the old photographers' rule of thirds is left by the wayside. One humorous example depicts a white, cliff-like structure dominating against a blue sky. On inspection it's clear that the mountainous construct has a soft texture, and a flash of dye along its top surface then indicates the rear of a standing sheep.
Sometimes images from a particular collection will reappear within other images. This may be a response to the ubiquity of the image in society, to its distancing quality, positing the question: “Here are images. Here are these images within further images. How far can society remove itself from direct experience?”
My own favourite - from THE ATTENTION SEEKERS collection - shows a stained cream wall on which hangs a picture. The picture depicts peasants in a field; it is old and the colours are faded. It hangs by a V of brownish twine and is cropped below any nail or fixing. Pushing up from the bottom of the image and virtually identical in appearance as regards colour and dimension are the double antennae of an old television set, cropped by the photographer just in the manner of the picture twine. Visually, it's an uncanny mirroring. Thematically, it seems to say: this is how we used to look at images, as paintings. Then we began to look at them in a different manner we thought of as modern: through television. We stand back and look at this progression through another framework: the camera.
article by Mike Connor
Image used with permission. To see more of Miriam O'Connor's photographic work visit her website at miriamoconnor.com