Tuesday, November 20, 2007

1913 Rural Ireland...stunning colour photographs!

I visited the In Search of Ireland exhibition in Temple Bar recently. I would highly recommend it.

It's a fascinating story. Two French ladies, Madelaine Mignon-Alba and Marguerite Mespoulet, aged in their early thirties visited Ireland during May and June of 1913. They were equipped with camera equipment and the newly invented autochrome colour photographic plates. They were destined to capture the first colour photographs of Ireland and it's people. The women were recent graduates of the French based Albert Kahn foundation which aimed to document and photograph the people and places in remote parts of the World which were likely to be subject to irrevocable change in the near future. The women travelled from the Galway area gradually eastwards through the midlands and ended up on the east coast around the Meath area. They seem to have avoided Dublin city and other large towns and were concentrating on the rural people, their appearance, lifestyle and landscape.

When we think of the rural Irish people in the early 1900s the images we have are invariably in B&W. To see the faces and garments of the local people in full colour gives a whole new dimension. I was completely blown away by the exhibition for number of reasons....

The notes and observations made by the French women were just as impressive as the colour images. What came across to me very much was that although many of the country folk were shy of the visitors with their cameras they still warmed to them. I think that being women and French made a difference. They were not a threat as part of any landlord system and the French were traditionally friends of Ireland at least in their common opposition to the British (the enemy of my enemy is my friend!). The intended photography was not part of any oppressive agenda. Nobody photographed was trying to either impress or be obstructive. Indeed - in spite of the 10 second exposure requiring people to be a bit still and stiff -the people appeared really natural in their genuine daily lives.

Madelaine and Marguerite noticed some women with a very dark haired and Hispanic look and postulated that the strong past Spanish Armada connections with Ireland would have produced this genetic feature. I smile to myself at this as we Irish today often think that the recent arrival of settling immigrants is unique in our history.

One of the photos which really wowed me was that of the young dark haired woman with the bright red shawl. On first glance at the girl's features in this amazing colour photograph she could easily pass for a Leaving Cert student in Ireland today. On closer inspection of the photograph the life of hardship does show...her hands and fingers are toughened and nails are grimy from hard manual work and indeed the same could be said about her bare feet. Her teeth look yellowy and in need of modern care!

Although the photographers were in Ireland in the summer months they were greeted with very high winds and much rain throughout their visit which was a painful parallel to the tough, bleak and often tragic lifestyles which they encountered. Some of the notes mention the baron nature of Connemara and the often wide separation of tiny isolated dwellings a well as the presence of typhoid and other sicknesses. They do however also mention some of the stories of the people and their simple optimism. One little story about stones and a cure for headaches stuck a personal reminder for me of the type of tales and cures my paternal granny (who was from a rural background) used to tell me when I was a child. We really are not so far separated from this type of Ireland..and seeing colour photographs of the early 1900s does bring this to mind even more.

There are 54 photos in the collection and plenty of interesting accompanying notes. I would dearly love to read all the notes that these ladies took on their visit, it would make for a great publication. It was not possible to buy any copies of the photographs and photography in the exhibition was not allowed. I did however naughtily sneak a rushed and blurred phone camera shot of the wall print of the girl with the red shawl. It was poor quality.

Update 28 Feb 2011: An Italian visitor to the same exhbition took a much better photo (shown above) and as he kindly said in comments below - this photo should belong to the Irish people. So thank you Gianni, your photo is wonderful. It is terrific to share an image of the first ever colour photo of a young rural Irish girl in 1913. From another comment on my blog it seems the girl's name was Mian Kelly, then aged about 15. Mian passed away in 1973 aged 75. Mian was also a grandmother of another commenter below.

I've since then purchased the full book "The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn: Colour Photographs from a Lost Age". It's available via bookstores or on Amazon. It includes great photos from around the World at the time and a fascinating selection from the Irish visit - including the above.


clare said...

Hi John, I've never done this before, I mean add to anyones blogg or what not but today I just HAVE to. Thank you so much for you article on the Rural Ireland exhibition. I caught the BBC prog Edwardians in Colour on Friday which covered the Mespoulet's Claddagh images of the Kahn archive. Like you I was bowled over by the beauty and the 'right-here' vividness of the autochromes.
Since then I've likewise tried to find ways of acquiring copies. So that's how I found your site AND consequently found out about the exhibition. I come over to Dublin quite a bit and am only too happy to have found another wonderful reason to make another visit. Thank you SO much. By the way you can get some pretty good images to print off, if you google Musee Albert Kahn. Also I understand a publication of the Kahn's 'Archive of the Planet' is due next April. Amazon around £35. Well that's it. Thank you loads, again. Clare

John of Dublin said...

Hi Clare,

Thank you very much for your nice words and also for that additional information which is most useful to me.

Anonymous said...

Hi John,

I saw the exhibition in galway and, like you, thought it was a fantistic display of the full range of photos taken by the French women. I am currently trying to see if I can possibly purchase Mme. mespoulet's diary or papers. If you possibly have any ideas please place them on your blog. I was also wondering if you purchased The Wonderful World of Albet Kahn. It is a great collectors item and the shot you took is also included as well as a second one of Mian kelly, the young lady of the Claddagh. Mian died in 1973, aged 75.

Like you, I am also trying to get my hands on copies of these great photos and if I have any success I will contact you.


anon said...

I just found out this is a picture my grandmother - amazing

John of Dublin said...

Wow Anon, that's really interesting! I bought the book since then - "Wonderful World of Albert Kahn: Colour Photographs from a Lost Age". It shows lots of great Irish colour photos from 1913 - including your grandmother.

Anonymous said...

H i John, I was at that exposition in Dublin....I asked to buy the picture but they refused to sell a copy. However I managed to take a shoot that came out quite well.
It is printed and hanged on my wall. I love it.

I think this picture belongs to the Irish people and I'm willing to share it

Have a look on my flickr page, you can contact me if you want.


Does anyone know this girl's name??

John of Dublin said...

Thanks Anon. Super capture you got there. I'll add your photo at end of my blog, thanks. It was a great exhibition indeed. I later got the full book "Wonderful World of Albert Kahn: Colour Photographs from a Lost Age".

According to one of the comments in my blog above the girl's name was Mian Kelly who died in 1973 aged 75, making her about 15 when the photo was taken. Another commenter above said Mian was his/her grandmother!