The PhotoBook Journal

January 18, 2010

John Duncan – Bonfires


Copyright John Duncan 2008 courtesy John Duncan and Photoworks/Belfast Exposed Photography/ Steidl

In John Duncan’s latest book, Bonfires, we see that he is continuing to investigate the urban environment being built around his native region of Belfast in Northern Ireland. It is a region that is in flux, with acute memories of adversity, turmoil and unrest.

In this book, John Duncan’s documentary style photographs of the transitional structures erected for the Eleventh of July bonfires in Northern Ireland provide a variety of readings. For those living in the greater Belfast region of Northern Ireland, there are the underlying passions of politics, economics, prejudice, history, animosity, and pride, tied up in a seemingly complex religious bundle. A European context is that these bonfires are tangentially related to the Battle of Boyne in 1690, a battle in Northern Ireland which was “not a religiously motivated one, but part of a complicated political, dynastic and strategic conflict. From my perspective in the United States, not knowing the history or the reason for these structures, these are photographs of an interesting series of non-artesian built sculptures.

The books introduction by Karen Downey and David Chandler ask the open ended question;

And, then years after the Belfast Peace Agreement – with the cessation of violence and the feverish reconstruction of the city – (Duncan’s) Bonfires contributes to the increasing important question of how Northern Ireland’s contested past and conflicting identities will be inter-graded into its planned future.

Nevertheless, the photographs themselves are cool recordings of man-made structures, edifices that appear to be in the progress of being erected. Photographed on overcast days, the color is not deeply saturated with a lack of deep shadows or bright highlights. The flat lighting provides a clinical, dispassionate and a matter-of-fact distant viewpoint. It could be argued that photographing these structures that appear only at this time of year, the overcast lighting is the normative for this region, thus the flat light lighting is perhaps not a stylistic intent, but an environmental and cultural factor.

There are a few people seen within the photographs, minor characters in relation to the structures and found on the outer edges of the pictorial frame, which links these photographs to the topographical traditions of Brend & Hilla Becher, Candida Hoefer, Ed Rusca, Robert Adams, Walker Evans and Eugene Atget. Like the urban photographs of these photographers, the people may not be seen, but their presence is made palpable by the disarray of the man-made materials, looming structures in progress and the urban locations.

The man-made sculptures fashioned out of locally found materials have an Andy Goldsworthy sculptural aspect to them, each reflecting the sensibility of the builder in-charge. Duncan has photographed them in their various construction states, centering the primary structure within in the middle ground of the pictorial frame. The serial details of the structures can be compared and contrasted, as well as being evaluated within the urban environmental context.

The photographs are also mysterious and threatening with structures that appear to rising up from this troubled urban land. We can not be absolutely sure about the reason for their existence and what will happen to them. We see signage, text, flags and other elements festooning these structures, but may not understand the intended message. These photographs may instill a sense of celebration or a feeling of rage, or a range of feelings somewhere in between.  We do not know what will become of them, thought we suspect that they will soon be consumed and become part of history, folklore, and memory.

The photographs are indications of a cultural story and temporal situation in which there exits a certain order that has been framed and preserved by Duncan.  Similar to the New Topological photographers, Duncan does not appear to push an agenda, “without glorifying or condemning these structures (built environment), assembling a survey without a unifying narrative.”

The essays by Colin Graham & Mary Warner Marien provide a wider external context to the photographs and discuss the political, economic and cultural backgrounds for the existence of these structures.

By Douglas Stockdale





1 Comment »

  1. I thought your presentation at Swansea Metropolitan University helped me to become a social photographer and your worked is just purely brilliant, thank you. Ian

    Comment by sinamagazine — October 25, 2011 @ 7:53 pm

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