How does one portray (a) loss?
In his highly ambitious project On Leaving, Dublin based photographer David Monahan takes as his subject the current wave of Irish emigration, specifically the sense of loss associated with this recurrent outward migration. His book comprises three series of photographs, Empty Spaces, Leaving Dublin and Visitation, as well as several written contributions; most notably a poem and rather thoughtful essay by Sarah Maria Griffin, herself one of Monahan’s numerous subjects.
Leaving Dublin, which forms the core of Monahan’s book, is a series of night time portraits taken at different locations throughout the Irish capital. In the depiction of his subjects—individuals, couples and families—Monahan employs an early painterly technique perfected by Rembrandt: chiaroscuro, the strong juxtaposition of light and shade, was used to direct the viewer’s attention to a central figure or action within a painting. By placing the point of greatest illumination on his subjects, who are pictured sitting on or next to the same, tattered suitcase, Monahan highlights the psychological dimension of a life changing event: leaving the familiar for the unknown. The participants of Leaving Dublin are not looking at the camera, neither do they appear to be simply staring into the distance. Rather, their gaze seems to be directed inward, towards an uncertain future. Still, Monahan’s use of dramatic lighting as well as the posture taken by his subjects is reminiscent of the visual imagery used by political icons; the sitters of these portraits are rendered stoic, fearless. The effect is heightened in the few images where Monahan’s participants stare directly into the camera. While the partially muted backdrops of cultural institutions, city streets and public parks are no coincidence—in Griffin’s essay The Proof That We Left we learn that they hold meaning for the individual subjects—in this series our focus is directed towards the plight of Monahan’s collaborators.
In Empty Spaces selected locations from Leaving Dublin are photographed again, this time at dawn, and devoid of any human presence. However, these images don’t seem to have been taken just seconds after someone passed through Monahan’s frame; these spaces—a cemetery, a train station, even a city square—look well and truly empty, deserted. Still, if we suddenly found ourselves there physically, sitting on a park bench or walking along a pier, we might still feel an energy, a buzz, as if only the night before people had gathered here, raised their glasses and watched the sun come up, before they left for good. Before they left us behind. While it is perhaps more difficult to relate to Monahan’s sitters, in Empty Spaces he manages to forge a connection between the viewer and these desolate locations; they could hold a significance for us, just as they once did for Monahan’s subjects.
Finally, Visitation is a series of black and white portraits taken during Monahan’s visits with his participants in their new homes. These photographs are far less stylized, less formal than the images in Leaving Dublin; here, we find ourselves sitting next to, or across from Monahan’s subjects, at a coffee shop, a picnic table, on a sofa. However, while many of his participants are now pictured smiling, seemingly content in their new, mostly sunny surroundings, there is something sombre about these photographs. Monahan’s use of black and white film here implies a sense of mourning; taken out of context his images bring to mind photographs that might be used at the end of a film, to pay tribute to a director or actor who has since passed away. They are the types of photographs by which those close to the subjects would want them to be remembered by. Indeed, for Monahan the departure of these young people is bittersweet: in his introduction to On Leaving he writes, “how much the world has gained by their export. How wounded we in Ireland have been by their loss.”
Throughout On Leaving the notion of loss is successfully articulated in two different ways—visually and literally—and, more importantly, from two different perspectives. While Monahan’s night time portraits in Leaving Dublin and Griffin’s moving poem American Wake might focus on the individual in the face of uncertainty, Monahan’s desolate land- and cityscapes as well as his informal portraits speak of a collective loss: a loss for a family, or for an entire country. The loss Ireland suffered and is suffering today as a result of the Diaspora is mapped in the highly informative and equally poignant writings by Piaras Mac Éinrí, Noreen Bowden, and Jennifer Redmond, which accompany Monahan’s sophisticated photographs. On Leaving is both a valuable contribution to documentary and fine art photography, and an invaluable addition to the history of a people.
– review by Lisa Stein