David Jazay / Dublin Before the Tiger
November 2014 Interviewed by Christiane Monarchi
David Jazay is a photographer and award-winning film maker whose photographic work focuses on our changing urban and rural environment. From the late 1980s through to the mid 1990s, David created a unique and systematic photographic approach to document a vanishing Dublin that would be irrevocably lost a few years later in the economic boom of the Tiger Years. His method of combining multiple medium-format negatives into high-resolution panoramic vistas of Dublin’s oft-neglected inner city and its architectural heritage, harks back to the vedute of the Georgian age, and has been praised as an “amazingly beautiful, incredibly detailed”, “reconstruction of Dublin’s inner city”. Below, Christiane Monarchi recently asked David about the inspiration behind this body of work.
Christiane Monarchi: Could I take you back to Dublin in the 1980s, what were you working on in Dublin? What started your visual interest in the Dublin cityscape and made you want to start documenting?
David Jazay: My work has always been what you could term “psychogeographical” in nature. It is about urban and rural spaces, the way people make use of them, the traces they leave, their ghosts, hovering after they are gone.
Early on, I had a strong fascination with photorealist artists such as John Baeder, Richard Estes, and Ralph Goings. Keen and appreciative chroniclers of the mundane, the public realm: shopfronts, signage, advertisements, etc. And their unabashed love for bold colour.
Historically, there is a long-standing tradition of depicting Dublin’s cityscape in elaborate vedute, when, in the Georgian era, a newfound sense of urban space and civic pride sparked interest in showing the city as communal space. But in the 1980’s, when I started my project, much of the inner city had all but vanished from public perception. Brutal, polluting traffic cut the city in two, and the Liffey Quays, once the showpiece of a proud Georgian city, had devolved into a ragged jumble of antique shops, greasy spoons and car repair places.
While referencing the era of painted vedute, I focused on ensembles of buildings, that had gone through a variety of uses, presenting a rich layer-cake of mercantile and habitational history. I developed a meticulous, high resolution approach to the documentation of these places, choosing to elevate the vernacular and mundane. In keeping with a pop art / photorealist agenda, to show the familiar in a way that defamiliarises.
The large images were composited from scans of up to 12 medium format negatives, matched and rectified, and combined to yield otherwise impossible-to-achieve views of rather dense and built-up spaces. This approach allows for finely detailed, huge prints, and lends the images a slightly abstracted, larger-than-life quality. I simply wanted to give back an aura of beauty and gravitas to these houses and the lives and works of the generations that shaped them.
CM: How fast did you notice changes start to occur in the urban landscape you were documenting?
DJ: It was quite clear from the start. The dereliction, the frequent fires and demolitions, shops closing or moving premises.
I first visited Dublin in 1982, and in the subsequent years, I returned almost annually, until 1995, to re-visit, re-assess and re-photograph the buildings along the Liffey. I also started making portraits of the people I met, and in 1988, fresh into film school, I directed and shot a 70 minute film about the inner city, Bargaintown. The lives and opinions of a vanishing generation of Dubliners are given voice in this “remarkable documentary, stunningly photographed in luminous black and white.” (Cork Film Festival). Bargaintown is currently being restored in cooperation with the Irish Film Institute for a relaunch in 2015.
CM: Images in black and white can conjur up feelings of history and nostalgia as well as photojournalistic accuracy, while colour interspersed in your series seems to transport the city forward in time and engage with formal aesthetics of art photography – what subjects seem more appropriate to you in the different approaches?
DJ: I tend to use black and white for more casual portraits of people, although I am not dogmatic about that. All in all, I aim to use the best possible stock for each work. I also used black and white for a long, continuous, multiple-viewpoint panorama of the Liffey Quays, shot over a length of 2 miles. Only low speed black and white document film could give me the required resolution. Shot from a distance of 50 yards, one can almost read the lettering on the shopping bags of passers-by. That richness, that level of detail, was important to me, since it is precisely the quality that is often missing when we turn to period photographs to re-imagine the past. The “feelings of history and nostalgia” are generally met, but I wanted to go beyond : to provide an unprecedented level of accuracy, such as a future historian, set builder, or writer might crave.
Another thing: I was aware at the time that decaying inner cities were usually depicted in atmospheric black and white, and, therefore I chose colour for the larger, architectural images, that provide context and grounding. They show the environments people used in their everyday lives, but which normally go unnoticed, are subject to frequent change, re-decoration etc. I photographed these ensembles of buildings much like one would approach a portrait, to bring out a deeper truth through a set of conscious choices.
So, generally, my artistic decisions about the medium, perspective, and natural lighting, aim to elevate the subject matter, to take it a notch above the purely descriptive, to make the viewer pause, reconsider, and appreciate the commonplace.
CM: How long did you continue your series, have you taken recent images of the same geography?
DJ: I have made some new work in Dublin this year, concentrating on a few idiosyncratic people and places to have withstood the general sway towards the global chain store aesthetic that now permeates Dublin, like so many European cities.
My Dublin Before the Tiger project is finished. I was very fortunate to have been able to capture that crucial decade, before the economic boom changed the very fabric of the city.
CM: A digitally combined image from varying negatives is compelling in terms of scale, does it also contain varying points in time?
DJ: There is no averaging or time manipulation in my photographs. The technique of combining high-resolution scans of multiple images, is solely used to capture larger spaces, and to achieve high resolution. I am aiming for maximum verisimilitude in architectural proportions, and likewise do not digitally remove people or cars.
CM: What plans do you have for this series in the future?
DJ: I am planning an exhibition with a museum in Dublin, in 2015. Also, an outdoors, public installation of the large panoramic images. With mounting interest in this work, I really want Dublin Before the Tiger to be out there, to be appreciated by the general public. The sheer scope and detail of the project will insure a multitude of possible readings and contexts, in which the images could work, e.g. a book, and an augmented reality app. And there is Bargaintown, the 70 min documentary which provides socio-historical context, as a companion piece to the exhibition.
In today’s climate of recession and uncertainty, the resilience and civic pride I found in an impoverished country, shortly before its very fabric would change with the influx of funny money, could well hold lessons, relevant for a younger generation, accustomed to hand-to-mouth, grass-roots enterprise.
CM: What are you working on next?
DJ: I am about to finish photographing for a series called The Loneliness of the narrow-gauge Signalman, about the architectural relics of a now largely-disused railway line in Sardinia. Built around a hundred years ago, it opened up remote mountain communities to commerce and travel, and was immortalised by D.H. Lawrence.
A combination of interior shots of derelict signalmen’s posts, and sweeping, high resolution landscapes, this photo essay will convey the essence of a bygone era: the archaic, male domain, dominated by manual labour and austere living conditions.
My next project will be a story about my father’s experiences as a displaced person following World War II. Conceived on a more personal scale, it will narrate one pivotal, traumatic experience in my father’s youth, as pars pro toto of a shared European history, that holds relevance in regard to today’s forced migrations.
For further reading: www.davidjazay.com