Photography of Dara McGrath : Raw Beauty of Transitional Spaces

Dara McGrath is a professional photographer from Cork City, Ireland. His latest photo project called ‘Edgelands’ deals with non-narrative landscape photography of transitional spaces between or around deserted spaces of the Eastern and central European national borderlands. There’s no border controls the establishments are being decommissioned and abandoned. They don’t exist on maps but reveal themselves as lonely half-way places, echoing their lost prominence and strategic significance. Dara’s photography is very atmospheric and it draws viewers’ attention to impermanence and transformation that deepen disconnect and alienation. In his words, “my images strive to look for the connection between the physical borders and society’s borders: borders that are in many ways ingrained within our built environment of separation and isolation. The images also ask the question: what happens to a space and its structures when its purpose is no longer needed?” We are very happy to feature some of his works with an interview below:

Dara McGrath Photography (3)Hello Dara, please tell us about yourself, your hobbies and interests:

I was born in Limerick, City Ireland and grew up there. Presently I live in Cork City, Ireland. Between that I have lived in Dublin, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria and Switzerland. I work as a professional photographer where I specialize in the photographic reproduction of art both 2D and 3D. I also specialize in the photography of antiques and artifacts for museums, institutions and private collections. I also work in the archiving of images. This work affords me the financial help in realizing my own photographic practice.

After leaving school I trained as an aircraft mechanic. Soon after qualifying I quit and put myself through a photographic preparatory course, which led me to be accepted to study photography at the Institute of Art Design and Technology, Dublin, qualifying in 1997. In 2005 I qualified with a Masters in Visual Arts Practice from the same college. Since 1999 I have been doing my own personal work.

Not much hobbies at the moment as I am the father of two young girls aged 3 and 7.

Dara McGrath Photography (4)When did you start taking photography seriously and how many photos do you take in a week/month?

I think from 1994 when I started my degree in photography I have been taking myself seriously as a photographer. Being self-employed gives me the time to do my own personal work. I can timetable out work both professional and personal. But as for financial stability, that’s another thing.

My professional work is always ongoing but as to my personal work, I seem to work in intensive short blocks that are well planned and researched, but spend practically every week night sending off my work for commissions, exhibitions, competitions and opportunities etc.

Dara McGrath Photography (5)What does photography mean to you? What is your artist’s statement as a photographer? Did photography bring some changes in your vision and personality?

Photography means a lot to me. Its my way of understanding the built environment and how people interact with it and my place within it, both on a professional and personal level.

This is my artists statement: “The concern of my photos lie in exploring transitional spaces, in-between places where architecture, landscape and the built environment intersect, where a dialogue – of absence is created. The focus of the photographs is on impermanence, transience, and ideas of change, shifts and “repositioning”. Landscape and architecture that appear to be solid and permanent are experienced as somewhat disoriented. The resultant photographs are realized both with the gallery space and as site-specific installations and interventions”.

Dara McGrath Photography (6)Photography to me is problematic. In such much as it is imperfect medium. It’s a 2-dimensional representation of a 3-dimensional world. It is a wonderful tool, however it is fragmentary in how it relates to what you see and feel, being only able to document a small part of life, landscape and the environment. I think that working with a series of photographs helps to arrive at a narrative, rather than trying to do it in a single image.

My personality has changed from when I started photography. From being an instinctive reaction to one of being methodical and considered. I think doing my masters has had that effect in how I approach my practice. Most of my work is spent now on researching my subject matter before I even take a photo. Thanks to the Internet and also possibly to my professional work environment of museums, archives and galleries.

Dara McGrath Photography (7)I also think my practice also relates to stories that are well beyond newspaper headlines and the correlation of place. At the moment and for the last 3 years I have been working on a body of work that documents the landscape of chemical and biological weapons in the United Kingdom. My lead for this project came from a small column in ‘The Guardian’ newspaper in 2011 that highlighted a Ministry of Defense report into 14 of these sites. To date I have discovered over 80 sites and photographed approx 50 of them along with video interviews with chemical weapons workers and human guinea pigs that partook in biological weapons testing. This shows that photographic projects need to look beyond simply taking a photograph.

Dara McGrath Photography (8)Tell us about your key area of photography and how did you arrive at it? Please also tell us about your equipment and preferred settings, your views on editing and photo manipulation:

The key area of my photography lies in exploring transitional spaces around the landscape, built environment and architecture and where a dialogue absence rather that presence is created. The philosopher Focault spoke about the space between solids as charged spaces that tells you more about the solids that they say themselves.

I do enjoy the cameras + equipment I work with, but I don’t care about camera types, settings, software etc. Robert Capa once said that “if it’s not good enough, you’re not close enough”. What I take from this is no matter what equipment you have you have to have a long-term relationship and engage with you subject matter. To almost become part of it.

Dara McGrath Photography (9)In relation to manipulation I am probably old-school. Minimal cropping dodging/burning. The more you get it right at the start the less of post-processing you have to do. It’s quite common for me to re-photograph my landscapes 2, 3 or even 4 times.

Your photos are not easily comprehensible visual narratives. These images are presentation of architectural / landscape spaces and the psychological effects it casts on viewers thus it’s unconventional and offbeat. What do you think about your own photography?

Well said! I suppose through my extensive research on my themes I built up main elements that refer to how I perceive the built environment. I tend to look at my project as looking at every possible angle that the subject can be viewed weather negative or positive.

Dara McGrath Photography (10)I consider myself an activist but not in the traditional sense but in a way that I am commit myself in the long-term to bringing to the fore the reasons why the subject is important comment on society and on what has come before and as a staging post in what is to come.

Tell us about your photo project ‘Edgelands’:

The deserted spaces of the East European national borderlands are spaces in flux. Devoid now of border controls, they are in the process of being decommissioned and abandoned. No longer points on a map, but neither fully blank spaces, they are spaces-in-between, and are difficult arenas to absorb and comprehend. This photographic documentation looks at the transitory nature of the present day European border checkpoints and crossings and what it says about the relationship between society, identity, architecture and the landscape in a united Europe and the spaces that are left behind.

Dara McGrath Photography (11)Some of your images seem brilliant satires on modern society and living. Do you agree with this observation?

I think so… There is irony in everything, contradictions and inconsistencies in society. How I see it landscape and society are intertwined. Walter Benjamin said in 1928, in his book ‘Man in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ that “layers of society are within the landscape”. Practically all landscape is totally man-made now. There is hardly a piece of landscape on this planet that man hasn’t left his mark. The most influenced are possibly divisions between urban and rural landscapes, where change happens more than any other spaces. Hence the space between.

Dara McGrath Photography (12)Do you have a favorite photo or a photo with an interesting story behind it?

My favourite photograph hasn’t been taken yet, but once it has been taken it wont be my favourite photograph anymore.

I am partial at the moment to one photograph (see below) from my ‘Project Cleansweep’ series looking at chemical and biological weapons. The photograph is of a field with oildrums in it. The field was an off-site storage facility to a chemical weapons manufacturing plant Rhydymwyn in North Wales that until 1943 was the most secretive military site in the United Kingdom. Although the site looks sinister with the oildrums relating to chemical weapons, the field, in fact is now being used for the rearing of grouse. When I was there (after 2 failed attempts) they followed me around pecking at my legs. At the end of the day I ended up sprinting from one side of the field to the next avoiding them as they chased me around and keeping them out of frame. Funny at the time and to anybody passing on the road near by.

Dara McGrath Photography (1)What are your views on contemporary photography and evolution of your style with emerging trends?

Being a photographer now for over 15 years I suppose I am no longer ‘emerging’ but have reached a place where I am content to do my own work regardless of trends and fashions that to me are just a phase and idea of the next biggest and best curator. I have a lot of respect for current and past Irish photographers who worked in a limited environment.

When I set out on this journey pre-Internet the scope of my work was limited to Irish galleries/exhibitions and commissions. However in the Internet age the focus on my work has been more to institutions around the world that specialize on the narrations that I am engaged in and committed to. I believe that looking outwards geographically takes my work to a larger audience, however I am also working on an Irish project too at the moment.

Dara McGrath Photography (13)Tell us about your achievements, awards, and clients, etc.:

I received AIB Arts Prize in 2003 for my personal work and represented Ireland at the Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2008. Other achievements include ‘Young European Artists residency’ at the Centre National De L’Audiovisuel’ Luxembourg; solo-show at the Museum of Photography Thessalonika, Greece this year; collaboration with writer Rachel Andrews that led to her winning the inaugural prize for writing at the Centre for Documentary Studies at Duke University in 2014.

Presently I am engaged with commercial work for the Art Institute of Chicago for a book on Irish Art due out in the Autumn of 2015; photographing for the publication ‘Wallpaper In Ireland 1700-1900’, published 2014 by Churchill Press; photographing and Archiving 4,000 artworks for the Crawford Art Gallery; photographing and archiving the public collection of the South of Ireland at the Cork Museum. To date I have photographed 15,000 items out of a total of 48,000 objects and photographing for “Irish Furniture 1600-1700” from Yale University Press

Dara McGrath Photography (14)Tell us about your future projects and plans, your inspirations, and your other favorite stuff:

With my chemical and biological weapons series of photographs I hope to publish them in the Autumn of next year as a monograph. I am also working on a project that looks at new churches in Ireland that have sprung up in the last ten years or so. Ireland has always been considered a strong Catholic country so I believe it is an interesting look at the diversity of faith that is present now in the country in alternative and unconventional spaces. I am also working again with writer Rachel Andrews on a writing/photography project that looks on the Bosnian town of Visegrad an early site of ethnic cleansing during the 1992 Yugoslavian war and more specifically on the model village within it called Andricgrad that was created and built by the film director Emir Kusturica.

Dara McGrath Photography (15)Say something to aspiring/budding documentary photographers and our readers:

Don’t give up. No matter how many put downs you get. Cock-ups you make and failed projects you attempt, never give up. This is what you have trained for. This is you and what you love to do. If you don’t follow your dream you will wake up in your fifties and discover that practically your life has gone by doing something that you don’t like actually doing. Many of my photo friends and colleagues have gone onto ‘regular jobs’, outside of photography. Few remain. It’s an insecure occupation and very few make a good living out of it. It’s ironic a lot of photographers are not very good at being creative but have a good business sense and are able to sell themselves.

Dara McGrath Photography (2)Dara McGrath Photography (16)Dara McGrath Photography (17)Dara McGrath Photography (19)Dara McGrath Photography (20)All photos © Dara McGrath links: Website | Blog | Facebook


About Nishant Mishra

Nishant studied art history and literature at the university during 1990s. He works as a translator in New Delhi, India and likes to read about arts, photography, films, life-lessons and Zen.

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