Eamonn Doyle has photographed O’Connell Street, the longest thoroughfare in Dublin, for most of his life. But he needed Samuel Beckett to understand it.
“I was obsessed with Beckett when I started taking these photos,” Doyle says of the Dublin-born novelist. “Beckett understands Dublin, but he strips away the context of his characters. I was deep in that mindset, so I started taking photographs that pares everything back.”
The project started with a shot from behind; a solitary woman covered by an ornate head-scarf and powder-purple coat, shot close-up with her face hidden from view. Doyle realised then that street photography is possible from another angle.
“The older face is such a loaded cliché in this sort of photography,” he says. “With Beckett’s writing, it’s not what said that’s intriguing, but what’s not. I wondered whether you can apply that to photography.”
Although unknown in photography circles, Doyle is a bit of a local celebrity; the founder of the Dublin Electronic Arts Festival, he has run a recording studio and a couple of record labels on the adjoining Parnell Street for the past 23 years. “So you come to recognise the local characters who wander along with their own internal dialogue,” he says.
He would stand as close as he could without disturbing his subjects, standing on his toes to capture them from above. He wanted them un-posed, unaware; smoking a cigarette or crossing the road, enacting a routine or hurrying home. “If they noticed what I was doing, I’d stop straight away,” he says. “I wanted them oblivious.”
The portraits can resemble an inverted fashion shoot, as if Bill Cunningham suddenly found a social conscience. “There’s an effort and dignity there, even if some of them are quite down and out,” Doyle says of the Dubliners’ clothes. “I didn’t really appreciate that beforehand.”
Remarkably, Doyle’s photography career has been spent in monochrome – this is his first colour project. “I needed to come at it from a visually graphic perspective, because they’re very colourful people, very well dressed, even if there’s just the one suit,” he says.
Doyle’s work has attracted high praise. The celebrated Magnum photographer Martin Parr tells the BJP: “These hunched street walkers of Dublin express so much character, yet we never see their faces. It’s so simple, so powerful.
“Street photography is one of the most difficult genres to find a new vision within,” Parr says. “From time to time a photographer finds a voice and makes an original contribution to this development. Eamonn Doyle’s wonderful collection does that.”
You can see Doyle’s photographs now, blown up to huge dimensions, hanging from the buildings of O’Connell Street.
First published in the May 2014 issue. Want to complete your collection? Buy back issues at the BJP Shop.