It started in the early summer of 2018, when Cole Flynn Quirke’s grandmother passed away after suffering from a long-term illness. “It was the first time I ever lost someone I adored so much. It affected me in a way that I didn’t really think things could,” he says. “I started to feel – and I know it sounds really cringey but – a kind of overwhelming weight of existing. My life became more important to me than it ever has before.”
A Bird Flies Backwards is an autobiographical project built around the timeless themes of mortality, friendship, love and lust. Quirke graduated from Middlesex University and exhibited at Free Range last summer, where he was one of three artists awarded with a solo show. The resulting Free Range Awards show kicks off at Tuman Brewery in East London on 07 February, and Quirke will be exhibiting A Bird Flies Backwards for the first time.
The project includes photographs of Quirke’s friends and family, and their surrounding landscape, as well as videos pulled from old VHS footage, and images of his grandmother on her death-bed. “I didn’t even want to look at those prints, but I put them in there because they’re important to the narrative,” he says.
For Quirke, making these photographs had a lot to do with coming to terms with this unwanted change, and learning to be okay with it. “One of the main objectives was to keep me active through a time when I didn’t want to be,” he reflects. “In a nutshell, A Bird Flies Backwards is a coming-of-age piece. Learning how to cope with the fact that stuff can hurt you, and life can get pretty weird.”
Quirke first started making photographs when he was teenager, but back then he was more drawn to fashion photography and film stills – his interest in the medium was initially sparked by his father, who is a big film buff. “I really liked the sense of narrative and venture in films. Once I realised the power of a narrative through a single image, I got into photography.”
As a teenager Quirke would dress his friends in his father’s old 1930s-style suits, and create storyboards out of the prints. “They were pretty terrible,” he admits, but working in analogue and printing everything himself – usually in the darkroom he built in his bedroom – is part of these early years that have stuck.
Still, it wasn’t till around two years ago, when he went through a “really savage breakup”, that Quirke started to make records of his own life. “I realised I’d lost something I really cared about,” he explains, “my photographs then became quite autobiographical”.
Quirke’s inspirations include artists such as Jim Goldberg, Ute Mahler, Larry Clark and Joseph Szabo – who he was pleased to share an exhibition space with in Penzance, Cornwall, last summer. Though Quirke shoots mostly in black and white, in the beginning his biggest influence was William Eggleston. “His first book, [William Eggleston], was so personal, it definitely pushed me into the direction that I’m going in now.”
“The whole idea is that my photographs are welcoming people into my world, and seeing through my eyes,” he adds. “Throughout this project, there’s a juxtaposition between my own intimate private moments and snapshots of the world around me. It’s about both adventures and fleeting moments.”