Cole Flynn Quirke memorialises the formative years of his early-20s

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Quirke’s latest project marks his departure from the carefree years of early adulthood

In literature, TV, and film, coming-of-age is commonly associated with the late-teens, and the growth that is experienced in this transition from childhood to adulthood. But rarely do we hear about the formative years that follow. “I felt like I was like the same person up until I was about 19,” says 25-year-old photographer Cole Flynn Quirke. “Then, something clicked. Everything I stand by, I think I’ve learned in the past four or five years.” 

There are a different set of responsibilities, and anxieties, which arrive with your early-20s. “I know I’m still so young, but in the past five years, so much has changed,” says Quirke, “you’re exposed to so many things that start to terrify you a bit.” Leaving home, or formal education; facing sudden expectations to get a “proper” job; becoming aware of the vulnerability in your parents, which you never realised as a child. 

Quirke’s latest project, Even a Maniac Can Learn to Drive, is ongoing. It follows on from his previous body of work, A Bird Flies Backwards, which is similarly autobiographical, and explores Quirke’s experience of friendship, love, and loss. But while this previous work spoke about the experience of coming to terms with change, Even A Maniac Can Learn to Drive is more reflective. Quirke describes it as “a swan song to the age of no or very little responsibility… a sketchbook memorialising the wild, wonderful and intimate first five years of my twenties”.

“The project is about uncertainty of time and growth. The notions it observes are about maturity and the fading of innocence”

“Originally, it was going to be called The Wishing Well… but I wanted to come up with something a little bit more rowdy,” he laughs. “One night, a friend and I were walking home quite late, and this driver came speeding up the road, swerving everywhere. He nearly hit me and my friend, and I went, ‘ah, even a maniac can learn to drive’.” This idea that “anyone can do anything” resonated with the transition that Quirke experienced. “The project is about the uncertainty of time and growth,” he explains. “The notions it observes are about maturity and the fading of innocence… It’s a project that emulates a personal reflective nostalgia.” 

Photography and memory are intrinsically intertwined, and, for Quirke, the medium of collage is integral to speaking about his experiences. “It’s like a tool for me to decipher things that I’ve encountered in life, and how they’ve affected me,” says Quirke, who has been scrapbooking since he was 16. “I couldn’t be bothered to glue stuff in, so I’d just stick masking tape around it. At the time I thought it looked grubby, but it developed, and I’ve never worked in any other way.”

Cut-and-pasted or stitched together, a reckless, youthful energy imbues Quirke’s work. “A lot of my imagery is quite dark, but there is also a sense of humor,” he reflects. Since lockdown, unable to visit exhibitions, Quirke has found himself inspired by album covers. He refers to the cover of V3’s 1996 album, Photograph Burns, on which a naked woman hangs up laundry as a fire rages in the back of her yard. “That photo encapsulates the idea that a photo can be quite gnarly, but also have a silliness to it.”

However, alongside this audacity and humour,a tenderness ripples through the work. A dead mouse, delicately resting in a friend’s palms; a naked body, curled up on a bed; a couple kissing in front of a police van. “A lot of it’s metaphorical, and people can take their own feelings from it,” he says. “It’s just me purely as an observer… I’m just trying to represent honestly what I’m seeing around me.”

Marigold Warner

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.