A Landscape Revealed
'All Along the Watchtowers', photographs by Frankie Quinn was shown at Clotworthy House in December 1998
Review by Louise Gagen
This is a significant moment in Northern Ireland's history. For the first time we are witnessing the dismantling of historical boundaries. This presents an ideal opportunity for a photographer to record these events. However Frankie Quinn's journey 'All Along the Watchtowers' is concerned with reconciling the people, not so much with each other, as with the land. He has chosen to focus on the scars which have been made on our landscape, scars made of concrete, barbed wire and watchtowers. Quinn documents the removal of these scars and reveals the land which, for so long, has been obscured from our sight. As a consequence he also succeeds in removing the traces of psychological scarring from the people, thereby suggesting that the land and its people are inextricably bound together, each a mirror reflecting the other.
Quinn begins by photographing the landscape and people so that we only glimpse a fragment of each: the bare limb of a tree or the bare limbs of line dancers. Both land and people are represented as fragmented objects and he suggests the boundaries have obscured a complete image. In Derry street scene, William street, 1996 we see three women dwarfed by the concrete mass of the urban landscape. Their gaze is diverted from the camera, they glance instead to an area which the boundary of the photograph does not permit the viewer to see. This unseen area, as the later photographs reveal, is the area of land that has remained free of human development.
The effect of these boundaries has been to make the land unfamiliar and alien. The images proceed 'along the watchtowers', with Quinn introducing symbols of the psychological as well as the physical boundaries which prevent us from truly seeing the land. Ideology, culture and religion are also held accountable for hiding from sight the natural landscape. Easter commemoration at Clones, Co. Monaghan, 1995 like Derry street scene is a composition consisting primarily of straight lines rather than the random curves of nature. Two young boys bearing flags stand rigidly, blocking the viewer's sight of the landscape in the background. Positioned in the centre of the image is a small and fragile tree largely obscured by a large wooden crucifix directly in front of it. The composition distinctly positions religious and cultural icons in the foreground of the picture whilst relegating nature to the background. The boys appear literally incomplete in the picture whilst the crucifix takes centre stage.
It is only in the last few photographs in the exhibition that Quinn reveals his vision of the rural landscape. The boundaries have now been in place long enough that an entire generation has grown up without any personal memory of what was there before. This, inevitably, is a recipe for nostalgia and it is no surprise that the images appear timeless and unmarked by recent history. The scene is of land and people reunited. This suggests a view of an untouched rural landscape that is both benign and apolitical. In Diving into the Atlantic off Bundoran balance and harmony between land and people are restored, all references to culture and religion are absent, as are any references to the physical boundaries of the border.
We are left with a picture offering the promise of an Edenic Utopia, a playground for children who dive carefree into a sundrenched ocean. However, we cannot - no matter how tempting - ignore the naivety of such an image. Quinn is subscribing to a simplistic opposition of modernity, represented by urban wastelands, and a traditional rural ideal. He ignores the fact our natural habitat is mixture of both, with the majority of the population now living by choice in cities. While 'All Along the Watchtowers' masquerades as a documentary account of a political event it is in fact a story about the cleansing of the landscape.