The History of the Solitary Lighthouse Keeper
Keepers of the Light: 'For the Safety of All: Photographs from the Commissioners of Irish Lighthouses Collection', The National Photographic Archive, February 23rd - April 28th 2001
Review by Justin Carville
The imagined existence of the lighthouse keeper as a solitary figure stoically watching over the fringes of the mapped world, has been one of the most enduring images of the twentieth century. So too has the media portrayal of the final days of the lighthouse keeper on some isolated peninsula or island before modern technology has rendered his presence there obsolete. Flashed across the television screen in recent decades have been intermittent 'human interest' stories of the final moments before the lighthouse keeper has for the last time, boarded a boat for the mainland. This forlorn figure has for many, become a poignant symbol of the final area of working life to have given way to automation. Today the safety of the mariner has been handed over to computers, satellites and global positioning systems, from man to machine.
This is all very humanist and nostalgic stuff, precisely the rhetoric used in the exhibition For the Safety of All: Photographs from the Commissioners of Irish Lighthouses at the National Photographic Archive in Dublin. The viewer is presented with a series of black and white images accompanied with textual narratives that portray the simple, if harsh life of the lighthouse keeper. Reinforced throughout the exhibition is a sense of the past as somewhat harsh yet uncomplicated by the pace of modern life further inland. Visual and figurative tropes recur throughout the exhibition to emphasize remoteness and solitude. The exhibition poster and promotional material is a panoramic image of a barren, stony landscape with a solitary lighthouse tower on the horizon. The image uses space to put distance between the viewer and the object, but this is not the only distance constructed in the exhibition. Distance is created between past and present, between that life and ours, a distance that is reinforced by the textual narratives that focus on the particular and the specific, a ploy that avoids broad questions being asked of the use and function of such images.
What then, can we ask, is the currency of these photographs of Irish lighthouses? What function do they perform? And are there other, unspoken themes threaded throughout the exhibition that might help us understand their value in contemporary society?
Many of the photographs in the exhibition are credited to Robert Ball, a lighthouse inspector from the beginning of the twentieth century. The few photographs not taken by Ball are accredited to their specific authors or listed as 'unknown'. The need to author images is part of contemporary exhibition culture, but it suggests an avenue of exploration that might lead us towards an answer for the questions posed above. The images presented here, in particular those by Ball, are not so much authored by the individual, but rather the institution they work out of. The photographs are not part of a personal archive, they are state records. Their function was as administrative rather than historical records. The bound albums of panoramic photographs are like written documents and statistical information, their function is to record data for juridical, legislative or clerical use. However, as with all exhibitions that use photographs to historicize human activity, use gives way to exchange. Their function as data has been usurped as they become records of the past. They are no longer framed by the administrative discourse of the Light House Commissioners, they have become subject to the institutional discourse of history itself.
Because the photographs are used to construct the past, the archive space being turned into a temporary maritime museum with nautical artefacts displayed in glass cases and lifebelts strewn over balcony railings, undercurrent themes that thread their way through the exhibition remain unexplored. A theme that lies underneath the surface of the exhibition's rhetoric is that of technology, not just the optical and mechanical workings of the lighthouses, but also the technology of photography used to represent them.
The discursive systems of maritime navigation are embedded in models of visuality. To move on from Ptolemaic mapmaking, cartographers had to flatten out imagined or real three-dimensional space that existed beyond the vanishing point of the horizon. The first virtual spaces existed on navigational maps, mobilising the viewer's gaze within reach of that beyond the field of view. The panoramic camera used by Ball to produce his six albums of panoramic prints, brought an increasing technological sophistication and heightened sense of reality to the panoramic image, flattening out the traditionally 360 degree cylindrical painting that constructed virtual spatial and temporal mobility for the spectator. The lighthouse itself with its optical apparatus and panoramic projection of light is bound to models of vision, it not only warns the mariner, it forces them to imagine space they cannot see.
These themes remain below the surface however, only in two photographs do we see a reaction by photography to respond to the optical and technological forms of the lighthouse, 'The Source of the Magnifier' and 'Spick and Span'. Taken in the style of 1950's industrial photography the images are atypical rather than representative of an exhibition that projects us back into the past.