I have been looking at Willie Doherty’s dark, brooding and highly atmospheric practice in both still images and video installations. Nearly all of his work has been on Derry and ‘The Troubles’ but that doesn’t mean Doherty’s practice is not of much wider appeal. It is. The weight of history, fear, violence, sectarianism, hope, despair, inequality, colonialism – these exist in every society in the world.
The main lessons I draw from Doherty’s practice in relation to my own, and in particular to my FMP, are these:
The Past Haunts the Present
A landscape or an image may mean little to a viewer, manifesting as simply another piece of countryside or an unremarkable ‘non-place’. Just one small piece of information, however, can transform our understanding with the result that we will never look at that scene or at that image in the same way again. Two examples from Doherty’s practice: Fig. 1 is ‘A Fork in the Road’ of 2010, an unprepossessing scene until we learn that this is the spot where a body was dumped after a paramilitary execution. Fig. 2 is a classic, scrappy, urban non-place, until we learn that this is where paramilitary kneecappings are carried out.
Non-places become places when they are imbued with human meaning, and Doherty is a master at suggesting this. In other works, he has taken the idea much further as in his video installation Ghost Story of 2007 (see Fig. 3). The past haunts what we see, a past of pain and suffering even though the details are indistinct. The voice of the narrator is both a ghost and memory. The shock, I think, comes from realizing that this could be us and in some sense is us. We may not have been to this particular place nor suffered like that, but we all have similar ghosts and ghostly places and they haunt us, too, in exactly the same way.
Showing the past in the present is a subtle process. It can only work by suggestion, allusion, hints and guesses that slowly coalesce because that is how the human mind works. Anything else is agitprop by comparison.
This is a very important part of my current practice, because I am trying to show traces of the past in the present, a past that in some cases is about 400 years old and in which there lie buried painful and traumatic moments – torture and death in the very places I bring my camera to.
The Slippery Image
Doherty’s practice has often made use of words and signs, sometimes overprinted on the image itself. They are brief and usually ambiguous, challenging us not to take what we see at face value but think to more carefully about the implications of what the image shows, implications that usually stretch back into Irish history and British colonialism. ‘Typically for Doherty’s work the signposts offered by the titles misdirect rather than guide’ (IMMA 2021).
This is the classic interplay in all photography between denotation and connotation. As Roland Barthes described, the photograph is ‘a message without a code’ (Barthes 1977: 17) that has been ‘worked on, chosen, composed, constructed, treated according to professional, aesthetic or ideological norms which are so many factors of connotation; while on the other, this same photograph is not only perceived, received, it is read, connected more or less consciously by the public that consumed it to a traditional stock of signs’ (Barthes 1977: 19).
The power of the photographic image always lies in this essential ambiguity. What an image actually shows may be very different from the assumptions and associations we bring to what we see, usually unconsciously. Doherty neatly makes this point in ‘Border Incident’ (see Fig. 4). We pick up the image’s title and immediately apply a sinister reading to the image, assuming it must show the aftermath of a bombing or paramilitary violence of some kind. The image might show that, but Doherty pointed out at the time that it might equally well show no more than a burnt-out abandoned car that someone has dumped there. We are kept guessing.
Non places become places when imbued with the meanings we give them, but we need to be aware of what those meanings are and where we may have obtained them.
Less is More
Doherty’s images are usually simple, bare, stripped down to essentials and they don’t show people. This is a deliberate choice and I would imagine that it requires careful very attention to framing and the elimination of unnecessary ‘furniture’ (stray branches, discarded items and so on). In Doherty’s words: ‘I wanted to show less and tell more’ (Maris 2015).
Show Not Tell
Overall, Doherty’s practice is ‘show not tell’ and it challenges much of what we take to be conventional landscape practice. These are almost all landscape images (or video installations) but these are hardly the landscapes one might find in a tourist brochure. Doherty’s work has often been compared to Paul Graham’s Troubled Land (Graham 1987) in this regard and I think there is a lot to learn from both photographers. An example is Graham’s ‘Roundabout, Andersonstown, Belfast’ in Fig. 5, an apparently conventional frame of an urban scene whose disturbing implications – soldiers, graffiti, damage – only become clear after contemplating the image for a while.
BARTHES, Roland and Stephen HEATH. 1977. Image Music Text. London: Fontana.
GRAHAM, Paul, Gerry BADGER and Declan MCGONAGLE. 1987. Troubled Land: The Social Landscape of Northern Ireland. London: Grey Editions with Cornerhouse Publications.
IMMA. 2021. ‘Willie Doherty – Border Incident (1994)’. IMMA [online]. Available at: https://imma.ie/collection/border-incident/ [accessed 6 April 2021].
MARIS, Jacqueline. 2015. ‘Willie Doherty – Finished’. YouTube [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4uOabhkLnjY [accessed 8 April 2021].
Figure 1. DOHERTY, Willie. 2010. ‘A Fork in the Road’. From Willie Doherty. 1986-2012. To the Border. Kerlin Gallery [online]. Available at: https://www.kerlingallery.com/exhibitions/willie-doherty_1/exhibition_works/7/479 [accessed 6 April 2021].
Figure 2. DOHERTY, Willie. 2013. ‘Remains (Kneecapping behind Creggan Shops)’. Kerlin Gallery [online]. Available at: https://www.kerlingallery.com/artists/willie-doherty/artist_works/24 [accessed 6 April 2021].
Figure 3. DOHERTY, Willie. 2007. ‘Ghost Story’. TATE [online]. From Willie Doherty. 2007. Ghost Story. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/doherty-ghost-story-t12957 [accessed 8 April 2021].
Figure 4. DOHERTY, Willie. 1994. ‘Border Incident’. IMMA [online]. Available at: https://imma.ie/collection/border-incident/ [accessed 7 April 2021].
Figure 5. GRAHAM, Paul. 1984. ‘Roundabout, Andersonstown, Belfast’. From Paul Graham, Gerry Badger and Declan McGonagle. 1987. Troubled Land : The Social Landscape of Northern Ireland. London: Grey Editions with Cornerhouse Publications.