Read an Excerpt
by Nuala O'Faolain
If you live, as I do, in a part of Ireland popular with tourists, you become hardened to the transactions involved in photography. Your own mild bay and headland stares at you, lurid, from the postcards on sale beside every till. You shrug, embarrassed, at the garish images you catch sight of in brochures that have lured visitors across the sea to confront the singularly evasive reality of Ireland. You see the holiday makers lined up, laughing, their hair blowing across their faces for the friend who shouts "Say cheese!" Their well-being will be there in the holiday snap, but the place where they stood might be anywhere. At a scenic bend of the road near my cottage, there are as many pointing lenses, sometimes, as outside a celebrity premiere. A local man tethers his donkey there, and he fixes a pipe between the donkey's teeth, and -- click-click! -- the tourists photograph the pipe-smoking Irish donkey. What else can they do with it?
And then, this. This American child of Ireland gives us these photographs.
Jon Michael Riley talks of thanking the land of Ireland and the people of Ireland for the gift of grace that came upon him when he was with us, making this record. But how to thank him for the gifts he has showered on us in return? Here is Ireland fully escaped from literary or historical text -- pounced on by a lover who has had the patience to wait for it to reveal its secret, visionary self. These are the private beauties of an apparently plain and muted landscape, displayed for him, the lover, because he has stalked the angle, the light, the moment, when the beloved could be shown to best advantage.
His sympathy for the Ireland he both invents and records is all-embracing. Over and over, the drama within a photograph is the movement towards each other of the animate and the animate, whose coexistence can then be seen as a joyous affirmation of the shared organic being of things. His white sheep shelter under a hawthorn tree that is exploding with white blossom. His barn dog on Valentia is framed by old roof slates, stone walls, crumbling plaster, a wooden window half gone to dust: wistful dog and abandoned building belong together on some third cusp that is neither alive nor lifeless. The gravestones at Graiguenamanagh are one with the neat modern house behind them, and the figures of an outdoor Crucifixion scene mediate the young trees behind and the long meadow grasses that wave in front. The great bulk of the ceremonial mound at Newgrange stamps its authority on a landscape no less made than itself by human toil in the service of human need. Yeats' chair all but talks to his window. At Powerscourt House the stalks of the water lilies on the artificial lake wittily mimic the confusion of baroque and neoclassical beyond them. In the vision of this photographer, past, present, and the moment of the taking of the photograph are one, and this is the Irishness in him, seeing how it is here. Because neither ancient nor modern is the truth here: the mixture is the truth.
Stone things and living beings cross boundaries in the perception of this artist and move towards the condition of the other. The human beings -- workaday, undecorated, innocently frontal -- are shown rooted without self-consciousness in their places, even when the place is a wide strand and a vast sky. They touch each other naturally, delicately. They lead the loving observer to see things other than themselves -- duck eggs, the curve of a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the hull of a rowboat on a quayside, a head of Elvis, a field of cattle, the muzzle of a horse.
It is not the people but the stones that impress the viewer as compact with feeling. Stone heaves up through every surface. The path out from the gate of Pearse's cottage leads to stone outcrops breaking through the illusion of soil. Stone and grass meld in the ruins of Fort Dunboy, stone and moss at Lough Gur. An enigmatically carved stone, a millennium old, defers to the vivid day-old nettle at the entrance to Loughcrew. Diaphanous light plays in a tree above light's opposite, stone, and somehow sunlight, tree, and ancient stone belong -- both in the actuality of the photograph, and somewhere out there -- beyond interpretation. And stones themselves, in dolmen, barrow and ritual circle, swell and yearn towards each other in these photographs. Their curves are the loneliest things in lonely landscapes. Such is the empathy with which Jon Michael Riley approaches these prehistoric stones that when they are carved, he makes the carvings seem the voice of the stones themselves, calling to us in a language whose meaning we do not know.
No one could feel for Ireland as sensitively as this photographer does who does not know about sorrow and loss. In his images of derelict things half gone back to the earth -- a rusting gate, the dried-out paint of a door, the corner of a ruined house already embraced by ivy -- Jon Michael Riley adds his note to the lament for Ireland's tragic history of emigration and depopulation. Yet it is not these but his celebratory photographs that are the most touching of all. It is like the loving encouragement of a father for a shy child, what Jon Michael Riley has found to praise in a landscape usually only praised for its melancholy. This is the first time that I have seen photographs that say, "Oh, Ireland! You are sumptuously beautiful!" The sheen of the bay in a Connemara landscape, the exquisite tresses of water splayed on rock at Powerscourt waterfall, the dynamic greenness of a tree in a field in Cavan in high summer -- these are images where grace abounds.
And yet they are true to the simple materials of which they are made. Ireland has half-drowned in its time in blizzards and froths and waves of words, storms and hurricanes of words, but words can never be precise -- words are hospitable to as many images as readers can bring to them. Jon Michael Riley's Ireland is unified by one man's discipline: It is an Ireland presented not with passion so much as passionate control, as if the photographer had subsumed his ego to the spirit of the place and given himself to the particulars of its reality as his way of saying that he loves it.