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'Sheep-shearing and horse racing': Photography exhibition offers insight into the Ireland of yesteryear

The exhibition open at the National Museum of Ireland tonight.

Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph of a racecourse.
Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph of a racecourse.
Image: National Museum of Ireland

A MAJOR PHOTOGRAPHY exhibition opening this evening at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin will feature work from three of the world’s most important photographers who visited Ireland during the 1950s. 

Bringing together 100 images captured by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and American photographers Dorothea Lange and Robert Cresswell, Ireland in Focus: Photographing Ireland in the 1950s includes many never-before-seen shots of mid-century Irish life. 

Scenes from 1950s rural Ireland include Irish families shearing sheep, Corpus Christi processions and people at the racecourse.

Born in Northern France, Cartier-Bresson became arguably the most important photographer of his day. 

A pioneer of street photography and photojournalism, he visited Dublin in June 1952 while on assignment for Harper’s Bazaar magazine, later returning in October 1962.

Travelling throughout the country, Cartier-Bresson captured scenes in Dublin, Kildare, Westmeath, Galway, Kerry, Cork, Tipperary, Kilkenny, Waterford, and Wexford during his visits to Ireland.

The images on display at Collins Barracks in Dublin are the largest number of his photographs ever displayed in Ireland. 

“These exceptional photographers frame a variety of aspects of Irish life at that time and, in doing so, implicitly reflect elements of our society that were known, but often unseen,” Director of the National Museum Lynn Scarff said.

“We are particularly grateful to the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson for working with us on what will be the largest ever exhibition of images by Henri Cartier-Bresson in Ireland.”

Capture Corpus Christi Procession by Robert Cresswell. Source: Courtesy Robert Creswell Archive

In addition to the 50 Cartier-Bresson images, the exhibition also features 20 photographs by American documentary photographer Dorothea Lange – best-known for her portraits of displaced farmers during the Great Depression – who visited Ireland in 1954 on assignment from Life magazine. 

Anthropologist and photographer Robert Cresswell, meanwhile, lived in Kinvara, Co. Galway during 1955 and 1956 and took more than four hundred photographs of the area, including a set of Kodakchrome slides. These photographs were taken as part of his fieldwork on a 1950s’ rural community in transition.

Dr Audrey Whitty, Head of Collections and Learning at the National Museum of Ireland, said the exhibition provides “a very special insight into the Ireland of yesteryear.

“This was a time when smart phones and social media had not even been conceived, and photography was still a relatively rare commodity, so these images give us a rare insight into what life was like in towns and communities right across the country during what was a very challenging time for Ireland.”

Ireland in Focus: Photographing Ireland in the 1950s opens at the National Museum of Ireland’s Decorative Arts & History branch, at Collins Barracks, Dublin 7 from today until April 2020.

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