It is no doubt frustrating for an artist when one particular interpretation lodges firmly in the minds of their audience as the best way to approach a given work, a frustration compounded when this work is the artist’s most widely known and influential. Such is the case with Chris Killip’s In Flagrante, which is generally seen as a response to the social changes that occurred in England during – and as a result of – Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister. Killip attempts to correct this perception with what is perhaps a somewhat tongue-in-cheek gesture in the new and long awaited reprint of the book by renowned publisher Steidl, listing the successive Prime Ministers that held office in the period he was making the work, only the last of which was the notorious Thatcher.[i] This addendum makes clear that, if nothing else, the persistent association of In Flagrante solely with the damaging effects of Thatcherite policy is chronologically wrong and the process of dismantling post-war social reforms that Killip so ably described had actually begun much earlier. In itself this is an important and welcome corrective to entrenched critical attitudes about the work. What the book also brings up, however, and what I want to address here is the issue of those changes a photographer might make between various editions of a book and the extent to which these are warranted or worthwhile.

The comparatively high price of the original means it is difficult to make a complete comparison; even the Errata Editions title on In Flagrante is now expensive to obtain. In fact, it might be more interesting to consider the rationale for making any changes at all, to what is, for many, an acknowledged masterpiece. The changes that have taken place are alluded to in the title, which is now appended by the word Two, differentiating this edition of the book and defining its successor status – a not quite sequel. Killip has taken the opportunity to include three images that had been left out of the first version. He doesn’t give any indication why they were excluded in the first place, as Stephen Shore, for example, does in the ‘Artist’s Note’ that introduces the 2014 reprint of his own seminal Uncommon Places, explaining that several of the images were absent from the original printing of the book because they required the intervention of digital technology to be useable. Advances in reproduction are in fact an excellent reason for a new edition of a book, especially in the case of colour printing. More significantly, Shore expanded on the original 1982 edition in 2004, so as to give a more representative view of his concerns in making that work, something he felt was not communicated by the original publication. Twenty further images have been added to the 2014 edition. The book is consequentially billed as the ‘complete’ work, though in many ways it seems doubtful that those pictures will substantially change our understanding of Shore’s essential aims.

The inclusion of three images by Killip is the least of the changes that have taken place, although they are powerful photographs in their own right. What he has left out is perhaps just as significant, including his own brief, somewhat enigmatic introduction, along with the closing texts­­ by John Berger and Sylvia Grant. The most striking change is a simple, formal one; he has moved the images uniformly to the right-hand page, where each image appears by itself, in that classic format for the photobook. The book itself is also bigger, so that we can now lose ourselves in the rich, often painful details of each picture, such as the iconic image Torso, Pelaw, Gateshead, Tyneside (1978), where each crease of the man’s worn hands, the unravelling hem of his overcoat sleeve, its crudely darned pocket, his precarious balance on the wall, all have the force of a revelation. But this change in placement and rhythm means that each image also becomes, in effect, an object of aesthetic contemplation in a way that tends to dull the sheer urgency of the original narrative – an urgency that is once again, sadly, as pressing as ever. Whatever else the movement of images across the page in the original might have done, it reinforced the sense that these images are part of a dynamic whole, one that sat, as Killip himself said at the time, somewhere between fiction and metaphor. So there is a certain ambivalence in the experience of looking at the reissue; however much one might enjoy the complexity of individual pictures, this now comes at the expense of the book’s overall narrative complexity.

The sequence is now basically framed by two images, one of which does not feature in the original. They are two views of the same place, Wallsend, Tyneside, with a row of terraced houses on the left of the frame. In the second, newly included, and presumably later image, it appears as if a war has taken place – and, of course, in a sense, it has. The houses are abandoned, some apparently burned out, debris is strewn everywhere. A lone figure surveys the wreckage. There’s no indication as to what has actually taken place, but the implications are clear; a devastating break has occurred, a whole world, with its values and traditions, has been lost – or rather, has been wilfully thrown away. The effect of how these images are placed creates a sort of closure, by progressing from that world as it was to how it ended. What should be clear is that the new edition of the book works, as a book, in a substantially different way from the original; we might also note that the impression that it leaves, as a net result of this change, is substantially different was well. Still angry, it is now decidedly, if subtly elegiac, as though suggesting the damage has already been done. Leaving out Killip’s own short introduction and the concluding essay(s) has an effect as well. Berger’s text probably went a long way toward associating the work with a critique of Thatcherite policies, so it makes sense to cut it, given Killip’s desire to broaden the scope of responses the project has garnered. But this absence also serves to strengthen the impression that the pictures are the product of a history that has now largely been resolved.

It could be said, of course, that there is a difference between a facsimile edition and a reissue, which merely presents the work in as close a form to the original as the artist currently sees fit, affording the scope to correct issues with the original, such as Killip clearly felt was needed with both the printing, which was significantly darker the first time around, perhaps due to limitations in technology, and, as I have just outlined, the placement of the images. At the same time, how justifiable is it to apply such significant changes to a landmark work when the original books are so inaccessible to begin with? Its might be argued that this expanded format is a real advantage to our understanding of the work, which perhaps it is. But the fact that such major works in photographic book-making are not more widely available in some alternative form is increasingly hard to excuse. This need not involve the production of costly printed facsimiles, but could easily make use of high-resolution imaging and be distributed digitally instead. Although they don’t make ‘facsimiles’ as such, the aforementioned Errata Editions is an important model for what might be possible in this vein. Of course, a screen-based reproduction is not at all the same as seeing the original, but it would still provide a clear sense of sequencing and other important details, which are at least as important as the book’s materiality.

Given that most publishers are in the business of making products that will reliably sell, rather than promoting niche scholarship, this seems unlikely to happen on any kind of large scale, but it remains a worthwhile possibility to consider, especially since so many of the important books in photography are beyond the reach of most interested buyers and those studying the medium. Of course, no artist wants to be forever beholden to their past work, but the continuing inaccessibility of many important works in their original form is a serious impediment to the critical understanding of photography – and even of simple enjoyment, with publishers (and institutions) unwilling to make full use of the tools that are now available to them, especially since the promise of an ‘updated’ and ‘all new’ edition of a classic seems more likely to offer a better return on the steep investment of producing a photobook, whatever its reputation. The opposite extreme is the production of elaborate, ostensibly ‘complete’ works especially aimed at collectors. A good example of this trend in recent years has been the reissue of William Eggleston’s books in full, often consisting of multi-volume sets, including most or all of the material that was left out of the original publications.

While there’s certainly a case to be made that the best way to understand Eggleston is, simply, more Eggleston, and that the printing of these sets is also orders of magnitude better than the originals, especially true in the case of The Democratic Forest, the importance of letting the audience see (a version of) the original books for themselves and to understand the decisions – indeed, the compromises – that went into making them, should not be underestimated. If The Democratic Forest doesn’t seem to be terribly inaccessible or expensive on the used market right now, the same can’t really be said of Los Alamos, published by the sadly defunct Scalo. This is one of Eggleston’s essential works, crucial to understanding the themes and preoccupations that would define his output. The Los Alamos Revisited box-set from Steidl makes all those images available, plus a great many more and, in a way, the justification for the scope of these sets is that they reveal Eggleston’s vision in full, away from the pruning hands of his various editors.[ii] Not quite Eggleston unfiltered, but nearly. And the sumptuous production makes the purchase of these sets seem like a worthwhile investment. But understanding the work means taking account of all of the forces that have shaped it, even those that might retrospectively come to seem like ‘mistakes’ to the artists themselves, much as with Killip’s decision to change to layout of In Flagrante.

Josef Koudelka’s Exiles also provides a useful case study for the problems that can be encountered in the course of reissuing a book. Counting the most recent edition, which appeared in 2015, there are now three versions of the book in circulation, each slightly but meaningfully different from the others.[iii] The latest version shares the cover image with the second, but differs in typography and layout, while the first edition is more markedly different still. The recent edition is not being presented in any specific way, except as a standard reprint, so it seems like we should safely be able to assume that the work is structured in the same way as the earlier editions. But the first clue that this is not so must be the fact that several ‘new’ images have been included for the first time – standard practice, as we have seen, with the reprinting of classic photobooks. The changes that have been implemented here are more substantial than the inclusion of these new images would suggest by itself, however. What they involve is a restructuring of the book’s sequence, presumably to better accommodate the new pictures, but also because the occasion of this reprinting offers the opportunity for Koudelka to make a final ‘definitive’ version of the book and one that, not coincidentally, makes use of the heavier tonality that he prefers for his more recent work.

To be clear, this isn’t about preserving the book as a static record of the artist’s vision at a particular moment closest to its creation, but about understanding that the artwork (a book, in this case) is the product of those decisions that make it up and being able to read the worth of those decisions critically, because retrospectively altering them must inevitably change the work – and not always for the better. With books especially the sequencing of the pictures and the alchemy of what happens between them is central to the form, so to change that, either for the sake of making the book into an ostensibly new product or because the artist’s sense of what the work should be has altered in the meantime is essentially to re-make the work on its most basic level. Obviously there are arguments in favour of either position, but the scope and the effect of such changes have to be understood for what they are. With the case of Koudelka’s Exiles it seems to me that viewers coming to the work for the first time, not having seen the earlier versions, will be getting an impression of the work that is substantially less complete than it should – or could – be. [iv]  The rationale for a straightforward facsimile edition of the original book seems clear, given the status of the work, but the opportunity wasn’t availed of – without, I would argue, any solid reason why such a project hasn’t been undertaken.

Even the varied and somewhat inconsistent terminology being used here – facsimile, reissue and so on – reflects the confused state of the market, a situation that seems unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.[v] It’s clear as well that no single approach will be workable in every case. As a tentative conclusion, however, we might say that the reluctance to embrace the full range of tools now available to facilitate scholarship in this crucial area of the medium is increasingly unjustifiable, not because digital editions can in any sense replace printed books, but because they can potentially provide a useful insight into the history of a particular book or artist when physical copies of the work are prohibitively expensive to acquire or just not available. Put simply, they are a further means of appreciation. It also needs to be recognised that there is a place for proper facsimile editions of books, even in those instances where ‘complete’ or alternate versions of the work exists, as in the case of Eggleston, or where the original work no longer conforms to the photographer’s current vision, such as can be seen with Chris Killip and Josef Koudelka in the examples cited above. This is certainly not to disregard the wishes or the intentions of the artists in question, but is a demand that arises from the sincere desire to deepen our understanding of how their work has progressed, with all of its complexities intact.

[i] He is also conscientious enough to include the political affiliation of these successive PMs. He neglects to provide a date for almost all of the pictures, however, and to my mind this is a serious omission, although admittedly that information is not given in the original either.

[ii] These include Thomas Weski for Los Alamos, Mark Holborn for The Democratic Forest and John Swarkowski for William Eggleston’s Guide, which reassuringly remains available as a very nice – and quite affordable – facsimile edition. Strictly speaking the Eggleston box-sets are not ‘reissues’ at all, but they do still have significant bearing on the discussion.

[iii] To confuse matters further, the three versions of the book that I refer to above include only the English editions. The very first is the French edition published by Robert Delpire. This also presents a different selection and sequence of images compared to the first English edition published by Thames & Hudson.

[iv] My own admittedly subjective view is that these changes largely undermine the subtle narrative poetry that made the original (English) edition so special.

[v] For the sake of clarity, however, let’s say that a facsimile edition reproduces the book in a way that is as near as possible to its original form and that a reprint is generally much the same, while a reissue may be all of these, but also leaves scope to change the existing presentation of the work entirely.

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To begin any piece on photography with a remark about the medium’s relation to time might appear a rather facetious strategy, but in the case of David Farrell’s Before, During, After… Almost, questions of time – and indeed, of timeliness – are in fact paramount. The book, which also functions as a catalogue for an exhibition of the same name held in the RHA, Dublin, brings together several bodies of work made over a number of years, encompassing the breadth of Farrell’s practice as a photographer, shifting in style and emphasis, but in this case all centred around the notion of Irishness, considered in various, if rarely definitive ways. The range of the work, as well as the span of time it encompasses, is foregrounded by the two images that can be found inside the front and back covers, opening with a grainy, black and white view of the Irish tricolour hanging slack over the ornate façade of the GPO[i] and closing with a crisp, flash-lit colour image of a hoarding on which someone has written the word “Truth,” though a later hand has altered this slogan so that the word “trick” appears intertwined between the letters (how easily the switch can be made). These images, produced nearly two decades apart, contain the essence of Farrell’s stylistic evolution as a photographer, which is at the same time in contrast to a remarkably consistent probing of the social and cultural fault-lines that define his native Ireland.

The timeliness of the book, given the largely unreflective attitude that has marked the 1916 centenary, means that it has the potential to be a significant corrective statement, considering the psychologically scarred and politically riven landscape that Farrell depicts, a “failed Republic,” as he calls it in an accompanying interview. However, this ‘failure’ is far more ambiguous than mere political reality; it is certainly not the failure of a putative Republican ideal, mourning for what might (supposedly) have been. In fact, what the pictures detail is essentially the failure of that damagingly pious conception of the Republic on its own terms, and a working through of the extended consequences of this failure, which continue to define the nature of the state. The book is also an excavation of Farrell’s own personal archive, an archaeology of work seen, such as Innocent Landscapes, perhaps his best known project, and unseen, such as the series Before, During, After, a previously unpublished work that considers the declining landscape of Irish Catholicism in the 1990s. This series is actually the nucleus of the book; its unique intensity, a blend of rigorous observation and metaphorical weightiness, would stay with Farrell through stylistic changes and developing themes. Aided by strong design from Peter Maybury, mixing recent pictures with ‘archival’ extractions, he builds on that early recognition of how forces implicit in the conception of the Irish Republic would shape – and deform – the present.

What matters, however, is not simply accounting for past events, but the determination to articulate an understanding of how these historical moments continue to echo for us now; it is, in short, the recognition of the past in the present, an act of synthesis that depends here, both conceptually and to a certain extent aesthetically, on the distance between Farrell’s earlier and current work, given a sufficient accumulation of time to see how patterns form, how subterranean influences play out. The mere work of excavation is not – and cannot be – enough. What the integration of these different bodies of work achieves is a narrative density that can make visible the patterns, the echoes, that are the driving forces of contemporary Irish life, the same fateful gestures being played out again and again. Something of this inevitability can be seen in the resonant cover image, which shows where the growth of ivy up a (green) corrugated iron barrier has been cut back, leaving a cross-like pattern, the ghost of its own former vitality. But it is obvious that the plant will try to grow back in the same place, tracing once more what has been lost. That no easy conclusion can be drawn from this is typical of Farrell’s approach; it initially might be read as a somewhat optimistic evocation of resilience and yet there is also something almost doomed in the sense of endlessly replaying the same fate.

Excavation is, of course, also a prominent subject in Farrell’s work, with the continuing process of photographing the sites of searches for the remains of those people who ‘disappeared’ as a result of sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland. In these instances, we can see how the bucolic Irish landscape – picture-perfect, as it were – is being torn apart in order to locate the victims of senseless violence; that it is, in a way, necessary to destroy the landscape (as image) in order to redeem, so far as might be possible, the brutal imposition of history on individual lives. The pictures of the later searches demonstrate a shift towards thinking more explicitly about time, marked both by the changes in the landscape, where nature smooths over the incursion of the searches, hiding their traces, just as the victims were hidden, and also in the length of time that the searches themselves have been taking place, as though they were a physical expiation of our collective guilt, the work of memory and of mourning. This labour is necessarily unfinished, because we are unable to confront the causes of such violence, which still remain under the surface. Enough of these pictures are threaded throughout the book to remind us that ideological conflicts have tangible consequences, though its structure is such that their exact implications are not immediately apparent, they are simply folded into the narrative as one persistent legacy of our national ‘heritage’ among others.

This idea of excavation is foregrounded in another sense by a picture in the opening sequence of the book, which shows the foundation work for one of the many new developments that characterised the so-called Celtic Tiger years[ii]. Rows of concrete support pillars have been placed in a cleared site, which also seems to be a palimpsest of previous constructions, visible as exposed layers within the new excavation. Our past is always implicit in the present, to the extent the world we inhabit is – sometimes literally – built over it, and indeed, from it. The construction boom of those years is another key theme here; weird pastel-coloured confections that have sprung up on postage stamp-sized plots are typical of this new landscape, which, however much it might have aspired to a notion of historical continuity (spurious ‘glens’ and ‘vales’ abound), actually speaks to a profound sense of alienation, a place where people live side-by-side, but by no means live together. Often the developments are imposed haphazardly on the landscape, fated never to be occupied or even finished. An air of futility hangs over places that should have been – or were sold as being – new, thriving neighbourhoods and now stand as if abandoned. What those years – and the reactions to the subsequent crisis they provoked – seem to represent, in Farrell’s view at least, is another chapter in the failure to create and to sustain a meaningful form of national community, as opposed to one that is bought cheap and to turn a profit, or equally, one that is sustained by an oppressive culture of pious observance.

That the core work of the present collection is taken from the previously unpublished work Before, During, After has already been noted. This project was an examination of the Catholicism’s decline in Ireland, though the very idea of ‘decline’ would surprise many even still, so identified is Ireland with the burden of faith. What these pictures describe, among other things, is the stage of lingering attachment that inevitably accompanies the shifting of any social force; as the stability it provided begins to erode, the more extravagant the devotion of the dwindling faithful becomes. For everyone else, ritual is reduced to mere habit – or, more accurately, is revealed as habit. But the Church was (or presumed itself to be) the moral and emotional centre of Irish life, so that the tangible decline of its influence left a void that there was no way of filling, a situation made worse by the fact that its influence was later shown to have been so fundamentally corrosive. The sense of the Church in decline is powerfully illustrated by a number of images here, though perhaps none more so than the portrait of the almost faceless priest at a pro-life rally clad in a rather tattered black overcoat that, given its poor fit, seems in fact to have once belonged to someone else; much the same might be said of contemporary Ireland’s relation to the faith that once defined it.

Obsessive attachment to Catholicism substitutes for the supposedly botched Republic (religious and political observance in Ireland have ever been twinned) and then, in the void created by the collapse of the Church’s spurious authority, comes the lure of being a nation on the up, looking confidentially to a borrowed future, typified by the images of perfect homes promised by the advertising for the seemingly endless spate of new residential developments from the last fifteen years or so. In Ireland, forever a nation of emigrants, of the dispossessed, the notion of ‘home’ is still an incredibly potent one. But in Farrell’s view these developments are all almost perfect in their sheer emptiness, a dream often literally built on sand. Of course it is fanciful to imagine that the boom of the Celtic Tiger years was anything besides simple greed fuelled by a lending bubble and exacerbated by international forces far beyond the scope of such a small country. At the same time, history does tend to imply a distinct continuity, linking where we have been to where we are, and so, in that sense, there is something undeniably suggestive in the sight of three concrete pillars rising like crosses on Calvary at the edge of yet another infamous ‘ghost’ estate – haunted, in every sense.

It is the sequencing that develops the sustained connection between each individual series, drawing out such resonances, so that the book is, at least, the sum of its parts – and not only that. It also marks Farrell’s dogged engagement with the most pressing questions of contemporary Irish life; questions that, even if largely without answers, might be seen to define the changing nature of Irishness itself, as a fraught and at times highly volatile set of conditions. This unsettled quality is echoed by the design also, which in many instances tends to place the image to the far margin of the page. This has the dual effect of driving the narrative on, while also suggesting that the story is fundamentally unfinished, leading somewhere else. The use of repetition is also an important strategy here. It serves to reinforce the idea of historical circularity, playing out the same situation in different guises, with the same outcomes. Especially striking in this respect is the repeated image of a sunlit grove of trees that contains at its centre a knot of darkness, functioning like the reverse of the popular idiom; it is, in fact, the tunnel at the end of the light, or at least the looming presence of something sinister and irresistible in an archetypally lush, green landscape. Growth is always around – and perhaps, in spite of – the darkness at its core. In instances like this, Farrell’s specifically Irish subject-matter does begin to take on a wider resonance, though it remains grounded in the consideration of our national identity as a set of received ideas – and images.

There are, of course, other themes that run through the book, though these are, for the most part, rather less prominent than the main issues that Farrell has considered. Worth mentioning, however, is the role of Irish soldiers in the British Army during the First World War. This is addressed by just two pictures, both landscapes, that show the reclaimed battlefields of France, their horrors now only a memory, if even that. These pictures are also a work of reclamation, employing the same strategies that defined his Innocent Landscapes project, though admittedly of nothing like the same duration or scope. Irish soldiers who fought for the British Army in the First World War endured a legacy of shame and official neglect in the nationalist context of the new Irish state so that their sacrifice could not, until very recently, be recognised as it was elsewhere. In a way, this blind spot of national memory resembles the plight of ‘the disappeared’ as forgotten victims of history, so it makes sense to connect them, however subtly­­, in the narrative. The battlefields of France never seem to be been a fully-fledged body of work for Farrell, but as this book also represents an excavation of his own archive, it makes thematic sense that this material should be included here, even if it was something he didn’t ultimately pursue.

Coming to the end of Before, During, After… Almost, what surprises is the extent to which this ostensibly retrospective collection of different projects can function as something unified and coherent. Less unexpected, despite the fact that it was at least partly occasioned by the official flag-waving of the 1916 centenary, is the decidedly pointed relationship the work has to Irish history, even if it is ultimately sympathetic to what might be seen as the existential undercurrent in the persistence of these collective failures. In light of Farrell’s preference for revisiting subjects (and of the element of time in this book), repeated images of the Republican monument in St. Paul’s Cemetery, Glasnevin are especially telling. The first, from the early 90s, reveals a brutal concrete monolith, the builders of which saw fit to leave out a crucial line (“Enough to know…”) from the poem by W.B. Yeats that adorns it, while a subsequent image implies – rather than directly shows – the updated monument.[iii] This is the process of historical revision in action, then; but what, if anything, can be “enough” here? The knowledge that Yeats suggests is not mere justification, but something far more ambiguous. Its rejection would mean a culturally, politically and – for want of a better word – spiritually immature society, incapable of facing its own demons, held captive to the past and doomed to repeat it. The enduring legacy of this stunted growth is exactly what these pictures show.

Our national identity is, of course, a product of this same history; the forces that have defined Irish life are manifested there, for better or worse, and the terms of that identity shape not only how others see us, but also how we see ourselves. It is the limitations of this identity that David Farrell is chasing in this work, whether they are manifested in specific instances or simply in the textures of the everyday. So when he speaks of a “failed” Republic, both the causes of that failure and its effects are reflected in how unstable this identity has proven itself to be, torn between an unrealised – indeed, impossible to realise – version of the past, the legacy of seemingly immovable institutions and, more recently still, a vision of the future that was nothing so much as the fever dream of speculators and craven profiteers. Farrell locates the burden of this history and the assumptions we have about it, firmly in the here and now, where its repercussions must necessarily continue to be felt. Mining a productive space between description and metaphor, his pictures are definitely ‘about’ the world we live in, its social and historical conditions, but they are not confined to it either. What this work touches on, in fact, are the often intangible reaches of our own history, that, even as we continue living it, seem to elude us.

David Farrell, Before, During, After… Almost, published by the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA), Dublin. The book is available from their website. All images courtesy of the artist – www.davidfarrell.org

 

[i] The General Post Office on Dublin’s O’Connell street was one of the main sites occupied by the rebels in 1916. It is also where Patrick Pearse declared the existence of the fledgling Irish Republic to a handful of bemused and largely uncomprehending passers-by.

[ii] A much over-used term, admittedly. But for the sake of argument let’s say the Celtic Tiger period proper runs from a slow start in the early 90s up to around 2001 when growth began to falter, only to be sustained thereafter by the combined effects of a lending and property bubble, leading to the inevitable crash in 2008.

[iii] The (corrected) quotation now reads: “We know their dream; Enough to know they dreamed and are dead”. The poem is Easter 1916. Readers interested in Yeats’ connection to nationalism should look to R.F Foster’s excellent two-volume biography.