By Sarah Mac Donald - 03 November, 2014
‘Frank Browne, A Life Through the Lens’ is published by Yale University Press and the exhibition of the same name runs at the Gallery in Farmleigh until 23 December.
Among the guests, the papal nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown told CatholicIreland.net that he felt “privileged to be part of the opening of an incredibly rich, diverse and fascinating exhibition.”
He said the Jesuit’s photographs are “incredibly evocative – beautiful and historically significant” and they were “indicative of the incredible vision of Fr Browne”.
Launching the ground-breaking exhibition in the presence of the British ambassador, Dominick Chilcott, a representative of the Irish Guards in which Fr Browne served as a chaplain in World War I, and representatives of the OPW, the Tánaiste described the priest as “one of the most outstanding Irish photographic artists and photojournalists” of the twentieth century.
Speaking to CatholicIreland.net, Minister Burton said she hoped that the publication of the major study on Fr Browne’s photography and the exhibitions would “establish him as one of the greatest photographers of the first half of the 20th century”.
She added that from the photos she had seen, the Irish Jesuit “has a tremendous interest in people and the relationship of the person and the individual – children and older people and their relationship to landscape and the world that they are in.”
Minister Burton told guests, who included Fr Myles O’Reilly on behalf of Fr Eddie O’Donnell who originally made the discovery of Fr Browne’s photos, “All our history is here” and that the images displayed provided “a journey through some 60-70 years of Ireland’s history”.
Contrasting the Jesuit’s images of everyday life in Ireland with “the stunning pictures” of the trenches in the First World War, Minister Burton noted that these were “very cold and distilled – framed in a very conscious way to say this is war.”
Fr Browne, who died in 1960, was the most decorated chaplain of World War One.
Frank Browne took his first photographs during a European tour in 1897, just before he joined the Jesuits.
Over the course of his life he made 41,500 negatives, but after his death in 1960 his work was largely forgotten. In 1985, Fr Eddie O’Donnell SJ came upon the trunk containing the negatives and quickly recognised the artistic merit of the pictures but saw that many were deteriorating.
Conservation and duplication work was carried out by Edwin and David Davison.
David Davison told CatholicIreland.net that Fr Browne has “no equal in the first half of the last century in Ireland”.
“I would say that Fr Browne has been emerging into public consciousness for a number of years as we have been working on this collection for over 25 years,” he explained.
“This exhibition finally brings us to the point where we are putting him forward not only the greatest photographer of the first half of the century but also a truly artistic worker.”
He said Frank Browne was “a man who set out to produce beautiful pictures – full of information – full of emotion sometimes – but always interpretative works, that speak to people whether they are Irish, English, Japanese, Australian or American. Everybody finds this universal language interpretable.”
“He was classless in his approach; he saw everyone as a person – he was a priest and his first calling was as a servant of the people. He cared about people and that comes out in the pictures.”
David Davison explained that initially they had “a lot of conservation work to do” but they now had all the images digitised as well as making duplicate negatives.
Broadcaster and historian, John Bowman, who was a guest speaker at the exhibition and book launch underlined that though some had compared Fr Browne’s work to the father of photojournalism Henri Cartier-Bresson – the priest in fact predated the French photographer’s work.
Commending Yale University for a “Stunning book” he said the exhibition reminds us how important black and white is as a medium.
He called on Belvedere College to rename its camera club after Fr Frank Browne who founded it.