My big break

The im­age that trans­formed John Mini­han’s ca­reer from news­pa­per snap­per to ma­jor ex­hibitor

NPhoto - - Contents - Keith Wil­son

John Mini­han’s books in­clude Shad­ows from the Pale: Por­trait of an Ir­ish Town and AnUn­weav­in­gofRain­bows:Image­sofIr­ishWrit­ers. He’s ex­hib­ited at the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, Rio de Janeiro; Cen­tre Ge­orge Pom­pi­dou, Paris; the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery, Lon­don and the Guin­ness Hop Store, Dublin. john­mini­han.blogspot.co.uk

John Mini­han is best known for the now-iconic photo of a 19-year-old Lady Diana Spencer, taken in 1980 in the gar­den of the nurs­ery where she worked, the morn­ing sun back­light­ing her, her legs sil­hou­et­ted through her skirt. But it is a se­ries of stark pic­tures of a wake, taken three years ear­lier in his hometown of Athy, Co. Kil­dare, that John re­gards as more sig­nif­i­cant to his ca­reer as a photographer.

The body of the woman ly­ing on her bed is Katy Tyrrell. Above her is a small por­trait of the daugh­ter who pre­de­ceased her and on the ex­treme right of the picture is a sheet shroud­ing the mirror in the room. “The rea­son I choose this im­age is be­cause what is most im­por­tant for ev­ery photographer is a sense of place,” he ex­plains. “As an Ir­ish­man, par­tic­u­larly as a young man that had to leave Ire­land, grow­ing up re­al­iz­ing I was poor, go­ing to the Chris­tian Broth­ers school in Ire­land, that whole rigid­ity of Catholi­cism just fu­elled me with im­ages.”

John worked for the Evening Standard at the time, and dur­ing the 30 years he lived and worked in Lon­don, he re­turned ev­ery year to Athy to record the peo­ple and their daily lives. “I started pho­tograph­ing the town in 1962 and re­al­ized that the one thing that was miss­ing was the wake, the rit­u­al­iza­tion of death by the Ir­ish.” Then, on a Fe­bru­ary morn­ing in 1977, John was told by his lo­cal publi­can that Katy Tyrrell had passed away a few hours ear­lier. “He sought per­mis­sion for me to pho­to­graph the fam­ily, and over two nights and three days I pho­tographed Mrs Tyrrell from her deathbed to the grave.”

Meet­ing Sa­muel Beck­ett

The pho­tographs caught the eye of the owner of a new Lon­don art gallery. John con­tin­ues: “In 1979 I was the first photographer to have an ex­hi­bi­tion at Hamil­ton’s Gallery. It was owned by a man called Pat Matthews, who had seen my pic­tures, and he gave me a show, The Wake of Katy Tyrrell.”

To­day, an ex­hi­bi­tion at Hamil­ton’s is seen by many as a pin­na­cle achieve­ment, but for John the Katy Tyrrell pho­tographs led to some­thing far greater: a meet­ing in 1980 with the Ir­ish play­wright Sa­muel Beck­ett. Beck­ett al­lowed John ac­cess to his work and life that no other photographer was af­forded. The two col­lab­o­rated on many photo sit­tings, cul­mi­nat­ing in a book, Pho­tographs: Sa­muel

Beck­ett, which was pub­lished after his death. Forty years after the ex­hi­bi­tion, John re­flects: “I’m still amazed at the jour­ney these pic­tures have taken me on; that, from the or­di­nar­i­ness of an Ir­ish town, one would meet one of the most ex­tra­or­di­nary play­wrights of the 20th cen­tury.”

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