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Monday 11 December 2017

Dublin's snapper

IN THE FRAME: Arthur Fields chronicled the capital in the 20th century by taking thousands of photographs on O'Connell Bridge, Dermot Bolger takes a look at his legacy

Few people knew his name - or either of his names, because, like many refugees, he possessed two.

Few knew anything about the darkroom under the stairs at home where his wife Doreen spent decades developing the street photographs he took at all hours, in all weathers.

Few of us who entered our teens in the 1960s or 70s knew anything about him, except that he had always been there, on the bridge that led to what was once Dublin's finest thoroughfare. For he was simply the Man on the Bridge.

Older Dubliners said while Daniel O'Connell's statue guarded O'Connell Street, it was Arthur Fields who guarded O'Connell Bridge, standing like a curious sentinel. In the 1930s and 40s he was not alone in plying his trade as a street photographer. With cameras beyond the price of many families, he - and a handful of others - were the true chroniclers of everyday Dublin life.

But in later decades, before ill-health forced him to reluctantly stop in 1988, when he was 87, Arthur Fields was the last of his kind: the relic of a bygone era and yet the creator of the most unique archive of 20th century Dublin photographs.

What is remarkable about Field's vast photographic archive is that a huge amount of it was preserved but not by him.

No man who took an estimated 182,500 photographs of strangers has enough time to preserve or catalogue his negatives. Arthur Fields didn't consider himself an artist or social historian: he was not trying to create another Lawrence Collection or merely recording what pleased his eye, like the Jesuit, Fr Browne, whose images now posthumously fill numerous photographic books. Fields was simply engaged in the business of making a living.

keepsake

He didn't pick his subjects, his subjects picked him. If the occasion was special, they then sought out the small office where they could purchase the hastily-snapped picture as a keepsake.

This is how his archive was preserved, not in one, but in thousands of places: in family albums (often on page one, marking the era before they owned a camera) or stored away among mementoes in an old suitcase to be found by grandchildren after somebody died.

We live in the age of the instant photograph, with every mundane event recorded on Facebook. It is hard to even enjoy a meal out without some diner nearby earnestly photographing their plates as if photographing Tutankhamun's tomb. It is great that everyone can now photograph everything, but as Patrick Kavanagh wrote, "through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder".

The wonder for country people visiting 1930s Dublin, or couples on a first date, or children being brought to the cinema as a First Communion treat, was that they encountered a man with a camera and, for a small fee the next day, they could buy an image of that special occasion. For some people it was one of the few photographs of themselves they owned or one of their most precious - recording a moment that they considered special enough for them to stop and pose for Fields and then purchase the only print that ever existed.

Fields was born in Dublin in 1901 to Jewish-Ukrainian parents who came to Ireland fleeing religious persecution. The name of his birth cert is Abraham Feldman, but his parents then decided to adopt more Irish names to integrate better into society.

recovery

His story echoes the fictional Leopold Bloom, whose Jewish emigrant father also adopted an Irish name. Fields initially worked as a tailor, but in the 1930s he joined Dublin's band of street photographers. Just like Bloom - perpetually treated as an outsider in Ulysses - came to personify Dublin, Fields (or Abraham Feldman) was an outsider whose images came to personify fifty years of Dublin life.

Fields never kept his own photographs but, in an extraordinary act of recovery, for the past year Ciaran Deeney and David Clarke have been co-curating a wonderful website where they ask the public to send them not just Field's old photos, but the personal stories behind them. They now have collected together 250 of these images in a fascinating, handsome hardback book, Man on the Bridge (Collins Press €25). This is launched next Wednesday, with an exhibition and RTE television documentary to follow.

Pictures that lay in drawers for years come alive in this book, with short, often poignant accounts of when they were taken.

One woman sent in a 1979 picture of her and her brother, who tragically died a month later. Only after her brother's death did she find Field's ticket and collected what became the treasured last-ever photograph of her brother.

Joan Mack's picture is of her husband, Tony, and a male friend wheeling a pram as a dare in 1954, when men never pushed a pram in public. Florence McElroy's picture is of her father holding her aloft in 1939.

Some celebrities are here, like the boxer Jack Doyle, but what makes this book and the website so special is that almost everyone photographed is an ordinary Dubliner, dolled up for a date or hurrying past in workday clothes. They all form part of a unique tapestry of lives that Arthur Fields created for fifty years. This is one special book.

To add a photo or find out more, visit www.manonbridge.ie

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