December 21: In this, the silly season, it falls to me to think of something for the father-in-de-facto; a man who knows what he wants and goes out and buys it, leaving no opportunities for would-be gift buyers. A very thorough fellow, expert in anything he undertakes, he buys every ‘prosumer’ Canon camera as they come out and has every lens he needs for the astoundingly high-quality astronomical photography he manages to capture from his backyard. Lately he has become a Go-Pro nut…no skateboarding or skydiving mind you; his thrill is to pop a Go-Pro in his coat breast pocket, cupping its remote in his hand and setting forth for investigations into the street-life of Bendigo.
Inspiration struck late; Colin Westerbeck’s and Joel Meyerowitz’s Bystander: A History of Street Photography I exclaimed! With but four shopping days till Xmas, out I sallied, into the bookshops of our small town – all two of them, plus three second-hand bookshops, with the last-ditch hope being that an op-shop might have it.
Failure: not a sausage amongst the new books, not even a Doisneau compilation, nor even the popular Trent Parke for an Australian flavour.
Losing hope, I ventured into the local instance of Black Books which are a possibly world-wide phenomenon of the second-hand bookshop scene, their owners churlishly intolerant of the book-buyng public. Soldier and Scholar is one such. I entered. From behind a teetering fortress of books came the kind of sound an animal of prey makes on seeing a victim…
Me: Hello. Just looking thanks
She: What are you looking for?
Me: I’m looking for a photography book.
She: Are you going to buy something?
Me: Well yes.
She: Most guys who come in here after photography books are just looking for nudes.
Me: No, I want something on street photography.
She: Well you don’t think something so specific would be for sale second-hand do you? What title are you after?
Me: Maybe you have Bystander: A History of Street Photography?
She [consulting computer]: …No. None for sale anywhere in Australia. Anything else?
Me: Well maybe something by Robert Doisneau?
She: How do you spell Doisneau?
Me: D-o-i-s-n-e-a-u. Yes, Robert.
She: There is one in the UK.
Me: But not here? Maybe I could just have a look at the books you do have?
She: I have some, but you’ll have to come with me. It’s lots of trouble to shift the books. You’ll have to leave that bag here. Round here…see, up those stairs, round the corner then straight ahead of you, on the stairs, see, in front of you, there.
Me: Ok, thank you.
Crouched on the stairs in the gloom in front of a meagre pile of about fifteen books, I checked the spines of those I could see, not daring to move any…A Day in the Life of Australia, old how-to books, Astronomical Photography… oooh maybe?…chapter on fast films, push development, published 1986…nope…then a couple of obscure ex-remaindered monographs.
Plucking up courage I lifted off the top of the stack to examine a book turned sideways whose title I couldn’t see, placed them teetering on a stair. My glasses fell off and, swiping to catch them, I caught a fairly substantial volume falling against my knee…I bent, hands groping to right the now two piles…everything wobbled into a steady state. Aware that I was standing right on top of the formidable shop-owner’s head at her desk under the stairs, I resumed breathing, retrieved my glasses, and looked at the cover. Occupying it edge to edge is a man’s head leaning against a red brick wall. He is wearing a gnome-green gardening hat and a beard that beats the wall for redness. The beard appears to emanate luxuriously from his asymmetrical nostrils under the brim of the hat which hides his eyes. He might be asleep. He wears a too-big scarlet and black patterned jumper that reveals a pasty neck, and green, zippered jacket with ominously snotty stains on the collar. His bottom lip catches the light shinily. It’s parched and patchy.
No title is visible on the front cover, and in the poor light I cannot read the blind embossing that is pressed into the spine and back cover. The flyleaf is imprinted with a dedication to “Joe McGarry”, the next sheet holds a full-bleed image of a notice and the red cross detached from a rosary stuck onto a scummy wall to which adheres a sesame seed which I made several attempts to brush off before I realised it was photographic, and the remainder of some adhesive from masking tape which must have disintegrated some time before: The note reads “STEP 1: WE admitted WE were POWERLESS over ALCOHOL” with RED CAPS over pale khaki-green felt pen which had faded into illegibility…following next was neat biro cursive script, by another hand, which read, as maybe an afterthought, “and that our lives had become”, then in red caps, in the corner, “UNMAN” and squeezed right in the corner ‘AGABLE”. At last, on the next sheet, the title in type so crowded and so lacking in leading that it read:
Satisfied that this was the only remotely relevant book, I took the risk and tucked it under my arm, reunited the two piles of books, and made my way downstairs where I was greeted by a hand emerging from the book fortress, bearing the bookshop’s oversize business card with an arrow penned onto it, pointing to the Abe Books website.
Puzzled I looked up and, taking the card, found a note printed on the back in the tone generally used by a kindergarten teacher in addressing a nose-picker. At the same time I was distractedly registering the stern admonition coming at me from the desk: “You need to learn how to look up the available books before you come in.”
“Oh, ok,” I said, somewhat taken aback. I handed over the cash, correct weight, so there was no waiting for change, and bolted out.
Deirdre O’Callaghan works in editorial and music photography, and in between ventures into her own photographic projects. Her first book, Hide That Can, resulted from four years spent photographing the men of Arlington House, a hostel that has operated for more than 100 years in Camden, London, and which was once the abode of author George Orwell and Irish poet Brendan Behan. Published in 2002 by Trolley in London, it was awarded Book of the Year by both the International Centre of Photography in New York and Les Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles.
Somebody here bought it and gave it to someone else who never opened it and sold it on to our redoubtable Soldier and Scholar, which is my good luck, worth the trial by fire; it was half the price I’d have paid for a secondhand copy online, according to Booko. I hope Lorena’s dad likes it.
Many of the men in the book are Irish who had come to London as young men seeking work during hard economic times, as did O’Callaghan herself.
Many had not been back for thirty years or more. O’Callaghan writes that they were around the same age as her father who had been lucky in finding his work back in Cork, in Ireland’s south.
Well I was always quite fascinated with it because I lived near Camden years ago and I’d meet a lot of the guys coming in and out. It’s a very intimidating, quite amazing building. So I went in and tried to get permission and I had to go back a few times before that all materialised and then I went in to shoot there, the first time I did, I was absolutely petrified.
These are crisp, carefully crafted images, shot on medium format, perhaps on 6×7, and the colours generate a powerful emotional ambience. A patch of red in the projected image of the window panes in the portrait above signals the self-destructive defiance in the drinking man’s face as clearly as would a flag.
Gathering details of this vast residence in vignettes like the flowers below, O’Callaghan brings us closer to the experience of being in this place and of confronting the loneliness and the threat of despair that must be felt continually by its residents, far from family and with few friends, their only comfort a smuggled can of Tennents Lager.
The latter section of the book is devoted to a series on the men at Rosslare beach, on the Irish coast that faces Wales, travelling by ferry organised by a charity, and on which O’Callaghan was invited, having by then got the men’s trust.
There they relax on the beach, a little disoriented…
…and it is there that O’Callaghan’s patience with her subject comes through:
It was really hard to decide when the end of the project was. I was always asking myself ‘My God, when is this ever going to end?’ And it did go on for a long time, but at the same time it’s just something that it’s great that it did because I developed with it and also just kind of really got to know the house, the place, the people…it is the sort of project that needs to take a long time.
She felt that it was as a woman that she gained trust amongst these men:
Red Roses for Me by The Pogues refers to Arlington House in the song Transmetropolitan. O’Callaghan has since followed a career in music photography, exhibiting in We Want More: Image Making and Music in the 21st Century with Roger Ballen, Daniel Cohen, Gareth McConnell, Ryan McGinley 17 Jul – 20 Sep 2015 at The Photographers Gallery in London, and has this year just released The Drum Thing, which stems from her love of music and features images and interviews with around 100 drummers.
Nevertheless, the experience of Arlington House has clearly driven a six-year project on the residents New York’s Chelsea Hotel, at various times home to Dylan Thomas, Andy Warhol, Arthur Miller, Allen Ginsberg and Australia’s own Vali Myers, some of whom stayed for a few days while others lived there for years, and where some died. She began her documentation just as the venerable and legendary hotel was changing hands, threatening the current inhabitants’ security and a site of modernist heritage.
To buy a secondhand book is to set out on a journey of discovery.