It may be that some places, such as those where we live or where we take our leisure, are simply too familiar to be seen critically, that in their familiarity they become invisible, and so we can’t always grasp the larger historical structures that have formed them. Creating the possibility for critical reflection on those places apparently hidden in plain sight is an important facet of Shane Lynam’s work, which concentrates on precisely those places that are most familiar, a landscape of banality at the margins of an assumed centre. The places he photographs are at once specific, in that they are the product of particular social conditions and yet also curiously nondescript in their individual features, exemplifying trends in development that have tended to minimise regional variation in favour of a cultural uniformity. At the same time, his major projects have focused on specific places with seemingly distinct historical characteristics, such as in his series Contours, which looks at the spaces dividing the city of Paris from its suburban zones. But these histories are also, paradoxically, histories of loss, where a particular model for shaping the built environment erases pre-existing distinctions, the margins extend outward, becoming at once everywhere and nowhere. His other work is a variation on these concerns, albeit articulated in slightly different ways.
The landscape that Contours is concerned with seems ostensibly neutral, a space in between, marking a separation between the city proper and the areas of habitation that stretch out beyond it. But this differentiation arises from a particular historical moment. The then prevalent assumptions driving infrastructural change, along with their continuing effects in the present, are the fundamental theme of Lynam’s work in these different areas, which might be spatially incongruous, but are still conceptually linked. It is a zone unified by history – and by ideology. The view we are presented with is of a narrow band of green space between two areas of intensive development, albeit in fairly distinct forms, whose purpose is somewhat obscure, but which seems connected to the ideal of leisure, a place to escape the city. But the context suggested by the pictures, which plays up the sense of constraint and the marginality of the spaces, is that of their historical origins in the cultural climate of post-war Europe. The necessary reconstruction of those years presented the opportunity to attempt a whole new vision for urban development. Although the idea of a city purged of its familiar urban chaos is, of course, an old one, perhaps synonymous with modernity itself, the developments of the post-war years had an especially utopian tinge that made their eventual failure all the more profound.
There is a clear sense of that heritage in Lynam’s pictures, which contrast the haphazard, peripheral spaces of the green zone that was supposed to divide the city from the suburban banlieue beyond. What’s really telling though is how people have colonized these scrappy, nowhere spaces, reclaiming them from the ministrations of urban planners, who had, beyond the ‘green zones,’ created perfectly uninhabitable utopias, without services or amenities, breaking up traditional community structures and fostering precisely the sort of conditions that breed the discontent so visible in these areas today. A comparable situation is to be found if we look at the legacy of high-rise developments in other countries. It is significant, however, that Lyman eschews any kind journalistic perspective in these pictures; there is little or no drama. Instead, he looks – and looks closely – at the textures of place, to see how people use and adapt it to their needs. The forces that have shaped the landscape itself are more visible than the tensions that they resulted in and so the pictures are resolutely quiet, they focus on leisure rather than any sort of visible conflict. As it turns out, the distinction is as an important one.
The other major body of work produced by Lynam in France is entitled Fifty High Seasons and documents the coastal holiday resorts also developed in the post-war years. Here his attention is focused on how the idea of leisure itself fits into a model of social organization created by the aspirations of a time still feeling the trauma of war but looking hopefully to the future. Part of this reorientation was to make leisure resorts available to the ordinary worker. Lynam’s subject is not just the resorts themselves, but also the legacy of that particular time. The pictures follow the pattern already established in his work and what they ask is how we might divine the forces underlying the familiar, easily over-looked landscapes of the everyday, because these cannot be simply taken for granted – they are not just there, but are formed by a determinate, though often obscure historical process. While he is, in the general sense, a ‘documentary’ photographer, the style of the work is broad enough for us to discern the wider connections that shape the places he has chosen to concentrate on. Although they are markedly different in appearance, Lynam locates a historical continuity between the marginal spaces of a European capital and these outlying resort destinations.
By contrast, Lynam’s recent work in Ireland has a rather different tone, being perhaps less formal and more inclined to metaphor or allusiveness, while retaining a concern with place and with infrastructure. In this case it seems that his approach has been swayed by the popular representations of ‘crisis’ in Ireland that were widely circulated, both domestically and abroad, so one of the issues Lynam is confronting with his series Inner Field is the question of whether or not you can represent the social conditions of this period in Irish history without falling back on the kind of clichéd visual responses that have tended to dominate our understanding of it. Of course his interest in the relationship between the details of a place and how they are determined by social forces is not new, but what stands out with this series is his effort to communicate something about the subjective experience of a social crisis and how that subjective response might also be incarnated in the physicality of place, its texture. A wider sense of pervasive instability and uncertainty is reflected in the structures that surround us, so besides describing specific places, the pictures also create a particular mood. Strategically, this is an attempt to understand how something intangible might be seen, if one does not resort to merely showing its effects in a photojournalistic fashion.
What Inner Field demonstrates is the potential for this kind of narrative photography, though apparently traditional in form, to elucidate those situations that can’t be – or rather, shouldn’t be – reduced to easy formulas, such as the social and psychological aftermath of a national economic crisis. In many ways the strategies that Lynam employs here are an extension of the approach already developed in his previous work, but they are still welcome in the overall context of Irish photography, which has largely – if not exclusively – tended to favour a more conventional documentary mode when dealing with ‘social’ issues. In Lynam’s case however there is a clear recognition of the fact that these issues are no longer visible in the same way and so cannot be photographed within that same traditional framework. In looking at where we live, it is possible to understand the forces that shape so many aspects of our lives, even if these places are all but invisible in their simple familiarity. By looking with renewed attention, Lynam has fashioned several considered and revealing bodies of work that touch on the fundamental ambiguities – as well as the anxieties – of contemporary European life.
I know your background is not in photography, at least initially, so I was wondering how you made that leap and what it was that got you interested in the medium?
I had another short-lived career before photography and although it had its moments, for the most part it felt like the job I was doing until something else came along. I started messing around with an early digital camera in 2005 and my interest grew from there, to the point that by 2010 it had begun to interfere with my day job. The work I was doing was demanding and balancing it with photography was becoming a struggle. I knew at that point that I needed to do something about it. After plenty of research, I decided to study an MA in documentary photography. There wasn’t much of a “should I/ shouldn’t I” moment, I didn’t really feel like I had much of a choice. The compulsion to photograph and the need to learn more about the medium was so overwhelming that I couldn’t see any other way. I could tell that most of the photos I was making at that point were not very interesting, but I wanted someone to help me understand why. I also think that, in hindsight, I went through a sort of transitionary period in my mid-twenties where I was more open to outside influences than I had been during my undergraduate college years, for example. I had moved from Dublin to Belgium in 2004 and moved to Paris in 2006. Looking back, I feel that this was an important factor in photography taking such a hold on me.
What’s your approach to starting a body of work? For example, do you undertake a lot of research initially or do you find places that interest you first and then develop the work around that?
Up to recently, it’s been the latter. I’ll start with a broad area of interest like a particular city or urban planning project and then I’ll find places that interest me aesthetically and develop the work around it. I need to be visually stimulated by the subject matter in order to make work, otherwise there’s a risk I won’t stick at it over time. A large part of my practice is looking for locations that have potential and then returning to them over and over till I get something worth photographing. It might require a particular light or it might need someone to walk through the space. Once the photos start coming and I have a few potential keepers I’ll begin digging deeper and researching the layers of history that lie beneath the landscape. That said, my recent work is less about actual spaces and leans more towards fictional narratives that are about conveying a feeling. The method is similar, just the research has more fictional elements than before. I’m focussing more on colours and shapes and less on the wider context. The resulting work is less literal. For example, in Dublin I’ve been looking for ideas in books on architecture and city planning. I’ll sometimes go through the glossary, looking for technical terms that catch my eye. Fictional short stories and contemporary books such as Rob Doyle’s ‘Here are the Young Men’ can lead to ideas in a less explicit way. Hopefully all of this is then channelled into the things that catch my eye when I’m out shooting.
I know you also do editorial work as well. Is this something that has an influence on your own practice at all?
One way that editorial work influenced my own practice is perhaps to make me more technically proficient and, as a result, increase the scope of approaches I can employ when making my artwork. For example, I steered clear of flash when I started out, however though the experience I’ve built up working commercially, I’ve become more proficient and I’ve started to incorporate it into my practice. At the same time, I can see how the limitations can be a good thing in terms of developing a style when you start out. If I had worked commercially for years before making the transition to artwork, I wonder if I would have had too many options, too many tools in the box and therefore have struggled to find a voice. Contours and Fifty High Seasons were both shot on a cheap plastic medium format camera with a prime lens; looking back, I think that the constraints of this camera were key to finding my voice.
Making a distinction between editorial work and your own practice is important, they’re two very different audiences and if you let your artistic message get watered down by adhering to editorial aesthetics your work will suffer.
On a side note, there’s very little editorial photography commissioned in Ireland. I think it’s a shame that with so many editorial photographers we have to look elsewhere for opportunities. One of the only weekend magazines, for example, could be so much better with some compelling editorial images about important subjects.
The built environment is obviously a key subject in your work. But would it be fair to say that you’re more – or at least equally – interested in the forces that shape public or social space as you are in the places themselves and how they look?
Buildings can say a lot about a society. They can provide as much information about a population as portraits. When I visit a city or town, the first thing I see, often from the plane, is the architecture. The state has an important role in how housing is planned, I’m interested in the ideas behind urban planning and to what extent these ideas have worked and have stood the test of time.
In a way there seems to be some continuity between the post-war suburban sprawl of Paris and the development of the leisure destinations that you feature in Fifty High Seasons. Do you think that’s the case?
There’s a lot of overlap between the two, so much so that I sometimes feel that mixing up the edits could be an interesting way of showing the work some day. They were made alongside each other and there are connections between the photos. It can be seen as one body of work that was shot in two locations. With both projects, I’m trying to be as fair as possible and not overly critical. I admire the original ambition behind the developments and, to varying degrees, believe that they have worked.
The main difference between the projects is the degrees of fictional storytelling employed. With Contours, I’ve focused on the green areas in order to allude to how things could have been, whereas Fifty High Seasons is a more factual representation of how the place looks today.
There’s also a limited edition print from this series available in the Paper Journal shop. I wonder if you could tell us a bit about that image?
This is an image from ongoing body of work called Burning Morena. I’ve been shooting in Eastern Slovakia since 2010 and hope to focus on this work in 2016/2017. This work was shot alongside Contours and Fifty High Seasons, however I’ve had less time to focus on it and the edit still needs plenty of work. This particular image was shot in the summer of 2014.
I stopped selling prints online a few years ago except for exceptional circumstance so it’s the only work I have available at the moment.
Your recent work made in Dublin seems to me to have a very open-ended quality, compared to Contours, for example, which strikes me in many ways as a much more direct work. Do you think that reflects a fundamental change in your working methods or just the change of working in a different place?
I’d like to think that there’s an element of me pushing myself forward and evolving, however it’s also related to my surroundings in Dublin and where my practice is right now. The appeal of photography lies in its ability to communicate ideas in a subtle, nuanced way. By recording as much as I can of what is around me and what appeals to me over a prolonged period and then creating a visual language and an edit out of that, I can get across something of how this part of my life has felt in a subtle way. My photographs are a continuation of who I am, while at the same time a subjective recording of the world around me. The biographical aspect has become more important of late.
Dublin is not particularly fertile ground for landscape photography – it’s relatively flat and once you drift away from the centre there’s not a lot of interest in a literal sense to shoot. This constraint has helped me to move beyond the landscape image and find new ways of shooting. At the same time patterns have emerged as I’ve shot. I don’t really see this work in terms of a traditional project structure. It’s more like a collection of artefacts I found while I was waiting to move onto my next body of work.
Contours and Fifty High Seasons have not yet been published so I’m still working on them alongside this newer work. As a result, there’s some overlap between them. I like having these different channels and different shooting styles as they balance each other out and cater to my interests in photography. Sometimes I’m in the mood to look at more formal work about something relatively tangible and other times I’m drawn to instinctual, nebulous work. This two-tiered approach is an aspect that I would like to keep up in the future.
The way you look at the Irish social landscape in this work (Inner Field) is somewhat unusual given that photo-journalistic images have largely dominated our understanding of ‘crisis’ here. In fact, Inner Field seems a lot like a rejection of that visual language, so how, if at all, do you see the project as being related to the documentary tradition?
I’m still recording the world around me and that world is a construct of society so in that sense it remains what is referred to as ‘social documentary’ in photography, but I’m photographing in a less purposeful way.
If I have any guiding principle at the back of my mind while making the work, it’s the idea that I want to deconstruct previous representations of Dublin which, because of the innate subjectivity of photography, are just as accurate or inaccurate as anything I will put forward. I’m interested in creating a sort of a riff on the visual idea of Dublin, to contort it to the point that it’s almost unrecognisable and yet still somehow Dublin.
I do remember feeling there was too much post-crisis work when I moved back in 2012. At the same time, as an issue it coloured our understanding of everything for many years and with time that work will become more important and feel less ubiquitous. I don’t think I consciously went out of my way to avoid the ghost estates and so on, but I do think that alarm bells would go off when I found myself shooting anything like that. Ghost estates are one of the recent layers of history to leave a mark on how the city looks, I’m more interested in the combined effect of centuries of city planning and how that shaped the way the city looks today. So I’m still looking at housing and urban planning, but I’m shooting it in a less literal way. At this stage, I’m trying to shoot as instinctually as possible and let my obsessions and subconscious world take over, the details of the narrative will emerge during the editing stage. I’ll often spend a whole day walking through the city and feel that I haven’t seen anything of note but it’s only when I look back at the photos that something will appear out of the nothingness. By doing this over and over, patterns will form and I’ll hopefully manage to express something original about the city that hitherto hadn’t been represented visually.
Shane Lynam’s Fifty High Seasons will be exhibited as part of the Circulations festival in Paris this March and as a winner of the Solas prize, at Fotohof, Salzburg, in April.
Interview by Darren Campion / Published 1 March 2016