You probably haven’t heard of Dennis Dinneen, but opening this month is a photography exhibition by the Irish portrait photographer and publican who quietly photographed his native town and surrounding area over much of his life.
Amassing an archive of tens of thousands of intimate portraits, his work has gone relatively unnoticed until recently: Photographer and SMBHmag Online Contributing Editor, David J Moore has been tirelessly delving into Dinneen’s archive and has selected a number for the exhibition Small Town Portraits, presented at Boole Library, University College Cork in Ireland. We sat down with Moore to discuss the project and exhibition and find out about Dennis Dinneen.
SMBH: So let’s begin by asking who is Dennis Dinneen and how did you come across his work?
DJM: Dennis Dinneen was a publican and a photographer in the town of Macroom in County Cork. During the ’50s, ‘60s and ’70s, he photographed everything from weddings and communions to sporting events as well as driving license and passport images, daily life and portraits. He passed away in 1985 but the bar is still there and run by his family. The walls are covered in his photographs of the town and the locals. I first went in there when I was about 16 and was blown away by the quality of the work. Little did I know then that 13 years later I’d discover even more amazing unseen work amongst the archive.
You’ve told me there are about 20, 000 images but you have only seen around 6000. Where have all of these pictures been hiding?
A local photographer began archiving the images a few years ago and produced a successful book celebrating Dinneen’s work. The book focused on the local history of the town, day to day life and portraits of locals. After the book was launched, he passed the negatives back to the Dinneen family. Given my strong relationship with the family, I asked if I could I take a look. Straight away, I found some beautiful unseen images that never made it into the book and the more I kept looking, the more of them there were.
It must be pretty intimidating working with such a large archive, has there been moments when you feel overwhelmed?
Of course! There have been plenty of times! I’m balancing this work in tandem with studying for a photography degree so I can’t devote as much time as I’d like to it. I’ve been working for nearly 3 years now alongside Dennis’ son Laurence to put us in a position where we’re ready to show the work. It’s been hard but the work is so strong that it’s kept us both motivated.
In curating the exhibition ‘Small Town Portraits’, what was your rationale for selecting the photographs? How did you narrow the 6000 down to 20?
I had to set some basic parameters that narrowed the amount yet still covered a decent portion of the archive. The images for the show are all made indoors, and all are posed portraits. The photographs were either taken against a backdrop in his studio space at the back of the bar or on location. They all touch on the themes of pub life, religion, modernity and emigration. I’ve left out some amazing images by setting these guidelines for myself but hopefully it will add some visual consistency to the show. I didn’t want to just put a random selection or ‘best of’ from what was there. I think this show could be expanded to 50+ images easily and there’s plenty of room for future shows too.
From what you know are all of Dennis’ photographs portraits from Ireland, or do they include other themes or other regions?
From what I’ve seen they are all Ireland, and nearly all local. As far as I’m aware, there are a few in Dublin and a few in Cork City I think but not much further than that. Then again, I’ve been surprised a few times with what I’ve found and there’s another 14,000 or so images to go, so who knows!
What has excited you most about working with the archive and do you intend to continue working with the archive in the future?
I think just discovering some of the individual images has excited me most. Dennis’ awareness of composition – even though some images are very off kilter – was amazing, as well as the sharp wit and humour in many images that may seem unintentional at first, but most certainly were deliberate. There are moments when I’ve thought to myself, “there is no way that he saw that at the time”, but the more of the archive I see the more of these things there are. As for the future, I definitely want to keep working with the archive, but for now I just want to see how this show goes, get some feedback and take it from there.
Dennis Dinneen Small Town Portraits opens April 16th, 6 – 9pm, and runs April 16th – June 27th 2015 at Boole Library, University College Cork, Ireland.
All images ©Dennis Dinneen Archive