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The photography of Bobbie Hanvey
For more than 50 years photographer Bobbie Hanvey has documented the variously bucolic, urbanized, and occasionally brutal existence of his fellow inhabitants of Northern Ireland in spare, unadorned images. He estimates his total output at more than half a million pictures.
Hanvey is best known for his portraits—of road sweepers, farmers, and the poverty-hardened children of the region’s itinerant Travellers; and also of prominent personages, including religious and paramilitary leaders (Catholic and Protestant), politicians, artists, and members of the British nobility. “I wouldn’t be interested in photographing hills or anything like that,” he says. Yet, Hanvey adds, he embraced photography not for the society but for the opportunity to work alone.
Self-taught, Hanvey maintains his pictures are “not art,” but rather the consequence of “a camera, film, and adrenaline.” To this day he works with a manual Leica and two or three lenses, eschewing artificial lighting and digital instruments. Hanvey favors black-and-white film. Color, he says, “doesn’t show you anything about most people.”
Beginning in 2001, Boston College acquired the first portion of Hanvey’s photographic archives and will, in time, own virtually all of his work. The Burns Library has begun the process of creating an inventory and digitally capturing the images, to make them available online. To date some 5,700 images (of the 50,000 currently in the hands of University archivists) have been digitized and organized into four categories: Bombs and Violence; Writers, Poets, Journalists, and Artists; The Travelling People; and Seamus Heaney, the 1995 Nobel Prize–winning poet, whom Hanvey has photographed since 1979. Future installments—13 categories are planned in all—will include Singers and Other Entertainers; and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (now the Police Services of Northern Ireland).
Hanvey, 64, continues to work. This summer he aims to photograph the wives of a number of provisional IRA members, developing and printing the images by hand.
Below is a sampling of the categories currently digitized in the Bobbie Hanvey archives.
Artists, journalists, and poets
Hanvey has photographed a wide range of Northern Ireland’s novelists, journalists, poets, painters, and sculptors, including Ulster playwright Brian Friel (a favorite annual subject despite his camera-shy reputation); botanical artist and portraitist Raymond Piper; and novelist J.P. Donleavy. Of Donleavy, Hanvey says, “He knows exactly what he looks like, right down to the curl of his fingers—most people don’t have that quality.” Click on image for slideshow.
Nearly 1,500 of the images archived thus far by Burns Library staff chronicle the decades-long struggle between loyalists and republicans in Northern Ireland. Having gained the trust of persons on both sides, Hanvey offers manifold views of the conflict, from its encroachments on daily life to portraits of individuals whom discord raised to prominence, such as Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party and Billy Hutchinson and Gusty Spence of the Ulster Volunteer Force. Click on image for slideshow.
For 20 years starting in the 1970s, Hanvey photographed and interviewed Ireland’s Travellers, itinerants by long tradition who are called Lucht Siúil (literally, “walking people”) in Irish. They move about the country, in trucks and trailers now, setting up encampments in public parking areas and roadside pulloffs and seeking odd jobs. Often they meet with distrust and dislike, mirrored in Hanvey’s images of burned-out caravans and police evictions. Click image for slideshow.
Read more by Thomas Cooper