The Life’s work of an unknown Photographer (Late 1800s)
Having been given a collection of quarter plate glass negatives in 1994, by a friend who thought they would be of historical interest to me, I started to work on them in my darkroom, hand printing and retouching these very degenerated images. Interesting as they were, it quickly became apparent that it would take a lifetime to make anything of the 230 pictures in the collection so I abandoned the project after only two weeks. The negatives were boxed and stored until they surfaced again during a clear out of my house in 2012.
Now with the introduction of digital technology, the task of rephotographing and retouching this set of negatives became a realistic possibility and in December 2012 I began the arduous task of indexing and archiving them.
The more time I spent working on this project the more familiar I became with the subjects that appeared, sometimes in several different locations, and in different groups, made me aware of the fact that they were all taken by the same photographer, who was privvy to record occasions and events, sometimes of a very sensitive nature, portraying the poverty stricken working class right through to the wealthy, well dressed upper class.
The soulful stare of a sick and dying child as he peers from between the bedsheets,into the lens of our author, the same child that is seen being tended to by a uniformed nurse and finally laid out dead on the same bed, surrounded by floral tributes. Another picture showing the dead childs sister standing over the body, is so touching it would take the tears out of a stone.
Pictures depicting men bottling illegal liquor somewhere out in the country are coupled with shots of the R.I.C. confiscating alcohol making stills and then ,strangely, portraits of the very constabulary members , posing with their families, that captured the stills.
There seemed to be a number of unanswered questions emerging, why was our lensman allowed to picture these scenes, where did his loyalties lie, and what was the purpose of this collection??
These are not happy snaps, and with the greatest respect, have been taken in an amateurish way, given the number of basic technical mistakes that recur, double exposures , half blank plates etc. Nevertheless they are a raw and true record of social history in Northern Ireland, before and over the turn of the century, which have been unseen in over 100 years.
Recent publication in the media has confirmed that at the centre of this story is the family name “Robb” . Immediately after the story appeared in the press, I was contacted by a gentleman, who lives within half a mile of my house, Jim Robb, who was able to identify some of the people in the pictures and more importantly, give me an invaluable insight into the Robb family history dating back to 1653.
The family includes the owners of Robbs Dept store in Belfast and Toronto, the Rev Robb, who the Belfast City Hospital, Gardner Robb ward was named after and the famous writer, Nessca Robb who donated Lisnabreeny House to the National Trust in 1937. There were international sportsmen and athletes in the family and a wealth of other esteemed members.
I am still no closer to finding the identity of the unknown photographer but, now with the help of The Red Barn Gallery, Rosemary St, Belfast, I am hopeful that the exhibition which opens on 28th November at 6pm, will possibly solve the mystery which is over 100 years old.
Noel R. Quinn
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