If ever you go to Dublin town

March 1, 2013 · 7 comments

in Digitisation,Guest Bloggers,Photographs,Social Media

Wiltshire Collection Online by Orla Fitzpatrick, Irish photo historian

October 1998 was a very exciting time to start working at the National Photographic Archive (NPA). The O’Donnell & Tuomey designed building had just opened in Temple Bar, Dublin and the staff were busy with the task of unpacking the vast photographic collection.

As a Research Assistant for the Women’s History Project, my assignment was to  catalogue a collection of 1,300 images, mainly of Dublin, taken by Elinor Wiltshire between 1951 and 1971. As a Dubliner, I was delighted with the challenge of describing and identifying locations in my native city. I was also a little daunted at the prospect of cataloguing an entire collection, organising an exhibition and producing a publication within one year.

The Five Lamps

Base of The Five Lamps with Aldborough House in background, Dublin, 1965. NLI ref. WIL 16(9)

Elinor Wiltshire’s keen eye and Rolleiflex camera had created a small, albeit very varied and lively depiction of the city. She witnessed Dublin’s citizens as they worked, played, shopped and prayed. While the city was on the verge of great change, the collection transcends mere nostalgia for times past and shows real photographic talent and personal vision. Photographs are increasingly recognised as a primary source and a collection such as this one contains much of interest to historians of costume, design, religion, architecture, urban life and much more.

Lower Fitzwilliam Street

Demolition in progress on a row of Georgian houses, Fitzwilliam Street Lower, Dublin, 1965. NLI ref. WIL 14(12)

Elinor’s architectural studies show the splendour of Georgian Dublin, some of it threatened at the time, as in the case of the row of houses on Lower Fitzwilliam Street which were subsequently demolished. Whilst nobody bemoaned the loss of decrepit tenement buildings in the city, the unsympathetic manner in which some inner city dwellers were relocated was addressed by Elinor’s York Street eviction scenes. In addition to the Dublin photographs, she also recorded members of the travelling community at their campsites in Galway and Cork.

Protest against evictions

Protest against evictions from tenement houses on York Street, Dublin, 1964. NLI ref. WIL 3(11)

The medium format twin lens reflex camera favoured by Elinor was ideal for street photography. The viewing mechanism of this camera meant that the photographer looked downwards when focussing on an image and many people did not realise that they were being photographed; hence the natural and uninhibited manner in which they are portrayed. I particularly like the series of images taken at the Cumberland Street Market where the shoppers are so engrossed in their quest for a bargain that Elinor’s presence has gone completely unnoticed.

Cumberland Street Market

Browsing at a bookstall, Cumberland Street Market, Dublin, 1969. NLI ref. WIL 55(8)

During my time working with the collection, I was assisted in the cataloguing by NPA staff who had recently received training from Sarah Rouse, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington. Professional library standards were adhered to and the resulting records contain detailed format descriptions, Library of Congress subject headings and geographic locations. In interviews with Elinor Wiltshire, she graciously discussed her photography and provided a wealth of background information that also informed the exhibition text and catalogue records. This period of cataloguing allowed me to fully immerse myself in the collection, and was of great benefit when curating the exhibition and compiling the book.

Cumberland Street Market

Little girl complete with handbag alongside a remarkable array of buttons at Cumberland Street Market, Dublin, 1969. NLI ref. WIL 57(2)

There can be no doubt of the popularity of this collection as demonstrated by the high numbers who visited the NPA exhibition, If ever you go to Dublin town, in the summer of 1999. Fourteen years later, I was delighted to hear that the Wiltshire Collection is now digitised and available online. Its online availability is a true example of public access and will allow many more people to see the collection in its entirety. No matter how popular a museum or a library is, the potential number of online visitors will always be greater than those who can physically visit a reading room or exhibition.

Nun's Department

Sandy of Dublin Nun's Department - a clothes shop on Cumberland Street, Dublin, 1969. NLI ref. WIL 42(1)

During the cataloguing process, I was repeatedly amazed by the crystal clear detail which extended to the edges of the square format negatives. Details such as concert billboards and street signs allowed me to pinpoint the location and date certain images. An opportunity to scrutinize these photographs in a similar fashion will now be available to the public through the library’s new online image viewer. Not only does digitisation facilitate such unlimited access, it also ensures the preservation of the original negatives and prints. Items are not handled repeatedly and can therefore remain in the appropriate storage conditions.

Moore Street, Dublin

Painting prices onto a butcher shop window, Moore Street, Dublin, 1969. NLI ref. WIL 42(1)

My time at the NPA started an on-going interest in Ireland’s photographic history. As a blogger on Irish photography and a PhD candidate, I appreciate only too well how great (and convenient) it is to search through a photographic collection from one’s own laptop – at any time of the day! My experience of searching online has also led me to conclude that digitisation projects are not without their pitfalls! Some institutions place vast numbers of images online. However, if they are not accompanied by meaningful catalogue records it can become difficult and frustrating to navigate through them or to locate a favourite photograph. In the case of the Wiltshire Collection the digitised image is accessed from within the catalogue record itself, making searching and retrieval easy.

Merchant's Arch

Merchant's Arch, Temple Bar, Dublin, 1969. (The little boy running with a gun over his shoulder is Colm Irwin who 'found' himself on the NLI Flickr Commons photostream) NLI ref. WIL 57(9)

The interactive nature of online collections also allows for new viewing experiences and self-directed learning. The success of the NLI’s Flickr Commons photostream demonstrates this perfectly. The public can contribute local knowledge and expertise which can in turn enhance the existing catalogue records. A recent example of such interaction resulted in the identification of two girls photographed by Elinor Wiltshire on Thomas Street in 1969. When a search brought Colm Irwin to the NLI Commons site, he recognised his three year old self in a photograph taken at Merchant’s Arch, Temple Bar, Dublin. Doubtless, there will be further identifications and clarifications and the public will get as much joy and pleasure as I did from the Wiltshire Collection.

Nun at the Cliffs of Moher

Not just Dublin photographs! A nun at the Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare, 1962. NLI ref. WIL o1(62)

Orla Fitzpatrick is in receipt of doctoral scholarship from the University of Ulster. She has worked in the area of librarianship since 1994 and her blog Jacolette covers vernacular Irish photography.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Joe Walsh March 6, 2014 at 10:03 pm

I never get tired of looking at these wonderful pictures.Elinor was clearly very happy capturing all those aspects of “Dublin Town”,the good and the bad.
Had the pleasure of viewing her collection in the National Photographic Archive.Great that she is alive and well,”having done the Arts some service”
When in London for a number of years, she happily and expertly again,recorded bird and flower life in some of the major Public Parks there.To see these,in their glorious colours, simply Google: pbase.com/ronile. Enjoy!

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Anne Smith March 8, 2013 at 11:17 pm

Great photos, such clarity, love the faces. Vive Dublin in the sixties!

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Jennifer Geraghty-Gorman March 2, 2013 at 8:58 am

Absolutely fantastic! The new viewer is just perfect for viewing these brilliant photographs. Thank you for giving us such access to these images.

Cheers to you,
Jennifer

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Póló March 1, 2013 at 5:15 pm

Great post and fabulous collection.

The Rolleiflex is a fantastic camera. Great personality! I had a loan of one once. Made me feel like a king.

It’s great for still life, scenery and architecture but not the best for moving targets.

One advantage of the look down on ground glass screen is that you see everything in reverse as far as I remember. No good for following motion but great for composition as it takes the picture completely out of its context.

Great that NLI is putting up more and more stuff online and catalogued. Full marks. Long may it remain.

Have seen Jacolette’s blog before. Wonderful.

I’ll stop before I devalue my praise with overuse.

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Orla Fitzpatrick March 4, 2013 at 10:01 pm

Póló, Thanks for that insight into the Rolleiflex camera and glad you like the blog. The new viewer is a great way to see the collection.

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Dermot McCabe March 1, 2013 at 4:10 pm

Brilliant collection.

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Bean an Phoist March 1, 2013 at 5:07 pm

It really is, Dermot! While images for most of these great Elinor Wiltshire photos had been online for a while, it’s really our snazzy online viewer (or Mega Zoomifier) that’s going to make all the difference – to be able to zoom in on the tiniest detail is fantastic…

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