Small Lives

“We were all children once – it’s the one thing we all have in common. We can see ourselves in these photographs” says Aoife O’Connor, curator of Small Lives, a captivating new exhibition at the National Photographic Archive showcasing images of Irish childhood.

The 50 photographs – mostly black and white – are drawn from across NLI’s collections, and range from formal studio portraits featuring children of the landed classes taken in the 1880s to more candid shots of city kids taken in the 1960s.

“Portrait photography in the 1880s was very different from today” explains Aoife. “It was very posed; the children had to look perfect. In contrast, some of the exhibition photographs here show children playing in front of the famous Ballymun flats. It’s interesting how photographs taken as recently as 1969 can be as historical as those taken in the 1880s”.

Small Lives shows Irish children not just in the context of their own lives but also in the context of Irish history, incorporating major events such as Michael Collins’ funeral in 1922, the Eucharistic Congress in 1932 and the Arranmore Disaster in November 1935 – events which were an important part of 20th century Irish social and political life.

The process of selecting images that would represent the full spectrum of Irish childhood proved challenging. “We didn’t want to focus exclusively on people who could afford to have their photographs taken” says Aoife. “I trawled through thousands of photographs before I managed to select the final 50.  The breadth of NLI’s photographic collection is staggering.”

So, of the thousands of images she scrutinised while curating the exhibition, does she have a favourite? “It’s difficult to choose favourites as they all have their own charming story to tell, but I absolutely love one particular image from the Wiltshire collection –  that of a young girl praying. Most children love to challenge photographers, by making silly faces and so on, but this little girl just gives the photographer a piercing glare. And that’s really the aim of photography – to capture the ordinary in an extraordinary way.” 

As well as photographs, the Small Lives exhibition features a number of illustrations dating from the 1830s. These illustrations, housed in NLI’s Prints and Drawings Department, demonstrate how children were depicted before photography. They show how line drawing could suggest movement – something which photography could not do in the 1800s, when the technology was still in its infancy.

The NLI team look forward to welcoming hordes of small people, big people, families, school tour groups and other visitors to Small Lives in the months ahead. As well as displays of really fabulous photographs, the exhibition features a range of educational materials and a curator board where visitors can comment on their favourite images.

Small Lives runs at the National Photographic Archive in Temple Bar from 25th August 2011 until June 2012.

Main Entrance, Kildare St.
Main Entrance, Kildare St.
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