Dr. Bill O' Gorman, from WIT, speaking about this site on WLR

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Annie Brophy and the people of Waterford

The following extract is taken from 'An Irishmans Diary', published in the Irish Times.

IF YOU live in Waterford, there is probably an Annie Brophy photograph somewhere in your home - hanging on a wall, perhaps, or lurking in a box in your attic. Miss Brophy, as she was known, photographed the people of Waterford and the south-east for over half-a-century from 1915 until the 1970, writes Michael Kelly

Waterford City Council purchased Brophy's entire collection of nearly 60,000 negatives in 2005 and is currently exhibiting some of her wedding photographs at Christ Church Cathedral in the city. Some of the pictures were featured in this paper's Gallery supplement on Monday, September 8th.

Born in Johnstown, Waterford in 1899, Annie Brophy began her career in 1915 and established her own studio in Barker Street in 1922. At the time she was the only professional female photographer in Waterford (and possibly in Ireland). Ironically, Ms Brophy never married and finally retired in 1979 after a career that spanned more than five decades. She died in November 1986, aged 87.

"If you were organising a family event in Waterford, you always put aside your 'Annie Brophy money'," says city archivist Donal Moore. "Personally I believe that no two people paid her the same amount. In most cases they were her neighbours, so she knew them and their circumstances well. She was highly regarded as a portrait photographer so it was a big thing to go to her. Wedding couples would often be going to Tramore on their honeymoon and stop off with Miss Brophy on the way."

For the Weddings exhibition, Moore and his colleagues took a selection of 70 photographs from her sizeable collection. "We tried to ensure that every decade of her work was represented. The selection criteria we used were first and foremost the quality of the image - and of course we tried to get different styles and poses. Some of the photos were so rare that they selected themselves."

Putting names and details to the photographs was a mammoth task. Some were indexed but in many cases all the archivists had to go on was a surname. "It was a case of getting on the phone or calling people with the same name. A lot of it was local knowledge and thankfully Waterford is like a big village. For example, we had a photo from 1930 with the name Cummins. I reckoned the groom looked very like Senator Maurice Cummins, so I called him up and he said, 'that's my Uncle Willie!'"

In the first half of the century, according to Moore, there was typically only one photograph taken of the wedding couple and almost without exception the portrait was shot in the Barker Street studio. In later years couples insisted on wedding albums and Miss Brophy got out and about more, taking photographs in churches and hotels.

It is the little details that help the viewer to appreciate what life was like at the time. For example, while there are some photographs of impressive bridal parties, more typically the brides are decked out in plain dresses (probably home-made) while the grooms wear jumpers beneath their suit jackets.

Bucking that austere trend was a wedding in 1944 for which two renowned Italian "fish and chip" families came together for the wedding of two of their own - Louis Forte of Belfast and Josie Delicato of Waterford. The photograph is all the more poignant given that the region from which both families emigrated - near Monte Cassino — was then at the centre of a crucial battle of the the second World War.

There is a startling image taken in the 1930s entitled "Colfer Wedding". The groom is sitting down staring into the distance while his bride stands behind him looking forlornly at the camera. It is hard to work out whether this is a study in unhappiness or the awkwardness that many couples feel at having to pose for the photographer. We will never know; but let's hope it was the latter.

Another intriguing shot was taken in the 1950s outside Ballinamona House on the outskirts of Waterford. At first glance the picture, taken outside the front door of a stately home, looks like a gentry wedding. But look closer and the regalia of the wedding party suggests something else.

"You look at the clothes and you realise that it's probably a wedding of household staff," says Moore.

Brophy hand-painted many of her photographs and this fact provides one of the exhibition's most compelling stories. When undergraduate student Eimear Doherty told her grandmother Anna that she had a summer job working on the Annie Brophy exhibition, her grandmother scuttled off to her room and returned with an Annie Brophy photograph of her own wedding. Taken in 1962 on the day of her marriage to Wexford farmer Mick Rowe, it was hand-painted by Brophy.

Given the skill involved in hand-painting photographs, the archivists decided to set a challenge to see if these skills could be replicated. Local photographer Terry Murphy used the Photoshop software programme on one negative, while Eimear's mother, local artist Maeve Doherty, hand-painted another. The three images stand alongside each other in the exhibition, a testament to Brophy's supreme skill as a photographic artist.

Some of those photographed were able to attend the opening night of the exhibition. Perhaps proudest of all was 92-year-old P.J. Rheinisch, who was able to gaze at his own wedding photograph, bearing the inscription: "Lieutenant P.J. Rheinisch May Morrissey, Dungarvan, 6th October, 1943."

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