Capturing The Scene: Dublin Street Photography
Formerly a busy fire-fighter and family man, Greg Matthews spends much of his time today combing the streets of Dublin for memorable images and moments to capture on film. As a child, Greg cut out and collected photographs from renowned Irish Press photographer Austin Finn, a budding interest which faded into forgetfulness in the hectic pace of his adult life. Now retired, Greg has been honing his photography skills for just five years, and has already been named Street Photographer of the Year, and given the first solo exhibition of his work in Temple Bar’s Filmbase.
Was photography a sudden interest, or something which had been at the back of your mind for a while?
I started working in Dublin Fire Brigade in 1985, I had a very good career there. I wasn’t into photography at the time, but just being out in the streets, I was often thinking about how things looked from a photography point of view. I felt that, in the Fire Brigade, it does give you insight into how people interact with one-another, because you’re running into so many different people, from so many different walks of life.
Photography was at the back of my mind for awhile. I always noticed whenever I was on holidays, and took what you would call normal holiday snaps, when I showed them to people, they always told me I took really good photographs. I couldn’t really see any difference between what I was taking, and other people’s pictures. So I was always wondering about this. I didn’t do anything with it really, but I did enjoy just taking photographs. Then I decided to do a photography course in Dublin Camera Club about five years ago. I got to grips with camera and learned how to use all the different controls and learned how to expose a photograph, that’s when I started using the camera to take the photographs that I really wanted to.
So you had been doing certain things intuitively when you took photographs, and you began to understand what you were doing properly when you studied photography?
Yes, sometimes I wasn’t able to take the photograph that I wanted because I wasn’t exposing it properly, or I didn’t understand the lighting properly, so once I studied all that type of thing, and how to expose a photograph properly it gave me the freedom to concentrate more on the image I wanted to produce.
You do all types of photography – natural landscapes, portraits, colour, black and white – but you’re primarily known as a street photographer. What is it that attracts you to street photography, and what particular skills and instincts do you need to be a good street photographer?
For a good street photographer, you need to be really observant. It’s about being observant, and watching everything that’s happening. I find that if I do a few hours shooting on the streets, I actually come home quite exhausted. When I’m on the streets, I’m always observing everything around me, and trying to think “What’s the background happening here as I’m taking the shot?” So it’s about being observant, and ready to capture the right moment as its happening on front of you. Some days I go into town and spend three or fours and I don’t get any image that I’m happy with. Then other days, nearly every shot you take would be a cracker. Sometimes I find that it’s hard to get into the zone – so its not just about what’s happening the street, I have to be in the right mindset to get the shots.
So you need not only the right things happening in the street, but you also need to personally be in the right mood to be receptive to the shots when they happen?
Exactly. When I get properly tuned to it, I actually don’t really hear anything – the background noise disappears. I’m really focused in on looking, and that’s why all the other senses are tuned out, when my observation skills are at 100%. When I’m working well, I get into a very focused, dreamlike state, and I can spend hours shooting. But if there’s a lot on my mind – whatever it might be, we all have our own issues going on, be it family, financial issues, or work – if those things are too prominent in my mind, it’s hard to get into that zone where I do good work.
Dublin Street photography has garnered a lot of attention in recent years with the documentary and retrospectives of the work of Arthur Fields. Is there much of a tradition of street photography in Dublin?
I think there is. Being involved in camera clubs, I’ve noticed that it’s a style of photography which is becoming more and more popular, now that more people have access to cameras. But street photography has been around since Arthur Field’s time, and there are fantastic photographs going back to the 1950s and 60s – but there’s wasn’t as many people with cameras then, so as cameras are becoming more accessible to people, street photography is gaining popularity. I think people are understanding it more as a genre of photography, rather than just taking snap-shots of people on the streets.
You recently had the first solo exhibition of your work in Filmbase in Dublin. How did you find the experience – daunting or exciting?
It was both daunting and exciting. I’d hoped to have an exhibition earlier in the year, the reason being that my dad was terminally ill in the last year, and also my son was emigrating this year, so I was hoping to have the exhibition before my dad passed away, but unfortunately, as his primary carer, I didn’t get the time to put the exhibition together in time. Then it was a couple of months before my son was emigrating, so I said I’d just do it, and I completely focused on getting the exhibition done, and I was lucky enough to get Filmbase, which is a venue that I really like in the city centre. Putting on the exhibition has been the most amazing experience of my life, and it opened many doors and avenues for me. Photographs and images are quite personal to me, so it felt like my personality on display for people to see! I didn’t know how it was going to be received, but thankfully it was received very well.
At the exhibition a couple of people asked me had I ever heard of a photographer called Austin Finn, and I had actually. He was a photographer for the Irish Press, and how I remember his name was that when I was a child I used to love looking at the black and white photographs of people in the Irish Press, and I loved Austin Finn’s photographs. I didn’t know anything about photography, but I used to actually collect photographs that I liked from the newspapers. This is something that I forget that I used to do until recently. So people asked me at the exhibition whether I’d been influenced by him, so I must have been, even though I’d forgotten it.
I’d forgotten about it for much of life. What happened was I married quite young, and I had kids quite young, and so life takes over. I did the leaving cert and went straight into the workforce at sixteen. Served my time as an apprentice mechanic, and then got into the fire-service, and life just took over. So when my kids grew up I started getting back into photography. I put some of it down to looking at the newspaper photographs as a child.
It must be great having been so busy all your life to now have the time to devote yourself to something that you’re obviously very passionate about.
Yeah, it really is, and since I took up photography five years ago, it takes up every waking moment. I generally bring the camera everywhere with me. Now that my kids have grown up and everything, it is great to have the space and the time to do it. You’re constantly learning, there’s something new every time – every day there’s something new to learn.
Do any of your pictures have a story attached to them which is particularly memorable?
A lot of pictures that I take I’m watching the person for awhile and I feel like I’ve gotten to know them. Even if it’s only two minutes, you get to know somebody. One of my favourite ones I took was outside the Westin Hotel. The porter was standing outside and he was giving directions to a passer-by. I noticed that they built up a rapport very quickly. Two complete strangers who were getting on very well together, and then the two of them spontaneously burst laughing, and that was the photograph I took. For me, it was just one of those moments – two people who had never met before, and suddenly they were the best of friends, having a great laugh.
(All photographs by Greg Matthews.)