JTF (just the facts): Published by MACK Books in 2015 (here). Softcover with dustjacket, 76 pages, with 43 color photographs. There are no texts or essays. (Spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Ballinasloe is a small town in the easternmost part of County Galway in Ireland. It used to be a booming place, but as the factories started to shut down, the unemployment rate crept up. During the economic crisis, places like Ballinasloe were hit the hardest, slipping into uneventful ghost towns. Those who could moved to more promising places, and those who stayed were faced with the reality of limited choices. Ciáran Óg Arnold was born in Ballinasloe, in a middle-class family, and spent most of his life there. At some point he started taking pictures, instinctively documenting the decline of his hometown and the way it affected men who stayed there. In 2012, Arnold moved to Belfast to study photography where he was encouraged by his professor, photographer Paul Seawight, to keep working on the project. Arnold’s name appeared on the wider photography scene earlier this year, when his photobook was announced as the winner of the First Book Award (a nomination only award established to support emerging photographers).
Being broke most of the time, Arnold shot with an old film camera, buying cheap 200 ASA Kodak film at a local discount store for 1.50 euro; occasionally, he had to use color film as it was the only thing available. For the final project, he decided to mix both, allowing the color and black and white images to intermingle, often like echoes or fleeting memories. The grainy aesthetic of the photographs wasn’t an intentional choice, but in the end, a raw unfiltered look became an integral element to the whole visual narrative. Arnold’s photobook starts with an exceptionally long title – I went to the worst of bars hoping to get killed. but all I could do was to get drunk – borrowed from a poem The Suicide Kid by Charles Bukowski. It serves as a fittingly blunt introduction to the dark desperate atmosphere captured in Arnold’s photographs.
The images in the book reveal men, both young and old, as they hang out in the dimmed light of bars, constantly smoking and ultimately releasing their pent up anger in street fights. There is a shot of a young man with shaved head as he leans on his arm against the wall; his grey shirt almost blends with dull grey of the tiled wall. In another image, an older man with a cigarette between his fingers looks directly into the camera, as if he is about to share some hard earned wisdom or maybe just deliver a few choice swear words. Hopelessness and depression are in the air, and it seems all one can do is to have another drink. Those who, for various reasons, stayed in town have few choices, not only for jobs but also for socializing, and lonely nights in the bars turn into a gloomy recurring theme. The bars, which in better days were probably full of laughter and the town’s energy, have now become a cheerless reminder of continuous decline. Another set of images captures the dreary atmosphere of the town and its immediate surroundings: pale flowers, tired goats, lifeless corners, and mournfully heavy interiors. There are almost no recognizable details of this town; the specifics are really secondary – it could be almost any small town. Arnold is more interested in the obscure mood and the emotional state of those affected by the darkness of such an existence.
The full spread photograph in middle of the book shows a girl, as she half turns and looks straight back in the camera, her eyes reflected red in the harsh flash of light. Is she upset with something, or just got lost, or maybe she is scared? Her expression is complex and uncertain, and escapes a single interpretation. There are very few shots of women in the book; the few that are included generally don’t reveal their faces, only indirect symbols – their outfits, polished nails, and pieces of jewelry.
I went to the worst of bars has a softcover with a dust jacket. With a few exceptions, the images are full bleed, the others have a small white border around. The editing and sequencing of the images – an intense and dynamic mix of closed curtains, punches in the face, and cigarette smoke – adds real visual tension to the narrative. In the end, the book seems to come back to Arnold himself, his life in Ballinasloe, and the choices he has faced in that self-destructive and often distressing environment. Should he stay in the place where nobody seems like his close friend, or should he leave his beloved hometown in search of a better future? While the images don’t claim to offer a particularly new perspective on the subject of unemployment, economic depression, or drinking away one’s sorrows in the local pub (topics already well covered by British photographers from Graham Smith to Tom Wood), the book is undeniably an honest and unpretentious visual diary. It’s strength comes from its authenticity as a sincere and unflinching up close self-portrait, where Arnold’s attempts to find his own sense of life and to pursue his passion for photography are harshly mixed with the tough realities of stagnating hard times.
Collector’s POV: Ciáran Óg Arnold does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked above).