Ross McDonnell, Joyrider

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2021 by Thirty Nine Books (here), with support from Charcoal Book Club (here). Leather-bound hardcover (11×8.5 inches), 112 pages, with 61 tritone reproductions. There are no texts or essays included. In an edition of 1000 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Black is the dominant color in Ross McDonnell’s memorable photobook Joyrider, and it’s an immersive, enveloping, cinematic, and sometimes oppressive type of black. The book’s cover is black, with only the faintest hint of an embossed title. The endpapers are black, and deep blackness surrounds the black-and-white photographs on the pages. And once inside McDonnell’s visual world, the pervasive blackness continues: black night, black smoke, encroaching black shadows, and high contrast black elements that punctuate his compositions.

McDonnell’s photographs are set in Ballymun, a housing estate located on the northern side of Dublin. Developed in the 1960s, the estates consisted of more than 3000 units (making it Europe’s largest such development at the time), and at its peak, its towers provided housing to more than 13000 residents. But by the mid 1970s, the buildings had fallen into disrepair, and in the next decade, the flats emptied out, leaving behind vacant decaying hulks, which were subsequently plagued by vandalism and drugs. In the ensuing decades, redevelopment efforts came and went, eventually culminating in a plan to demolish the estates, which of course took much longer than expected (the last building was torn down in 2015).

McDonnell (a Dublin native) was first drawn into the situation at Ballymun in 2005, and then spent some six years documenting life on the “Block”, primarily from the perspective of a group of young men. At that point, the towers were essentially abandoned, with residents being relocated (since the buildings were going to be demolished), squatters taking over various locations, and the boys essentially running free through the structures. Like an embedded photojournalist, or any number of documentary photographers who have spent extended periods of time with gangs, clubs, and marginalized subcultures, McDonnell has used his camera to bring us inside this hidden world, making pictures that capture both its dark extremes and its more nuanced human complexities.

Most of McDonnell’s scene setting photographs are bleakly moody, with clusters and arrays of the 8 and 15 story blocks marching amid treeless expanses of rocky wasteland, seemingly chased by flocks of ominous dark birds. The buildings themselves are grimly geometric – stained, pockmarked, and covered with graffiti and a few remaining satellite dishes – and when seen at night as illuminated by bright roof lights or seething fires on the ground, the blocks take on an even more depressingly hulking tone. As a backdrop for anything that happens outdoors, they are a constant looming presence, never really out of the frame and always a reminder of the larger economic and social realities that they represent.

Photographs of active destruction are sprinkled throughout Joyrider, and from these pictures, it’s clear that the Block had devolved into a kind of anarchic playground for these young men. Boarded up flats are pried open, stripped down, and dismantled, security doors and fences are cut into with circular saws, and fires are set all around, with cars and motorcycles (either abandoned, stolen, or just taken for a ride) a particular favorite for torching, their blackened burned-out carcasses left to decorate the landscape. Many of these ideas seem to be the creative product of boredom and available proximity, as are the improvised daredevil feats of stair and balcony jumping.

Another set of pictures chronicles the pervasiveness of the drug trade activities, which are framed more as desperate entrepreneurialism (in the face of steep unemployment) rather than outright criminality. Drugs are alternately weighed, bagged, and distributed (the only woman in the entire photobook appears as a skittish customer), with the counting of money as the logical outcome. Awkward youngsters try to look tough holding handguns, but the real enforcement comes from slightly older young men in ski masks with shotguns. In one particularly resonant image, a young man sits in a car holding a boxed Al Pacino doll from the movie Scarface, almost like an aspirational trophy. Lest we see any of this with any kind of sympathy or glamour, McDonnell makes sure to offer us a few glimpses of handcuffs and arrests, the crew covering their faces and watching as various members are taken away by the Garda.

McDonnell’s more intimate pictures of the young men offer a slightly different version of this disheartening story. As they hang around on scavenged couches and rotting beds (with graffiti interrupting the patterns of the wallpaper), there is a strong sense of supportive camaraderie and friendship between these boys. They talk, look at their phones, laugh, wait in cars, smoke, and all the while, the older ones look out for the younger ones, who variously sit on their laps and sleep in backseats. The informal uniform of this group is an Adidas tracksuit and a pair of Nike Air Max sneakers, and several of McDonnell’s photographs highlight this repetition of identity, visually defining the social boundaries of in and out. As a whole, these photographs show us a tightly-knit community, where the pressures of survival lead to a clear sense of group spirit, from the crowd on the balcony watching a burning motorcycle being put out by firemen to the black humor of a rooster in the car and the masked hijinks of Halloween (including an eerie pair of devil’s horns in front of a bonfire).

While it doesn’t happen often, McDonnell does catch one of the young men alone here and there, often getting behind the bravado to fleeting introspection and disillusionment. In quiet moments inside, in the reflection of a bathroom mirror, and in the blur of a face with its guard momentarily down, we start to see the authentic weight of this life.

Seen as one narrative flow (McDonnell is an accomplished filmmaker after all), Joyrider offers a rich, three-dimensional, and surprisingly poignant portrait of this undeniably hard situation, mixing fragments of a masculine coming of age narrative with other adjacent pieces of unexpected community and broader social despair. That the Ballymun estates no longer exist gives these pictures a strange kind of almost misplaced nostalgia, given that something vaguely positive and worth remembering seems to have come out of this clear failure of housing planning. In this way, Joyrider is a startlingly touching photobook, with a strong aesthetic voice, whose understated sophistication infuses this modest and often menacing story with a wider sense of universal humanity.

Collector’s POV: Ross McDonnell does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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