1. The image as crystallization
    In her two photographic works, Perimeter and Aftermath, Ailbhe Ní BhriaIn combines incompatible spaces, scales, and perspectives to create imaginary dwellings made up of walls and fragments of ocean or forest. Collection and accumulation through time are crucial to the artist’s poetics. She explains:

[1] Unpublished paper by the artist. Quoted with her permission.

Site serves as an important starting point: I am always looking for locations and trying to wrangle access to them. [...] I like to gather imagery and objects as possibilities that I don't fully understand yet. Often I'll live with these for years, they sit around the studio together until long exposure weaves its own logic and they find their way into a work (or not).[1]

The investigative practices of the three artists, their wandering in historically and emotionally loaded places that they represent or reconfigure as places, is conducive to the impression of accuracy the works distill. Equally essential to the evidential value of the works is the attention paid to details. The emphasis on clarity should not be interpreted solely as realism.

[2] Maximillan Le Cain, “Aftermath (2007): an Exhibition by Ailbhe Ni Bhriain”, Experimental Conversations, Issue 1, Summer 2008

[...]In spite of the darkness that shrouds Ailbhe Ní Bhriain’s images, the shapes are clear-cut and the edges eerily neat. In the much-detailed foregrounds of her photographs, one may make out weeds growing in the fissures of the walls, traces of leaks or dereliction. Particular attention is paid to textures though material roughness is not perceptible at first sight. The bewildering minuteness of the details and the thinness of the lines, possible only thanks to digital photography, beguile the viewer into exploring the inset miniature worlds that compose these imaginary houses: “looking more closely at Ní Bhriain's photographs, a series of uncanny details unhooks them from any frame of objective reality,” Maximillian Le Cain observes[2]. A minute scrutiny of these surrealist places discloses the constructedness of the images. Aftermath and Perimeter result from the layering of photographs taken in Vietnam or Cambodia that are digitally reworked and superposed to photographic, collaged, painted and drawn elements related to the Irish landscape. In Perimeter, the floor is covered with sand or flooded. Ailbhe Ní Bhrian deliberately combines devices reinforcing the alleged authenticity of the photographic image (i.e. black and white, systematic frontal views) and devices betraying its artificiality (internal inconsistency, alteration of the surface): I

[3] Unpublished interview with the artist.

disrupt expectations by creating highly manipulated images. It is a way of questioning authenticity, within the medium and likewise within the subject of place and of landscape, which is also full of nostalgic and romantic connotations. (…) I like that the strangeness of the work doesn't declare itself too readily, but rather emerges on closer inspection. [3]

[4] Unpublished paper by the artist.

The images are poised between reality and fantasy. As the artist analyzes, the photographs themselves are exiled in so far as the geographical displacements they evoke echo the estrangement of the medium itself: “I used photography and video to record/create images that are, finally, indexically linked not to an empirical reality of time, place or event but rather to the event of their own making.”.[4]

  1. Photographic paintings

Ailbhe Ní Bhriain trained as an engraver, which may account for the strong contrasting in her black and white images and her interest in texture and the poetics of the image. The artist collages different analogue or digital images to construct imaginary places out of fragments of reality. Doing so, she others space by blending real and imaginary spaces. The use of black and white is a tribute to photographic pictorialism or formalism exploring the possibilities of soft-focus lenses and painterly darkroom techniques. It distances the images from reality. Her use of transparency, rather than collage, recalls painterly techniques. The exquisitely rich palette of black and white shades, as well as the contrast between hazy areas and neat lines or shadows recall etchings and Chinese painting. The minuteness of details and texture, and the concentric horizontal and vertical framings in her compositions generate a surrealist effect not unlike the truncated perspectives in Renée Magritte or De Chirico’s works. The visual qualities of her works confirm that “as we enter the post-photographic era, we must face once again the ineradicable fragility of our ontological distinctions between the imaginary and the real”.[5]

[5] Mitchell, op. cit., 225.

Whether the three artists photograph or photographically paint fragments of the Irish landscape, what their works reveal is primarily absence. The impression of absence, a metaphor for the semiotic unfathomability of the photographic image, is heightened by the numerous of doors, windows, or opened drawers in the three series. These openings invite the viewers to imagine stories that are deliberately only half told.

  1. Photographs as elliptical narratives


[6] J. Banville, Birchwood, London: Secker & Warburg, 1973,12.

Like all ruins, Ailbhe Ní Bhriain’s photographs, bring together different times and spur us to imagine a story. It is hard to decide whether the images represent the same place seen from different angles or different places, for similar fragments can be re-used in the compositions. Human presence is evoked through empty floating shirts in one image from the Perimeter series. The projected images which transmogrify the houses could be spun out of an emigrant’s mind trying to reconcile the reminiscences of his homeland and his new abode. If her images told a story, it would follow a cyclical not a linear pattern. In the 2007 exhibition of Aftermath, the gallery housed still portraits and images of bodies that gradually disappeared. These ghosts of the departed haunted the abandoned houses. The hybridity of the works suggests that “we imagine that we remember things as they were, while in fact all we carry into the future are fragments which reconstruct a wholly illusory past…”[6]

  1. Housing metaphors.

The three photographic works explore exile – as imposed by economic circumstance, as chosen, or as an internal state. Though they are shaped by Irish history, they sketch a poetics of home which acquires a universal metaphorical dimension.
In their enquiries about exile, isolation, and separation, David Creedon, Patrick Hogan, and Ailbhe Ní Bhriain create different types of memory. Creedon relies on personal narratives but sketches a social anthropology; Hogan bring back to life one particular individual; Ní Bhriain offers an interiorized space.
The three sets of photographs of abandoned or ruined houses have acquired a new relevance after the property boom and renovating fever of the 1990s and the 2008 economic meltdown. had erased traces past occupation and transformed the ancestral landscape.


[7] Bachelard, op. cit., 197.
[8] V. Morisson
[9] See Pontremoli on the temporal depth of photographs, op. cit., 97.

In Ailbhe Ní Bhriain’s reconstructed places, the distinction between the inside and the outside collapses, so that “l’esprit a perdu sa partie géométrique et l’âme flotte.[7]” The artist is deeply interested in exile as a social reality but also as a psychological state of estrangement[8]. While some of Creedon’s houses are located, Ní Bhriain’s landscapes are devoid of topographical anchorage. Her universal untopographical ruins become mindscapes.

While photography essentially opens a gap in the present by making the past resurface[9], the presentation (presentification) of objects of the past or dilapidated and deserted places increases the spectrality of the images, which trigger meditation.

  1. Memento mori

[10] Rouillé, op. cit., 417.
[11]Susan Sontag, op. cit., 119.

Artistic photography, as it developed since the 1980s, participates in the renewal of the allegorical. It tends to deliver debris, fragments, incomplete or imperfect images[10]. Susan Sontag wrote that “certain photographs –emblems of suffering (…) –can be used as memento-mori, as objects of contemplation to deepen one’s sense of reality, as secular icons, if you will”[11]. The contrast between homeliness and abandonment, occupation and exile, life and death in the photographs we examined links them to memento-mori images as does the dramatic lighting.

[12] Benjamin R. Bennett-Carpenter, « Moving Memento-Mori Pictures; Documentary, Mortality, and Transformation in Three Films, The Catholic University of America, 2008.

The dust, the spider webs, the dead insects, the mirrors and portraits, as well as the clocks included in Creedon’s compositions are obvious memento-mori motifs. The scratches on the photographic surfaces of Ní Bhriain’s works, the sand and creeping vegetation, the dry shrubs, and dilapidated walls in her images are also keyed to ideas of transitoriness. As Benjamin R. Bennett Carpenter argues, documentary photographs and films, which are informative but also transformational in so far as they alter the viewer’s attitudes or beliefs, are propitious to bringing the consciousness of mortality to the viewers.[12] He relates the memento-mori tradition not only to the ephemerality of life but also to the human effort to survive. Survival is evoked in the three works that have been analyzed.


As André Rouillé claims, many artists use photography to show that there are things that one may conceive but that cannot be seen or made to be seen (497). As has been demonstrated, these photographs go beyond the real, having to do with « la découverte du peu de réalité de la réalité » (J.F. Lyotard, cité par Rouillé 558 sans rfce). These works of art eventually illustrate Maurice Blanchot’s understanding of images as absence-presence. Let us reread a fragment “Les deux versions de l’imaginaire”:

[13] Maurice Blanchot, L’Espace Littéraire, Paris, Folio Essais, Gallimard, 1955, 341.

L’image nous parle, et il semble qu’elle nous parle intimement de nous. Mais intimement est trop peu dire ; intimement désigne alors ce niveau où l’intimité de la personne se rompt et, dans ce mouvement, indique le voisinage menaçant d’un dehors vague et vide qui est le fond sordide sur lequel elle continue d’affirmer les choses dans leur disparition. [13]

After Husserl and Sartre, Blanchot claimed that the image is as distanced from reality as our consciousness and, in its phenomenological presence, brings forth nothing but ontological absence. The dilapidated houses photographed can be likened to Blanchot’s notion of the cadaver as a metaphor for the image itself, a metaphor that is particularly relevant for these photographic still-lives.

L’image, présente derrière chaque chose et comme la dissolution de chaque chose, a aussi, derrière elle, ce lourd sommeil du trépas dans lequel il nous viendrait des songes. (…) Il s’agit d’amener les choses à se réveiller comme le reflet et la conscience à s’épaissir en chose.

One may thenceforth construe the photographic images that have been analyzed as relics.

Conclusion: envisioning space

[14] Lippard, op. cit., 13.
[15] Lippard, op. cit, 19.
[16] Idem

Lucy Lippard argues that photography can play a role in the constitution of a humanistic geography “to recover the geographical imagination…and to introduce moral discourse…”[14] She writes: “Artists can make the connections visible. They can guide us through sensuous kinesthetic response to topography, lead us from archaeology and land-based social history into alternative relationships to place. They can expose the social agendas that have formed the land, bring out multiple readings of places that mean different things to different people at different times rather than merely reflecting some of their beauty back into the marketplace or the living room”[15]. She conceives of artists as “envisionaries”[16]. The photographic works this paper has examined do not archive space, they envision anthropological spaces.