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John Millington Synge

John Millington Synge ((1871-1909), poète, écrivain et accessoirement musicien, était aussi photographe. Issu de la bourgeoisie protestante irlandaise, il passa une partie de sa vie à voyager pour étudier les arts et la littérature.

En 1897, malade, il décide de vivre entre Paris et Inis Meàn, dans les îles d’Aran. Il y effectue un véritable travail d’ethnologue, sillonnant la campagne avec son appareil-photo, collectant récits et chansons à chacun de ses passages.

En 1907, il publie son livre Les Iles d’Aran, illustré par Jack Butler Yeats. Les photos prises par Synge dans les îles d’Aran entre 1898 et 1902 ne seront rassemblées et publiées qu’en 1971 dans un recueil intitulé My Wallet of Photographs aux éditions Dolmen Press.

Synges_wallet1.jpghttp://www.aran-isles.com/1224246671468_4.jpgSynges_wallet7.jpgSynges_wallet3.jpg

Synge was 27 when he went to the Aran Islands for the first time in l898, armed with l9th-century contemporary technology: a typewriter and a second-hand camera called a Klito he had bought from another visitor in Kilronan. Recovering from an operation for Hodgkin’s disease and a frustrated love affair, he was open, vulnerable and receptive. The images he took, record everyday island life – the women at the spinning wheels, the men gathering seaweed or hauling their currachs – but they also chronicle a dramatic news event, one of the last evictions on the island of an old woman turned out of her house after 30 years.

In his pictures of people, there’s an intimacy, a familiarity in the attitude towards the camera, a sense of ease in facing a friendly rather than an intruding lens. The photographs were used by Jack Yeats for his illustrations for a series of articles Synge wrote for the Manchester Guardian in June and July 1905 and the original sketch of the family on Inis Oírr now hangs in the Niland Gallery in Sligo.

“These photographs are important because they are among the first to portray the cultural revival in Ireland at the turn of the century and are among the most visual statements of Irishness from a cultural national perspective,” says Walsh, who first came across the photographs on a visit to Inis Meáin two years ago. “Synge was someone who believed that here was a reservoir of pure unadulterated Irishness, much more rooted and organic and, in a way, like an alternative lifestyle that came from the people and the elemental forces that surround them.” Other photographers of the time, he argues, did not have the same empathy, did not speak Irish, and were transients passing through with a camera, or scientists clinically recording what they perceived as a primitive way of life.

Synge was a close observer of nature and an accomplished musician who had ways of engaging with islanders and entertaining them. He could also be inconspicuous when he wanted to, and the portrait of the family on Inis Oírr, the man moving away from the woman and child, has a kind of epic grandeur, almost cinematic in its formality and setting.

He noticed details of island dress, “the local air of beauty”: the flannel trousers, the veists or báiníns, the pampooties, cowhide shoes and, of course, the red petticoats and indigo stockings “on the powerful legs” of the women. He certainly didn’t write about white cabled Aran sweaters, which did not exist then, and the idea of drowned fishermen being identified by their knitted jumpers was a later, mythical invention. Early visitors to the island were always impressed by the colour and unity of the dress, and the contrast between the farmers on Aran and those of their counterparts in Wicklow in their top hats, suits and boots could not be more striking.

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