A Chat With Photog and Musician Christy McNamara

A native of Crusheen, County Clare, Christy McNamara has spent a lifetime telling stories of the people of rural Ireland through his photography and his music. He is a true insider, having grown up in a household filled with traditional Irish musicians and storytellers, and his work reflects that: Portrait images uniquely capture the raw authenticity of his subjects, and music harkens back to the days when it was first created by McNamara's elders.

Photo courtesy of Christy McNamara

Photographer, musician, singer, composer, a veritable contemporary Renaissance man, McNamara has quite an impressive list of subjects and collaborators, including photography of U2 and the Pogues. His work has been exhibited extensively in Ireland and in the United States, has received many accolades, and is sought after by many art collectors.

The Wild Geese's Visual Arts Producer, Maryann Tracy, had the opportunity a while ago to speak with Christy, (seen here) who lives in New York City, about his background, his photography, and his music and his personal 'Irish story.'

The Wild Geese:  You have quite a list of talents and accomplishments, as well as accolades.  Tell us how you utilized your skills and knowledge in your book, "The Living Note," as it relates to the roots of Irish music.

Christy McNamara:  I'm a Photographer and Traditional Musician.   I was born in Drumbaniff, Crusheen, County Clare on the west coast of Ireland.  I now live in New York City.  Along with being a Photographer I’m also a traditional Irish musician and play the button accordion and concertina.  I come from a family steeped in heritage and tradition with a rich vein of traditional music running deep in my own family on both sides for generations … I began my first major photographic work on traditional Irish music now almost 20 years ago which culminated in the publication of my first book “The Living Note”, with writer Peter Woods, O’Brien Press, 1996.   This work has received worldwide acclaim during this time.  I have exhibited this work at home and abroad. … Many of the older people featured here in this portfolio are now dead and gone.  Ireland has also changed.  Rural Ireland is changing rapidly as ways of living and communities are now fighting for their very survival.  We had the “Celtic Tiger” economy, which crashed with dire consequences for all.  Old ways of life and whole communities are now threatened and torn apart by that economic collapse. …


The Wild Geese:   It seems that you have remained true to the old ways in your photography, many of them black and white, using tools and methods taught to you from some of the, shall we call them “old masters of photography.”  Explain why you have done this.

McNamara:  I like to work in the mediums that I feel are sympathetic to the subject matter.  As a photographer, I believe in getting to know my subjects and in learning to understand the subject; this a starting point.  I feel that a non-intrusive way of working where the subject is more important than the photographer is vital in getting good work.  I have always liked the work of photographers who have created images with a clear understanding of their subjects. … I still print my own work and make fine art prints in the darkroom by hand. I never crop my images and I still work in film and use old cameras.  The image is what is important, not the camera.

The Wild Geese:  You have photographed an impressive group of subjects, from U2, Dierks Bentley and the Pogues to fiddle player, Paddy Killoughery, for which you won a Communication Art Award.  Do you have a favorite genre?  And tell us what it was like to win the Communication Art Award.

McNamara:  … I have worked with many different people who commission photography; and again, when I show a portfolio of my work I always include some of my own personal work.  This shows a style and approach, which can be applied to other projects.  Again, being a musician means a lot when photographing music.  Musicians understand each other, and being part of that community has brought me into contact with the music industry and some well-known people and bands within that.  When music is played, musicians reveal themselves.  Recognising that as a musician is also a special gift.  I enjoy the company of musicians and am often playing or on-stage immersed in the music myself, so I know the two sides of it.  I have been lucky to have photographed U2 and done it in my own way.  In being Irish, we have a lot in common even though I play traditional music. … After photographing The Pogues, Philip Chevron wrote to me and thanked me for my work.  I was very flattered by that.  It meant a lot as I'm a fan too. … I was asked to do a shoot with Dierks Bentley when he was in Dublin a few years ago.  We had a good time doing the shoot, and it was art directed by Steve Averill, U2's graphic designer. … When I won the Communication Art Award for the picture of Paddy Killoughery, I couldn't believe it.  This was my Oscar moment!  Again, I would not have gotten this picture without being a musician.  When I photographed him, I felt it captured him as I saw him.  … I don't dwell on the prize winning side.  I'm happy if the image speaks for itself.  I can tell the stories, which is important, too.  I’m always interested in photographing people and hearing their stories.   Taking pictures is a two-way process as I feel pictures are always a two-way communication.  I like to work simply and without fuss.  I always work with the available light in the tradition of the masters.

The Wild Geese:  If there was anyone in the world you could photograph (living or dead), who would it be?

McNamara:  Brian Boru after the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, in which he defeated the Danes before Bruder killed him.  He was an old man and the last High King of Ireland.  I'm descended from Boru through the O'Briens, my Grandmothers people.

The Wild Geese:  Do you credit your upbringing in County Clare for your style of musicality?  Is that where most of your influence comes from?

McNamara: My family has deep roots in County Clare for centuries on both sides.  The music style of where I'm from is distinctive.  This is my accent, and it’s also my musical accent.  I grew up surrounded in a family who played, sang, danced, and told stories. … This music is music of the soul, and it is very special. Ireland has a wonderful, vibrant traditional music scene.  It now crosses geographical boundaries and societies.  Nevertheless, its origins and roots are very important in my understanding of it.  I couldn't imagine a life without it. …

The Wild Geese:  What inspired you to write the acclaimed book, “The House I was Reared In?”  Tell us a little about it.

McNamara: The House I was Reared In” is my debut album of my music.  This is a musical expression of everything I have mentioned in both my descriptions of my photography and my own place. … I’m joined on it by friends and family as guest musicians.  Martin Hayes and I are cousins and share this musical legacy in our families.  I Play the button accordion and concertina, and I also sing on this album, which also features two of my own compositions.

The Wild Geese:  Finally, ‘Tell Us Your Irish Story.’

McNamara:  My Irish story, this is it.  I'm living here in New York, and I want to connect with and develop new opportunities for my work as a full-time artist in photography, music, story, and song.  I want to connect with the Irish diaspora and tell them a personal story through my work as an artist.  I have an exhibition coming up beginning on November 7th at the Irish Consulate here in New York called, "From Clare to Here.”  It will run through December the 17th.  For the opening I will be doing a special performance of my music with some special guests. WG

To see and hear some of Christy's work, visit www.ChristyMcNamara.com.

Views: 1523

Tags: Clare, Connacht, Folklore, Ireland, Traditional Music, United States, Visual Arts


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