A new exhibition at the Gallery of Photography in Ireland is bringing together two renowned artists, Irish photographer Enda Bowe and music producer Max Cooper. The show centres on Bowe’s photo series Love’s Fire Song, which is on display in Ireland for the first time. The photographs were taken on either side of Belfast’s peace walls, which were first built as a permanent dividing line between the city’s Protestant and Catholic communities over 50 years ago.
Devoid of specific geographical references and political or religious symbols, Bowe’s series instead casts a spotlight on the “myriad joys and sorrows” of Belfast’s youth as a collective, and their shared sense of “longing, yearning, aspirations and vulnerabilities,” he says.
The genesis of the series came from the symbolic bonfires that take place in Northern Ireland in July and August each year. Bowe trains an empathetic lens over his subjects, allowing a tenderness to come forward in the photographs, including his portrait of Neil, which saw Bowe awarded second place in last year’s Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize.
As with his prior series Clapton Blossom, which won in the Creative Review Photography Annual 2019, Love’s Fire Song draws on a warm palette, though here it stretches from soft pastels through to fiery tones. Yet despite what the title and concept behind the series suggest, fire plays a secondary role. Instead, the bonfires are the subtle glue bonding Bowe’s subjects together.
As such, Bowe was less interested in the night of each bonfire and more inclined to capture the moments in the period surrounding them. “I was shooting within the few weeks beforehand, because that’s when all the social and connecting activity happens. I was interested in people being together,” he tells us. “These kids are from such poor areas and there’s nothing for them to do – no skateboard parks or anything. This is the highlight of their year. They’re most excited about making the structures, collecting pallets and all the mischief.”
Bound up in Bowe’s examination of identity in the series are intricate gender dynamics that rear their head for the occasion. “It’s also about manhood and approval. You have the four-year-olds dragging rubbish and passing it to the teenagers, who are climbing up the piles. And then you have the early 20-year-olds on the top,” he explains. “If you fall off, you’re very possibly dead. Older men are looking up and shouting advice, but everyone is getting approval from one another.”
Bowe wanted to expand on the energy of the people he spent time with in making the series, and decided to introduce music to the exhibition. He commissioned Belfast-born, London-based producer Max Cooper to make a soundtrack – one that would “create a space of tranquility, an emotive experience, away from the atmosphere of city life”. A fan of Cooper’s work, Bowe says his music is “full of humanity, shifting emotions” and can transport “the listener away on journeys from their present place”.
Cooper found he had common ground with Bowe in how they both centre emotion in their work, and the collaboration was helped by the fact that he often uses visuals as a starting point for his own solo projects, including his 2019 album Yearning for the Infinite. However, this is the first time he’d worked to stills. “With film, the pacing of the music is defined, but now suddenly that time dimension was at a limit, each moment stretched out indefinitely as you look at each photograph,” Cooper explains, adding that he had to find the balance between allowing the images to breathe and capturing intensity when needed. That said, he had “a surprisingly clear gut reaction about what did and didn’t work”.
“Making art about things you care about is easier it turns out, no revelation there,” he added. “And yes, I wouldn’t have thought to make music around this theme, I’ve probably spent my life trying to escape it, but it was a rewarding process and a good lesson in the value of responding to someone else’s idea.”
“In this case we have a politically and religiously charged backdrop, but the photographs are not about that, they’re about the people and humanity and intensity and colours and feeling involved,” Cooper says.
“Having grown up as part of an immigrant family in Northern Ireland in the 80s and 90s I felt I could comment on the human side of the story without [commenting] on sides, as Enda could as someone from the South who visited Belfast over many years in order to document what he saw.
“All I had to do was look at the photographs and the feelings came flooding. Both the Troubles and trauma, and the power and intensity and positive side of life which is embedded in the mindset of the region, which I’ve only come to properly appreciate since leaving. And so much more, feelings, ideas and colours all could be brought into the music.”
For Bowe, the music struck an immediate chord. “His work really resonated with the feelings I had within Love’s Fire Song, and Max being from Belfast gave his work that extra layer of experience for this sound installation,” he says. “It is such an incredible honour that Max is involved, the score he created is so beautiful and surpassed all of my dreams and expectations. He made the exhibition become what it is now, an immersive experience, a journey of contemplation, humanity, a journey with no judgements, just possibilities and hope.”