Essays Photography

Film review: Photo City

Film review: Photo City
by Allan LEONARD
13 April 2018

Photo City is a documentary film by John Murphy and Traolach Ó Murchú, about the story of Rochester, New York, becoming the Silicon Valley of photography, with the clustering of image-based companies such as Xerox, Bausch and Lomb, and Kodak. And how this industry has defined this city and its people, even after the demise of the film producing great, Kodak.

It is a story of photography and society.

The documentarians do a fine job covering the breath of photography. The community photographer. The Facebook posterer. The musician/writer/photographer artist. The advertising man. The photojournalist. The teacher. The student. The inventor. The shop floor worker. The museum archivist.

The act of photography permeates the social fabric of the city’s neighbourhoods, across economic status, vocations, and generations.

We learn about the rise and fall of Kodak in particular, who was a dominant employer. Indeed, its annual bonus cheques would generate even more consumption and wealth for local businesses. So as is the case anywhere where a lead company shrinks, so did the prosperity of Rochester with the demise of Kodak.

But the film strikes a chord of optimism. As one participant said, “The fall of Kodak has unleashed talent to do other things.” And we are presented with how the city still attracts and retains those intrigued about photography and image making.

Photo City is a humanist film. It tells the stories of the people behind the camera.

As the photojournalist explained, “The camera is just a tool. What needs to be perfect is the subject matter to evoke an emotional response.”

This is followed by two further deeply impacting stories.

The final scene brings the wider community together, which I found to be both celebratory but also tinged with nostalgia — can the unleashed talent sustain what must be one of the most image conversant populations in America?

The film will next be screened at the One Take Film Festival in Rochester, New York. You can follow Photo City on Twitter and Facebook.


Rewrite our future! Washington Ireland Program Thanksgiving Ball 2017

Rewrite our future! Washington Ireland Program Thanksgiving Ball 2017
by Allan LEONARD for Shared Future News
25 November 2017

The Thanksgiving Ball has become an annual tradition of the Washington Ireland Program, held at this time of year in recognition of the generosity of families in America who host visiting participants. Tonight’s event, with several hundred attending at the Hilton Hotel in Belfast, took on an added significance with the award recognition of Norman Houston and Nuala McAllister.

Essays Photography

Review – Jacques LOWE: My Kennedy Years (Proud Gallery)


Thanks to an article published in British Airways’ in-flight magazine, High Life, I learned of a photo exhibition of the work of Jacques Lowe, who was a personal and professional photographer for John F. Kennedy.

On display at the Proud Gallery, King James’s Street (Sloan Square), are a series of prints of JFK and other Kennedy clan members.

These several dozen prints, all silver gelatin, are for sale, from £3,000-£7,500.

Why so costly? Because they are the very last remaining prints by the deceased photographer.

This is because Lowe’s archive of negatives was completely destroyed in the collapse of the World Trade Centre on 9/11. They were kept in a safe in the custody of JP Morgan. While the safe was recovered, its contents perished.

As the gallery assistant explained to me, the prints labelled “vintage” are one-offs — a single, original print made at the time of its taking. A print that is numbered as part of a series is the last one. For example, 12/75 means that eleven previous prints were made — the one numbered 12 is it; there are no 13-75.

What of the prints themselves?

Many are familiar, not surprising as Jacques Lowe was the President’s official photographer. For example: a family photo of John and Jackie, with baby Caroline grabbing her mother’s pearl necklace; JFK standing in a boat, looking reflectively into the water; another of his anguish, hand on face, phone in other hand, upon hearing the news of the assassination of the Prime Minister of the Republic of Congo; and the solemn march of Robert, Jackie and Ted Kennedy, at JFK’s funeral.

My favourite on display was one of Robert Kennedy. He is looking dead straight into the camera lens: a close-up profile image:

20131022 JFK Proud RFK

It reminded me of a personal photograph. We lived in California, and my father went to one of RFK’s outdoor political rallies. He got close to the platform, and took a wonderful image of Robert at the podium, with his left foot resting on it toes.

Seeing this image as a young man must have made an impression upon me, not only because of the familial but also for the value of documenting history. I’ve had the opportunities to record public speaking by Presidents Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Obama.

This exhibition at the Proud Gallery is accompanied by a beautiful, large hardcover book, My Kennedy Years: A Memoir, posthumously published. It is just as well, because while these final prints will exist in other people’s private possession, with the disappearance of the original negatives, there’s not likely to be another Lowe exhibition anytime soon. This exhibition runs until 24th November. I recommend the book as an eternal keepsake.


Jobs and freedom for Northern Ireland: MLK march 50th anniversary

Jobs and freedom for Northern Ireland: MLK march 50th anniversary
by Allan LEONARD for Shared Future News
28 August 2013

Sponsored by the US Consulate Belfast, the Washington-Ireland Programme and Politics Plus, Chris Lyttle MLA hosted a remembrance event at Parliament Buildings for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, with Martin Luther King Jr’s speech, “I have a dream”.


The fate of peace – President Obama in Northern Ireland

The fate of peace: President Obama in Northern Ireland
by Allan LEONARD for Shared Future News
17 June 2013

My marriage is a transatlantic union between a Midwesterner and a Belfast-born Northern Irishwoman. Fittingly, my wife and I were delighted to receive tickets to hear another Midwesterner, President Barack Obama, at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall.


Barbara Stephenson’s “old friends” reception


It was a pleasure to be among many guests for an after work reception at Ardnavalley, for former US Consul General, Barbara Stephenson, who is over for a visit from her Deputy Chief of Mission post at the US Embassy in London.

Ambassador Stephenson served as US Consul General in Belfast from 2001-2004. Indeed, she arrived within only a few weeks of 9/11. I remember her leading a 3-minutes silence ceremony at Belfast City Hall at the time.

I didn’t expect her to remember me, as I was serving as an Alliance Party staffer (policy officer) while accompanying the party leader and general secretary of the day. Yet she genuinely did remember me, and we recalled her parting comments about integrated education.

The ambassador asked about my current job, to which she replied, “That’s great — you’re keeping the work of a shared future alive!”

I knew she was sincere when she addressed all of us later, when current Consul General, Kamala Lakhdhir, described us as “Barbara’s old friends” along with “new friends” that she wanted Barbara to meet.

The ambassador said that it felt like being back home. She said that she was very thankful to see all of us, and how she felt that peace felt more bedded down, certainly less precarious than when she served her post in Northern Ireland.

Then she added that it was pleasing to see so many of us in the room “working for a shared future”, something she wants realised here.

I’ll applaud that, and we all did.


Book review – A Garden of Paper Flowers (Rosa EHRENREICH)

I had the privilege of participating in a study abroad programme while enrolled at Boston University. I attended St Catherine’s College, Oxford for the Michaelmus term, 1989. I experienced the peculiarities and uniqueness that is Oxford.

No one describes this better than Rosa Ehrenreich in A Garden of Paper Flowers. I immediately identified with her reactions to the arcane customs, traditions and attitudes.

My favourite example is her essay writing experience. At the start of her studies, she put much effort only to receive mediocre scores. She suspected that her tutor wasn’t actually reading her work, so she began inserting random irrelevant words and phrases. By the end of the term she was submitting gibberish, yet her tutor told her how much her writing was improving, with grades to match.

A reader’s health warning is the subtitle, An American at Oxford. Ehrenreich does her best to appreciate the cultural differences, but doesn’t pretend to overcome them. While any Yank who’s ever had a taste of Oxford will promptly understand Ehrenreich’s perspective, regular Oxford alumni should appreciate this alternative view, too. (4/5 stars)


Book review – Born Fighting (James WEBB)

20070802 Born Fighting cover
There’s no denying the fighting spirit of the Scots-Irish, particularly as James Webb describes the defence of the frontier in the Appalachian Mountains. However, Webb goes too far in defining this attribute as somehow ethnically unique.

Webb also overplays the Scots-Irish role in the American War of Independence. One giveaway passage is, “Although the trained minds of New England’s Puritan culture and Virginia’s Cavalier aristocracy had shaped the finer intellectual points of the argument for political disuinion, the true passion for individual rights emanated from the radical individualism of the Presbyterian and, increasingly, Baptist pulpits. This concept … dovetailed neatly with the aristocratic forces of revolution in the East.”

One can appreciate Webb’s desire to emphasise the passion of the Scots-Irish, but his arguments could have been stronger by demonstrating a more fulsome knowledge of the “finer intellectual points”. For example, it was no mean feat to convince some of the reluctant colonial governors to side with the cause of independence. Furthermore, these “trained minds” included many of America’s Founding Fathers, whose wisdom established the political philosophy by which the US government still lives by.

So, while Born Fighting is a decent read about a proud Scots-Irish American’s perspective on his communal ancestors’ contributions to American culture and society, this not the more serious investigation as it at times pretends to be. (3/5 stars)


Book review – My Life (Bill CLINTON) vs Himself Alone (Dean GODSON)

20040723 My Life cover

Did a radio piece for BBC Radio Ulster’s books programme, to review two recent biographies: Bill Clinton’s autobiography, My Life, and Dean Godson’s, Himself Alone: David Trimble and the Ordeal of Unionism.

My Life has been dismissed by some as an exercise in some sort of cathartic releasing of guilt, or of exorcising the demons from the darker side of his parallel lives (as he self-explains his personality framework). Meanwhile, others have described Trimble as the loner, as epitomised by Godson’s book title, “Himself Alone”. Both are rather simplistic interpretations.

My review focuses on the different book writing styles, and what each subject has to say about the other.

Book styles

While both are 1,000 pages each, they are written very differently. Of course, it’s not really a fair comparison, because Clinton’s is an autobiography and Godson’s is a piece of impressive investigative research, with his subject, Trimble, neither endorsing nor censoring the final work.

Bill Clinton writes the way he speaks: fluid, in command of details. If it resembles a “diary dump”, then I doubt that Clinton had to resort to his Filofax much. Yet while people who meet Clinton in person are captivated by him and the attention he so comfortably gives you, this easy-going, homesy style doesn’t translate so well in the written form.

The narrative is easy enough to read, but there’s no discrimination in the detail. Also, he far too often jumps from one topic to another, with no rhyme or reason. I found the epilogue as one of the better parts of the book, because it was written in a more clearly comprehensible essay style. If only there was some thematic “thread” woven in the main body text.

Theme is not a problem with Godson’s work. The subtitle says it all, “the Ordeal of Unionism”. In a way, this is a history book of unionism wrapped around the life experiences of David Trimble. This may be in good part due to the observation by both subject and author of the relative dearth of comprehensive and analytical reading material on unionism, which both have sought to redress, in their own particular ways – one through politics and the other by penmanship.

Similar to Clinton’s work, Himself Alone can be sectioned off: (1) Trimble’s upbringing and introduction to politics; (2) emergence as leader and chief negotiator for unionism; and (3) the slings and arrows of internal wrangling, post-Belfast Agreement.

As my day job is politics, you would think I would have enjoyed this last section most. However, possibly precisely because I can personally recall many of the events myself, I didn’t find reliving them especially engrossing. I enjoyed the earlier sections, because Godson’s presentation provides a useful guide and insight into the personal and cultural background that Trimble found himself and his political community in. It helped explain why Trimble acted – and continues to act – in his particular way.

Trimble on Clinton; Clinton on Trimble

Trimble’s upbringing was humble, as was Clinton’s. Neither were members of the upper middle classes. High expectations were not placed on either of them. Trimble was naturally endeared to the Anglican, gentlemen’s club style of the Unionist Party or the Orange Order. Indeed, his joining of both were the result more of a desire to maintain contact with the friends he had made, than out of any ideological zeal.

I suspect Trimble always knew who he was and what he was about. That is, if Trimble was going to get involved with unionist politics, then it would be where he felt he could make a louder difference. Although he was content as the intellectual backroom boy, he did apply himself in the more radical movements of the day, especially within Vanguard.

Godson appreciates this, but his interpretation is that Trimble failed to recognise that the gains he felt were crucial, e.g. securing the Union, was not appreciated by his unionist supporters as much as the starker trade-offs of early prisoner releases and Sinn Fein in government sans decommissioning.

Some may dismiss Trimble’s aloofness as a weakness of leadership, but who else within unionism was ready to challenge the British and Irish Government’s treatment of Northern Ireland, as well as combat the hitherto inadequately challenged republican interpretations of Northern Ireland government under unionism?

Godson argues that Trimble placed too much trust or deference to Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, but weak unionist leadership would not likely have prevented everything else that was afoot, e.g. the bringing in of Sinn Fein to the political mainstream. Trimble may have expected too much by wanting Clinton to apply more pressure on Sinn Fein in regards to decommissioning, because what separated Clinton from other Irish-American politicians is that Clinton wanted to help by keeping channels of communication open, rather than to try to persuade one side over another (i.e. how Protestant rights would be ensured under a united Ireland). While Trimble is not the leader of the largest unionist party anymore, he is still leader of the Ulster Unionist Party.

Many pundits have speculated on his departure from the UUP. Perhaps ironically, I am minded to quote Ian Paisley’s response to the same question: “It takes a long time to die.” Until someone else in the UUP is willing and able to not only articulate an intelligent riposte to republicanism, but also to be able to handle the complexities of British and Irish Government convergent attitudes to Northern Ireland, then dissatisfied unionist voters will follow the louder (but perhaps less effective?) voice, for the while. Trimble’s aloofness has cost him popularity, but who else would have been able to swim against the currents so well?

Nancy Soderberg said that the American administration (which included herself) knew little about David Trimble (p. 185). Trimble was no anti-American (he enjoyed reading Encounter, after all!), but he disliked many Irish-Americans and Soderberg especially.

Upon meeting President Clinton, David Trimble gave him Pardon Me Boy, a book on American servicemen in Northern Ireland during WWII, by author Ronnie Hanna, and a book by Gordon Lucy on the Ulster Convenant (p. 190).

Godson argues that Clinton’s involvement in Northern Ireland was “not a case of rape, but of seduction”. (p. 195)

Trimble says that “I must be gracious to Clinton” (see more on p. 631 for Godson analysis of difference between Trimble and Clinton perceived roles

Clinton’s involvement with Northern Ireland began in 1991-2, when he reaffirmed his commitment to push for an end to discrimination against Northern Ireland Catholics. Nancy Soderberg wrote the draft statement. He said that he first got involved because of the politics of New York.

Clinton spends several pages (pp. 578-581) discussing his decision to grant Gerry Adams a visa to enter the US. Many administration officials were opposed to the idea, but the National Security Council team (of which Soderberg was a chief member) became determined to grant the visa, in order to boost Adams’ leverage within Sinn Fein and the IRA, because “unless the IRA renounced violence and Sinn Fein was part of the peace process, the Irish problem could not be resolved”. This reasoning was consistent with the approach made by John Hume.

The NSC team became convinced that Gerry Adams favoured an end to IRA violence, full Sinn Fein participation in the peace process, and a democratic future for Northern Ireland. Clinton also justifies his decision to grant a visa, because “the Irish were beginning to prosper economically, Europe as a whole was moving toward greater economic and political integration, and tolerance for terrorism among the Irish had dropped”. These are consistent with arguments put forward by John Hume at the time, but dubious. For example, there’s no arguing that the economy of the Irish Republic was improving, the EU was proceeding with policy, and that there was never much popular support, North or South for the IRA. So what was the link to Gerry Adams? Instead, Adams’ own message to Clinton, that the Irish people were taking risks for peace and Clinton should to, shows that in the end it was just that – a calculated risk.

Clinton hardly says anything about David Trimble: “Trimble could be dour and pessimistic, but beneath his stern Scots-Irish front was a brave idealist who was taking risks for peace.” (p. 896)

But Trimble is only interested in what is best for unionists. For example, when Sean Farren asked him what he wanted for his community, Trimble replied, “To be left alone.” This is not a visionary statement of a shared and united Northern Ireland, and hardly words of a “brave idealist”.

Clinton does not mention the intricacies of the Multi-Party Talks, except for the eve of the Agreement, trying to help George Mitchell close the deal, going to bed at 2.30am and being woken up at 5.00am to ring Adams again to seal the deal. One shouldn’t be disappointed not to learn more, since it was Mitchell who did most of the hard graft. His account, Making Peace, is highly recommended.

Meanwhile, Godson provides a near minute-by-minute account of what was transpiring with the UUP during the last 72 hours of the Talks.

20040723 Himself Alone cover