Image: James Hughes: Carnalbanagh, Glens of Antrim
James Hughes’ interest in abandoned spaces is a significant record of our times. Driven by a sense of curiosity – that became somewhat of an obsession – he has collected a huge number of images of places that (mostly) no longer exist. It is a unique collection; capturing the lost and rich heritage of our local vernacular, here in Northern Ireland.
It matters to James Hughes that these images are not just about dilapidation and decay, but about the lives of real people and the place they called home. The stories behind the picture are important to him. Who lived here. What they did. What they were like….These are the stories that fade into the past and into a distant and lost memory, where real life blends into folklore. The place that was. The people who used to be. How things were always done.
A story of a person, place or an event is a shared experience until there is no-one left to remember. And, once that space has gone it is almost as if those lives never existed. James Hughes has captured the ruined homes of Trotsky and Andre Chénier – historical figures, and people of interest. But to him, the lives of Mary Carey, James, Henry – people that no one has heard of – are just as important and their homes as visually rich.
Merging the past and the present he aims to capture the spirit and ambiance of the place. These are not ghostly or haunted places. Even as a ruin each home retains its own distinctive quality and identity as a space where people lived. No home is the exactly the same as another.
His photographs convey the rich texture of dwelling. There is a shabby beauty in the peeling paint, tumbled down walls and broken furniture. But mainly there is a painterly sense of melancholy, evoked through a depth of colour, light, and shade.
Homes that have just been abandoned, with everything still left there suggest that the occupier was expecting to return. But didn’t. From the furnishings we can tell something about the choices people made – based on the options they had. Locally made furniture was built to last, rather than to impress. Wallpaper and paint were used to hide the roughness of the walls and prettify the room while brands of household items, now obsolete, litter the space. A flash of brightly coloured fabric, in an otherwise muted scheme, adds a sense of optimism and whimsy.
These are not just ‘empty’ spaces. In the ruins he also found many personal effects and letters. Discovering tangible personal effects brings the experience of the space to a more intimate level: where the mundane routine of daily life and the human presence still exists.
Above all, there is a sensitive, hushed, intimate and poignant quality to his work. There is a stillness and a silence. He sees beauty in ordinary things and he sees ‘life’ in the ruins.
In an age of consumerism it is a reality check to know that all the things we own and buy and value in our homes will someday come to this. We have to expect that the things we love, that are precious to us, that we saved up to buy, that we treasure may not be valued by others. A set of figurines. Paintings by a favourite artist. Our collection of teaspoons, owls, china, Waterford crystal, books, clothes have no real value unless someone else really wants them. As tastes change, as homes become smaller, and more minimal so much stuff ends up in a skip or abandoned and left to rot.
People’s lives are finite, but buildings we expect to last longer. But if they are not looked after they soon become overrun by nature. Homes were meant to be occupied, but they need to be maintained. There is a soft, sadness to a home that has obviously aged with its owners. For those who cannot continually re-paint, repair, fix, mend and clean their home it will gradually fall into disrepair. More often than not, the site is worth more than what is left of a building, and will be rebuilt with a replacement dwelling; something more suited to contemporary lifestyles. But in the most remote spots, which may be still without running water and electricity, few people can handle such hardship, even as a get-away-from-it-all holiday home.
James Hughes’ work reminds us that we were once a hardy lot. We lived on the land, eking out a living and our needs and tastes were simple – because they had to be. Moving to live in the towns and cities meant we lost both the quietness of the countryside, its connection to the seasons and to the land, as well as its many traditions and practices.
The twentieth century arguably witnessed the greatest change we have seen to our way of life and way of living. It opened up wider choices and influences. We consciously moved away from the way things were and had always been.
And as these old spaces become more ruined, James Hughes has created more than just a historical record of spaces that no longer exist. He has created a memory bank of experience that we didn’t realise we had lost.
Nuala Rooney, PhD