Krass relives a cruel beauty
Time’s harmonising at this moment. Krass Clement stands in the gloom of a derelict bar. His features are halflit from projections of his black and white images filling an entire wall. Krass is studying the photos he took in this very bar in Drum a quarter of a century earlier, when it was still open.
Anderson’s bar was the most sparten of rooms. There were no draught taps, instead the images show sullen faced men supping porter from bottles and half glasses. Men alone occupied the wooden stools and benches. The pub’s smoke stained walls, bare of pictures, and timber floor echo the melancholy of the patrons. Whilst they may share the room, the images would have you believe they seldom share company, they’re together in their isolation.
Anderson’s sole concession to comfort, a two-bar heater, is one of the few coordinates to anchor us in the latter half of the 20th century, and not actually on the stage set of Synge’s Playboy. An elderly man with a face creased by toil and time, a torn earlobe, and dusty overcoat lingers for warmth. This sympathetic figure is the focus of many of the photos.
As the photos are projected on the wall some of the features – fireplace, wooden door - almost align with the actual features present before us in the desolate bar. It’s like an eerie double exposure.
Standing in profile, Krass is unreadable. He’s not in reverie, but rather deep concentration. Is he thinking of the old man with the torn ear? Is he reliving that night back in 1991, or considering how the passing years are carrying him ever closer to the images he captured. Maybe he’s less of an outsider to these men now, than he was when he met them. I stop myself from surmising Krass’s thoughts, and instead focus on observing the scene.
“It’s overwhelming,” Krass tells the Celt, who’s apologetic for disturbing him. “I’ve never seen my own pictures in that way, being brought back from where they’ve come. That is really fantastic, and very few photographers will have that experience.
“To come back to this room, I still find this room has something special... but also there’s something ghostly. It’s completely overwhelming.”
Back 26 years ago photographer Krass was on a two month residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annamekerrig. He found the other artists perfectly nice, but as a Dane, who even now calls on his wife Annie to help interpret the Celt’s questions, he didn’t feel quite at home.
He had joined a group of the artists as they called into Anderson’s on the Farney side of the countyline, a converted coachhouse dating from the 1780s, and after a drink or two, his companions decided to hit the road. Krass stayed put.
“Even in that decision to stay, it was going to be hugely inconvenient, because he thought he was going to have to walk back to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre,” says Trish Lambe curator in Dublin’s Gallery of Photography, and one of those behind Krass’s current revisiting of Drum. “But something sparked something in Krass that made him want to stay and make this work.”
Armed with his Leica camera and a mere three rolls of film he coaxed the night’s events to seep in through his 35mm lens. The images speak of an effortless authenticity.
“In a way I had no idea to make a book when I took the photographs,” Krass explains.
What was in your thoughts?
“The place - I mean there was a beauty in the place, and there was a drama – but the drama was hidden. You couldn’t see it because it was quiet people – but at the same time there was a lot of things behind that beauty - a cruel beauty in a way.”
Probably the youngest of those in Anderson’s that night was Mervyn Reilly.
“It shows up what 20 or 30 years can do,” he quips with a gentle laugh.
As one of a handful of suvivors who attended Drum hall to meet Krass, Mervyn notes the somber aspect to the photos, as his brother-in-law and many neighbours have since passed.
Whilst the men seldom look towards the camera, Mervyn says that they were aware they were being photographed.
“He wasn’t wasting any time, he was going all the time on his camera.
“We never thought it would go worldwide; there were often ones in taking photographs,” he says.
Surprisingly Mervyn accepts that these austere photos accurately reflect that night. Are they not a little depressing?
“It didn’t seem that way at the time - we were neighbours, we gathered there on a Saturday night and had a good night’s fun and a few drinks.”
Renowned photographer and DIT lecturer Anthony Haughey lauds Drum as “a remarkable set of photographs”, and offers a different perspective.
“He’s not setting out to represent Drum or the residents of Drum, it says as much about him, and an inner monologue, as it does about the people themselves.”
So what does the collection say about Krass?
“I think it says he’s an outsider. You come as a foreigner to another country and you are trying to understand what you are experiencing, so you’ve got this interior monolgue going on.
“To be a good photographer you’ve got to be inside and outside at the same time - so there’s this kind of tension between you being present in the moment, but also creating enough distance so that you are able to actually observe the scene and watch events unfolding in front of you. That’s what he does really well.”
Krass agrees when asked if it’s fair to say that the photos reflect more closely of how he felt rather than the people of Drum?
“In a way I felt quite lonesome, and I was perhaps a little depressed in that period. I felt maybe a little outside the people of Annaghmakerrig.”
Mercifully, a “nice guy” from the pub offered him a lift to save him the trudge back to the arts retreat, and on the journey he reflected on his night’s work: “I remember I had the rolls in my pocket and I know I have done something special – I knew before I had developed [the films].”
Familiar with this story, wife Annie reminds him: “But you were afraid that they would be completely black because the light...”
“The light was really awful,” Krass agrees. That is one of the most remarkable things about this series of photos, Krass was dependant on the harsh light from a naked bulb hanging like the Guernica eye from the roof. He handled it, masterfully. It lends a dramatic atmosphere to each frame.
Five years later, in 1996 the photos were published as Krass’s ninth photobook, ‘Drum. Et sted i Irland’ which has become something of a landmark in the photographic world. First editions fetch around €1,000 at auction.
“One of the very best photography books ever made, never mind Irish photography books,” is how Trish Lambe describes Drum.
Lambe says she finds the work “very austere” and notes that with its non-linear narative, it can be “perplexing”.
“Often the most interesting photography or artworks, you can’t quite pin them down – there’s something that hooks you but you’re not quite sure why...”
He rates Krass’s abilities as an “incredible editor”, and suspects that “the sequencing in the book” speaks of his studies as a film director.
The Celt raises with Krass that he has become closer in age to the men who feature in his work.
Annie gently teases: “Krass is turning into that man now.”
Krass seems to have considered this.
“It’s strange because at the same time, to come back here, nothing has changed. I’m exactly the same, in a way: I have the same feelings I have the same problems, I am photographing in the same way. In some sense nothing has changed, for me.”