HERE was a time of real austerity. Hardship and hard graft are etched on the faces of Limerick people in the 1970s in a unique photographic collection, which will finally come home to the public after years of having just “an audience of one”.
Limerick-born photographer Gerry Andrews, 59, will hold his first solo exhibition of work, entitled Shaped by History – Limerick in the 1970s – in the Hunt Museum this week.
The images, which shot to prominence after being featured extensively in the Limerick Leader last year, have captured people’s attention from as far away as Hawaii and the Solomon Islands.
For decades, the black and white images of Limerick lay in the vault of the Wolfe Tone Street native, after he put his photographic interests to bed. But the reaction they have received has since taken him by storm.
“I didn’t expect that it would get this big. I’m just astonished by the amount of interest from all over the world. I’ve had emails from people from Hawaii and the Solomon islands; so many different places that I’ve lost count. There’s interest in all of the pictures, but people’s main source of interest – regardless of where they’re from – seems to be in the Limerick photos,” he told this newspaper.
He started work in the Leader Leader’s lithographic department in 1970, and later became works (or production) manager, and left 21 years later. For decades he built up his business, but the death of his wife June, after 29 years, from Ballinacurra Gardens, from cancer in 2004 would lead him to re-evaluate his life.
He sold his company – Euroscreen Ltd, which later merged with Brookfield and became Ebrook – one of the biggest printing companies in the country, with 110 employees.
Without her, he said, his “heart went out of the business”. “I didn’t see any purpose in having it any more after my wife died. It was very much a joint effort.”
A plane ride to South America - along with his camera - would later help put some of the missing pieces back together.
But while he has photographed tribes and cultures in some of the world’s remotest spots, the very first images he took when he was just starting out in life seem to have the most resonance for people. And yet the acclaimed photographer struggles to understand why the Limerick images in particular have struck a chord with so many people who have never even visited Ireland or Limerick.
Perhaps, he says, it’s because they symbolise people’s “romantic notions of Ireland”, which no longer correspond with the images tourists see in any Irish city.
“This has been a great walk down memory lane for me [documenting the material for the exhibition and website]; it has been quite nostalgic and emotional at times. I loved every second of it. I catapulted myself back to the 70s and really didn’t want to come out,” he joked.
Predominantly they were taken around the Milk Market, now unrecognisable from the same grounds 40 years ago. “It’s all changed now. The buzz is there, the laughter the same, but the sounds are punctuated by people speaking languages and selling products that were unimaginable in the 70s.”
There he held up a lens to people with faces lined with misery, and weighed down by the economic climate of the 70s and 80s. “They were the grand-children of people born in the Famine. You can see it in their faces. We hadn’t moved on much from the 1900s up to the 1970s.”
Mr Andrews is also trying to identify the people he photographed all those years ago, as many of the images are without captions. “I would love to get the stories behind the pictures and know what became of these people, and what they did with their lives. It was a time of significant hardship and many people have forgotten what it was like in the 70s. That was the real period of austerity,” he said.
He recently received the prestigious honour of receiving a Fellowship in Photography, the highest distinction you can receive in photography after submitting a body of work to the Photographic Federation.
After spending three weeks in Cuba recently, he now plans to spend a month in Burma in December, seeking out the region’s forgotten tribes. Following the exhibition will be a talk by David Ward, one of the UK’s best landscape photographers, in the University of Limerick on Saturday, June 9. The exhibition will be opened by the Minister for Finance Michael Noonan on Friday at 6pm, and will be dedicated to his late wife. It will run until September.