Ever since Mathew Brady brought his camera to the battlefields of the American Civil War, photojournalism has forced us to confront reality, both its pain and its pleasure. The reason is simple: photos succeed where words frequently fail. It’s why the nefarious try to dodge or block the lenses of photographers but rarely knock the pens and notepads out of the hands of reporters. Perps know words might not harm them, but a photo can inflict a thousand wounds.
Often the most memorable photojournalism is linked to tragedy (recall the extraordinary news photography of Sept. 11, 2001), but it can also capture joy, including the joy of Irish traditional music. Among my favorites in that category are the photo taken by Nutan of button accordionist Joe Derrane at the end of “Blooming Meadows” (1998), the photo taken by Christy McNamara of fiddlers Martin Hayes and Paddy Canny playing together in Canny’s Clare kitchen in “The Heartbeat of Irish Music” (1997), and the photo taken by Jill Freedman of fiddler Johnny Doherty playing in a pub in Carrick, Donegal, with button accordionist Joe Burke and an unnamed man (later I found out he was a relative of Altan button accordionist Dermot Byrne) enjoying the craic in “A Time That Was” (1987).
Several photos in “It Wasn’t Just a Dream: Images of Catskills Irish Arts Week,” a new book by Albany-based photographer Timothy H. Raab, hold a comparable appeal for me. Since 2006 Raab has been the official photographer for the Catskills Irish Arts Week in East Durham, N.Y., and his book is filled exclusively with photos taken at the 2008 CIAW.
One is of Galway-born, white-haired Mike Rafferty playing wooden flute with lips pursed over the embouchure hole and a look of serenity on his face at the Shamrock House.
Another photo is of a 12:30 a.m. session at Darby’s that features fiddlers Dylan Foley, Rose Flanagan, Girsa’s Maeve Flanagan, Patrick Ourceau, and Teada’s Oisin Mac Diarmada. Raab expertly frames the relaxation of this late-night playing.
A photo of the late button accordionist Joe Madden is ringed by smaller photos of his contemporaries in a montage: Mike Rafferty on flute, Msgr. Charlie Coen on concertina, Martin Mulhaire on button accordion, Felix Dolan on keyboards, and Charlie’s brother Tony on fiddle. The look of sheer determination on Joe Madden’s face suggests these eminences grises can still teach the younger players a lick or two.
The photo of Mary Bergin’s fixed stare on tin whistle, with her fingers in a partial blur of dexterity, hints at the concentration behind her eyes. Bookending this photo of her are smaller ones of Johnny McDonagh on bodhran and Alec Finn on bouzouki. They add a fillip of nostalgia for those recalling Finn and McDonagh’s contribution to Bergin’s monumental solo album of 1979, “Feadoga Stain.”
The photo of N.J.-born fiddler Willie Kelly, surrounded by five youngsters executing a bowstroke in his fiddle class at Durham Elementary School, is a reminder that Irish traditional music not only narrows the gap between generations but also takes very seriously the earliest, critical gap of formal instruction for children.
One of the most riveting photos is of a late afternoon session inside Firehouse Hall that features a man with prosthetic arms and hands playing harmonica amid a mass of people on flutes, fiddles, whistles, and accordions. It’s all about enjoying music in a friendly, unassuming atmosphere.
Raab’s photos trace a chronological journey of seemingly nonstop music from Sunday night, July 13, through early Saturday morning, July 19, 2008. Between those dates are other photos that document instruction and performances on many other instruments and in dancing (Martin Mulhaire and his wife, Carmel, can be espied on the dance floor at a Shamrock House ceili), a radiant sunrise and sunset, scores of scheduled and impromptu sessions, and students practicing with each other or on their own (my favorite: a student in a reverse baseball cap sitting alone on a hillside and picking a guitar).
Part of the implied narrative of Raab’s book is a fascinating progression of photos from 10:18 a.m. on Friday to 5:30 a.m. on Saturday. Friday morning and afternoon classes yield to late afternoon student practicing, sessions, and a lecture, then to evening concerts at the Michael J. Quill pavilion, and then to night-owl sessions slipping into early Saturday morning and eventually late early Saturday morning sessions. What’s interesting is seeing how long the veteran players last. Starting around 2:30 a.m., the musicians become visibly younger, although fiddler Matt Cranitch hangs tough at 4 a.m. in Furlong’s. The first light of dawn reveals four young fiddlers and a young guitarist playing together underneath an outside tent. There’s not a gray hair or a sign of fatigue among them.
Using a Fuji S5Pro camera with Nikon lenses between 14mm and 200mm, Raab shot in ambient light for nearly all of his photographs. The red hue in his photo of fiddlers Kevin Burke and Tony DeMarco at 11:40 p.m. in McKenna’s, for example, reflects the venue’s actual lighting. A relatively slow shutter speed retains the blur, for example, in Mary Bergin’s supple fingers on tin whistle. Raab’s detail meshes with action to capture the fuller performance, giving what we see a kinetic force.
Currently available only in hardback, “It Wasn’t Just a Dream: Images of Catskills Irish Arts Week” is much more than a photographic keepsake in book form of the vibrant Irish traditional music and dance experienced at the popular summer school in East Durham. It is a visual chronicle of a key part of Irish American cultural history — a story that cannot be told enough.
To acquire the book, which includes a foreword by Catskills Irish Arts Week artistic director Paul Keating, contact Timothy H. Raab & Northern Photo, 16 James St., Albany, NY 12207, 518-465-7222, www.timraabnorthern.com, firstname.lastname@example.org.