By Ray O’Hanlon
John Michael Riley was always a little troubled about how he was taught history.
He was born in Massachusetts to a family with Irish roots threading back through Prince Edward Island in Canada. His father owned a textile business that he moved to first Pennsylvania and then North Carolina after World War II. But no matter where he resided, the school history textbooks presented the young Riley with what he said was a “totally Anglicized” version of his own nation’s history.
“There was nothing about Ireland other than references,” Riley said recently.
Those references were, nevertheless, filed away in Riley’s mind for later use. In time, and after studying sculpture, printmaking and film production in Atlanta, Paris and New York, Riley chose a career in photography, one that would see him enjoy considerable success in New York City in the highly competitive field of advertising and design photography.
He spent 22 years working in the Big Apple, a point of entry, as it happened, for one of his grandmothers, Eva Sargent, who came through Ellis Island in 1895 after leaving her native County Armagh.
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It was this family immigrant story that led Riley to pick up books on the subject, one of them being Kerby Miller’s classic study of Irish immigration to America, “Emigrants and Exiles.”
Riley was inspired by this and other books he read on Ireland, and though he and his wife, Catherine, and their children moved to Asheville, N.C., in the late 1980s, he increasingly felt that he needed to travel across the Atlantic, not just to discover his Irish roots, but to put them in context in a way that he could do best. And that was with a camera lens.
“I had studied a lot of image books about Ireland and felt that often the photographic work focused on the pretty picture,” he said. “It was clear that the photographers had not first read the history of Ireland.”
There were exceptions, of course. Riley, in this regard, cites the work of Donovan Wylie and Jill Uris.
Jill Uris, he said, wasn’t afraid to photograph Ireland in the rain and bad weather.
“I wanted to do a straightforward, unpretentious and honest, to avoid the cute and the quaint,” Riley said.
Riley set out for Ireland in 1998 and in the course of several visits developed a gallery show of photographs gathered in his travels around the island.
That show has now been condensed into a book entitled, “The Irish File, Images From a Land of Grace.”
The book, published by Rizzoli publishers of New York, is described in the sober language of the business as a “four-color, hard-bound monograph.” To Irish journalist and author Nuala O’Faolain, however, Riley’s work is something of a treasure.
O’Faolain wrote the introduction to “The Irish File” and was effusive in her praise for Riley’s photographic images of the Irish landscape and its people. Ireland, she wrote, was presented by Riley “not with a passion so much as a passionate control, as if the photographer had subsumed his ego to the spirit of the place and given himself to the particulars of its reality as his way of saying that he loves it. . . . This is the first time that I have seen photographs that say, Oh Ireland! You are sumptuously beautiful.”
With praise and encouragement like that, it’s not surprising that Riley now wants to go back to Ireland and do more.
With his Irish family roots mainly in Ulster, Riley is now intent on heading north, though not just to the North.
“I want to photograph Ulster, but the book will not be about the Troubles,” he said. “It will rather be about historical Ulster, the landscape of all nine counties of it.”
That idea is now taking shape and plans are being made. Riley, the shutterbug inspired first be mere references, has caught the Irish bug. “The Irish File” will soon have a companion on the bookshelf.