Limerick photographer Norman McCloskey captures the kingdom in all its glory – Irish Examiner | Ad On Picture

A few summers ago, in July 2019, Kenmare-based photographer Norman McCloskey went to the Skelligs on one of the boats that regularly bring visitors to the remarkable UNESCO World Heritage Site. Except that this wasn’t an everyday tourist trip.

For one, it was 3:30 am and still dark; for another, McCloskey was the only passenger – he had chartered the boat and captain exclusively for the day, at considerable expense. In the hours that followed, the award-winning Limerick-born photographer was on a mission to capture a memorable and meaningful image of the rugged islets, particularly the Skellig, which George Bernard Shaw described as “the most amazing and impossible rock in the world” Michael. He had made two previous voyages under similar circumstances, but the weather and light balked and McCloskey got nothing, despite the time, effort, and money.

“These islands are eight miles away so it’s difficult to predict the weather and conditions can change very quickly, but this was an absolutely perfect morning – the water was like a mirror,” enthuses McCloskey, 51. “It was spectacular; Even the captain said he had never seen anything like it in all his years on the water. We both felt it and we both went very still.”

One of the photographer’s main goals was to capture the first light that hits Skellig Michael. “It was just after five o’clock, we stopped a little short of the rock, and I realized that the water was so flat and calm that if I hung from the stern of the boat and put the camera down, I almost went up lying in the water I might be able to capture the reflection of the island in the ocean. And that was the shot. That was ‘Skellig Shimmer’.”

Skellig Shimmer, by Norman McCloskey in his Kingdom book.

The stunning image – both still and moving – features in McCloskey’s latest book Kingdom, released this week, a collection of 101 color photographs of County Kerry’s scenic landscapes, poetic waterscapes and impressive monuments. The third in a series of ‘Monographs of a Place’ follows Parklight – Images of Killarney National Park from 2013 and Beara from 2018 and seeks to capture some of the compelling beauty, serenity and mystery of South West Ireland.

It also exemplifies McCloskey’s passionate approach and admirable dedication to his art. Always working alone, he has visited some of the sites featured in Kingdom – sites like St Finian’s Bay near Ballinskelligs; Derrynane Beach near Caherdaniel; and the Bridia Valley in the heart of the Iveragh Peninsula – observed and recorded countless times over the last 30 years at different times of the day, month and season.

“Even though I know an area like the back of my hand, I relish the challenge of trying to achieve something different,” he says. “I’m like a musician reworking a piece of music and finding new depths or dimensions for the sound.”

His approach to the subject is similarly innovative, particularly in relation to the many images in the book that he first captured. “Rather than trying to create Kerry’s sights from A to Z with ‘Top 50 Instagrammable Spots’ or something, I tried to keep the process organic and responsive. Kingdom is a very personal, even introspective, collection of images and I hope if it means anything to me, if the photos have enough emotion and depth, then they will also connect with the viewer in some way.”

As Beara-based painter Tim Goulding, an admirer of McCloskey’s work, wrote: “Norman works with a painter’s eye. The lens observes the terrain with a penchant for inner and outer beauty.”

McCloskey was born and raised in a working-class community in Woodview on the north outskirts of Limerick, near Thomond Park stadium. He was the youngest of six children, his father moved out when Norman was five and money was tight. “My mother worked hard, we owned our own house and we weren’t poor — it wasn’t exactly Angela’s ashes or anything,” he says. “But my dad walking out the door left a kind of emotional grenade and our family life was destroyed.”

Much-needed respite came every summer when the McCloskeys vacationed in their caravan by the sea in Castlegregory on the Dingle Peninsula. “I wasn’t a sad kid and I had loads of friends, but even in Castlegregory there were all kinds of domestic fights and arguments, especially in a little trailer,” he says. “So I spent a lot of time alone, roaming the sand dunes and hiking in the surrounding countryside. Not only was it my first experience of the beauty of Kerry, but in a way it set a pattern for my later photographic life.”

By the time he was 20, however, McCloskey said he was a chronic underachiever. “I had no talents, no special skills, no teaching or athletic skills; Life was completely unremarkable and I was destined for absolutely nothing. I was the Gray Man: I had no idea who I was, what I wanted to do, or if I would ever achieve anything in life.”

That changed when McCloskey first visited Kenmare for two weeks in 1992. Falling in love with the city and its proximity to “the most beautiful scenery I had ever seen,” he stayed, embraced his newfound freedom and found work at a local restaurant. When Dutch owner René Rietdijk loaned him a Canon SLR that he had never used, McCloskey immediately set out to photograph the local landscape.

“I had never done anything like this before and had no conscious thoughts about photography, but I was instantly hooked – it just felt perfect. And when I got the photos back from the printer, I knew that even though they weren’t very good, there was something to it and I wanted to do more. That is the moment my life changed.”

One of the images from Norman McCloskey's Kingdom.
One of the images from Norman McCloskey’s Kingdom.

The following year, McCloskey won a place on the two-year photography course at the Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, where he was influenced by the work of such famous American photographers as Ansel Adams and Joel Meyerowitz; The English landscape photographer Jem Southam later left a similar impression.

He worked in Dublin for the next five years as an assistant to a commercial photographer and as a commercial manager and photographer at sports agency Inpho, but Kerry’s appeal remained strong. “From the day I left Kenmare, I always wanted to go back there,” he says. “I really longed for the place; I was back in Kerry every weekend that I could.”

In 2000, he found a way to combine his work at Inpho with life in Kenmare, cleverly (and presciently) convincing his boss that he could work just as efficiently remotely. Moving with his now wife Lorraine allowed him to more easily focus on his love of the countryside; Parklight eventually followed (as did his daughter and teenage son; “they’re children of the kingdom,” he says). In 2015, McCloskey opened his own gallery in Kenmare, dedicated exclusively to his work, and he went into business as a full-time independent photographer.

McCloskey forgoes publishing deals in favor of the greater freedom, control, and reward he sees in producing and distributing his own books, and having his beautiful volumes printed in Italy to extremely high standards. Future book projects will continue his photographic journey across the West and South West of Ireland through his original take on places as steeped in history as West Cork and Connemara.

Meanwhile, McCloskey says he plans to continue his “ongoing internal conversation” with the landscape to find out no less “what really motivates me, what deeper meanings I’m trying to convey.” One such realization came after his mother’s death in 2010.

“The day after her funeral I was at home running around the house and it was kind of instinctive – I just grabbed the camera and bag and went out for the day. And I ended up in Castlegregory almost by accident. It was February and I was standing on the beach where I would have spent a lot of time with my mum and I’m obviously processing it all and it was a beautiful scene and then to be able to take a picture of it – it’s called Castlegregory Light and it is included in the new book – and always being able to connect to that time, place and memory… well, it’s a powerful thing.

“But look, I still haven’t figured it all out. But there’s definitely a lot more to it than geography, than just ‘man with camera goes to the field!’”

Another picture of Kingdom.
Another picture of Kingdom.
  • Kingdom costs €45 and is available through the Norman McCloskey Gallery, 4 Main Street, Kenmare and their website, as well as in outlets such as Easons in Killarney and the Irish Design Shop in Dublin

McCloskey’s methods

Although he switched from film to digital photography ten years ago, Norman McCloskey’s approach to image composition is firmly rooted in his extensive experience as a film photographer. “When post-processing images, I go very light and only use light dodging and burning,” he says. “I try to keep the photo as close as possible to the original scene that I saw.”

Most of his images were shot with Canon digital SLR cameras, most recently a Canon EOS R5, on a tripod. While McCloskey occasionally works with long focal length lenses like 35mm and 70-200mm, he mainly uses 24mm and 50mm manual focus tilt-and-shift lenses.

“These prime lenses are typically used for architectural work, but I’ve found them to suit my slower workflow perfectly, particularly for panoramic images, and they offer the best quality,” he explains.

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