Irishman's Diary, Irish Times, 18 January 2011GERALD DAWEI RECKON I first met the photographer Bill Doyle back in the late 1970s in Galway. There was a group of visual artists who had migrated to Galway, several of whom were connected with Kenny’s Gallery in High Street. At Friday night openings, the drift in and out, before and after, took in Freeney’s or Murphy’s bars and weekends were often spent in each other’s company, rambling around the wandering streets of pre-Celtic Tiger Galway – an intimate walkable inner city of a few crossing main streets, with bridges over the Corrib, leading to Connemara or the road southwest to Clare, taking in Paddy Burke’s of Clarinbridge or Moran’s of the Weir, before a jaunt to Ballyvaughan on the edge of the Burren. Bill was part of a vibrant voluble Dublin fraternity that included artists John Behan, John Coen and Tony Coady, along with many visiting family and friends. The chat was endless.By the mid 1980s I had seen some of Bill’s great portraits of west of Ireland life, such as Aran and Kerry, and started to recognise the impeccable clarity of his images. The work sat out as pristine, unself-regarding, and when, after meeting up with Bill in Dublin, he showed me some of his archive of portraits from his years covering the Cork Jazz Festival, it was clear as day that he had a great eye for catching the artistic moment in the working lives of musicians from Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald to the less well-known dedicated jazz performers on the road.Bill saw the human side of art, be that thatching a cottage pub, stepping into the spotlight on stage, or in the studies of his beloved Dublin, the churches, the shadowy laneways, the once grand 18th-century houses, the conversational pieces of social life, all add up to an extraordinary visual tapestry of Irish cultural life of the last half-century and more.
He was a much travelled man. In company he could switch from the beguiling teller of tales and jokes to a snapshot recall of his other beloved city, Paris. He seemed to know of Europe not as a concept or as a badge of superior identity, but as a family of countries which shared much and which he had discovered on foot.He was a great reader of poetry and a tireless lover of music. A man of his time, and someone whose mischievous laughter mingled with a quizzical steeliness, Bill brooked no fakery or pomposity, the faintest whiff of which would be mockingly reduced with his unbelieving deflationary wit. When it came to talking about photography, he said little but there was always a sense that he just knew what the image was he wanted, and kept close to the inspiration and limitation of what he could do best.Photography from this country is still viewed somewhat as an unproven art form, even though the work of European and American contemporaries is justly praised. Looking at the work he published in Kerry Slides, with poems by Paul Muldoon, or Island Funeral, with Muiris Mac Conghail, or in Bill Doyle’s Ireland, you can’t help think that with his recent passing at the age of 85, the cultural history of our times has lost one of its classical chroniclers.Bill Doyle saw the country from the ground up with an eloquent sympathetic connectedness between the individual and the local setting, between the various parts of the country, between here and Europe and the States. He did so not as a matter of choice between one and the other but rather as a kind of continuum; a fusion that lightly brought to what he saw around him an understanding and trained eye. There was something of that verve in the man himself as much as in the work; a confident self-possession in his own place and in the diverse nature of his people: their weddings, their funerals, their homes and places of worship, that remains as powerful a statement of who we are as, say, the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh or, to widen the frame a little, as the unmistakeable riff of one of his revered “jazzers”. He called himself an alley cat; he was the business.Snow would be general when Bill Doyle fell asleep, the roads snarled up quickly, rivers slowed.When the train headed west through fields of snow and the clearest blue sky you’ve ever seen, I bet it was him chuckling away as a cat disappeared down the back alley.