Paul Seawright

Paul Seawright’s latest series of photographs, “The Missing,” 1996–97, is the first substantial body of work in which the artist has charted territory outside of the edgy, constricted milieu of his native Northern Ireland. In his previous photos Seawright examined various aspects of that particular sociopolitical terrain with an odd mixture of cold, forensic elegance and in-your-face immediacy. The “Orange Order,” 1993, and “Police Force,” 1995, series, for example, provided fascinating, if unsettling insights into the activities of two groups of men devoted to maintaining the political status quo and social order, respectively. For “Police Force” in particular, Seawright was granted unprecedented access to the closely guarded world of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Despite their often beautiful compositions, these images offer an overview of a bleak and brutal day-to-day existence chillingly bereft of even the most basic comforts.

“The Missing” resulted from an invitation extended to Seawright in 1997 by the Nederlands Foto Instituut and the Mondriaan Foundation to contribute to an ongoing photography project called “Constructing Identity.” Rather than documenting a social group with a clearly delineated identity, on this occasion Seawright chose to address those whose social identity is faint and fugitive—people who have, for the most part, consciously renounced their pasts and forsaken their given roles in society. Focusing on the daily lives of homeless men in the Netherlands, “The Missing,” like the earlier series, includes images of ravishing formal beauty that are nonetheless unflinching in their documentation of everyday deprivations. In the most gorgeous image in the show, Christmas, 1997, strings of fairy lights twinkle along the bare, wintry branches of a tree standing in front of the forbidding facade of a twilit housing block. Enticing though it may be, the glimpse that is provided of this starry yuletide constellation is, after all, a view from the gutter. “A cold coming we had of it/Just the worst time of the year,” said T.S. Eliot’s journeying Magi. Colder and worse for some than for others, Christmas suggests.

The ostensible subjects of “The Missing” are in fact themselves absent from most of the photographs. While Seawright closely scrutinizes the spartan surroundings and humble fare of various Salvation Army hostels, drop-in centers, and overnight shelters, the occasional inhabitants of these domains are elusive or entirely missing. Through close cropping and unexpected camera angles, Seawright respects what is perhaps the consciously chosen anonymity of these denizens of society’s margins. A rough, grimy-nailed hand clutching a half-eaten sandwich; frail, shower-soaked shins; or a grizzly, bearded neck guzzling a bottle of beer—such images provide synecdochic glimpses of these ghosts of contemporary urban society. One of the strengths of “The Missing”—apart from the work’s obvious formal virtues—is this compelling mixture of intimacy and circumspection.

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith