How it all Started

Top: Centenarian Sarah Doherty with the photographer at the opening of ‘100 Years of Living‘, October 1st 1984 (note Sarah’s portrait at left in background)

Bottom: Photographer Joseph Éamon Cummins, his wife Kathy, and family members at the opening.

The idea of creating a collection of centenarian portraits flashed into my head one day in 1982. The moment is still crystal clear: I was crossing the college parking lot having just finished urging my students to find what is worthwhile in their lives and go about capturing it.

At the time, I was teaching part-time at Coláiste Dhúlaigh in Dublin while also running a new commercial photography and film production business. For a number of years before that I had been travelling in the US, initially as a free-spirit student vagabonding through the country while also writing and photographing, then later re-immersing in academic study (which is why I was there in the first place) and part-time teaching.

On my return to Dublin I saw Ireland differently. It was changing in very particular ways, which I hadn’t noticed earlier. That sense of ‘old Ireland’ was rapidly disappearing. This ‘old Ireland’, to me, was one of those worthwhile values I’d been urging my students to identify and capture.

But how do you capture such an ethereal feeling? It was still alive, I was sure of that, but not obvious, except, I felt, in Ireland’s very old people. That sounded promising, but ‘old people’ was nebulous; too many could fit into that category. The question was, what criterion would define these older subjects as a discrete group? How would I narrow it down, find a niche? I considered ‘Dubliners’, ‘rural dwellers’, ‘women’, ‘fishermen’, ‘street traders’, ‘farmers’, even ‘islanders’, but none embodied exactly what I was after. Then, on that day in the college parking lot, ‘centenarians’ occurred to me and I knew immediately and intuitively it was right.

But was it doable? That was the bigger question.

The first challenge was how to find twenty or more centenarians (the internet did not yet exist). Were there even twenty centenarians alive in Ireland? I didn’t know. For answers I sought help from two of Ireland’s top broadcasters. Gay Byrne and Mike Murphy. Both were intrigued, and both agreed to put out a call on their popular radio shows. Within weeks seven or eight subjects had surfaced. The project was feasible, and so off it started.

Between 1983 and 1984 I identified thirty-five centenarians living in Ireland. I visited over twenty of them and for different reasons decided to make portraits of seventeen. For each subject I set aside one whole day, transporting cameras, lights and sometimes an audio recorder to often distant locations.

I made the first centenarian portrait in early 1983. Over the next eighteen months I set up appointments from an ever-changing list of potential subjects. Sadly, some centenarians passed away before I got to them and new ones were added. Naturally, I didn’t just ‘meet’ the fine people I photographed; with most subjects I spent three or four hours or more listening to their stories, occasionally recording our conversations, and making their portraits. It was the most uplifting of experiences, hugely spiritual and fulfilling. In the beginning I was assisted very ably and enjoyably by my brother Desi and was constantly encouraged by my wife Kathy, both talented photographers in their own right and immensely enthusiastic about the project and the wonderful subjects who shared their precious time and stories with me.

All centenarian images were shot on 4×5-inch black-and-white film on a large-format camera (where the photographer works under a black cloth). The best hand-held cameras of the day were simply not capable of producing the high-quality negatives I sought.

So, engagement after engagement, portrait after portrait, the project progressed until it had to come to an end, which it did in September 1984. The travel and photography were over, which was a relief yet felt strangely sad. When news of the collection got out, major galleries wanted to stage the exhibition (it was the first collection of its kind in the world, and may still be). I chose Grapevine Arts Centre, generally considered the most prestigious gallery of its kind in Dublin.

I then set about framing the images for ‘100 Years of Living‘, as the show was titled.

Still, one of two surprises lay in store.

The centenarian exhibition at the Grapevine Arts Centre was scheduled to open on October 1st 1984. It was just one of many shows and events that comprised a huge celebration of Irish arts called ContemporEire 84 Arts Festival. The festival featured major international artists and photographers, not least David Bailey, arguably the world’s best known photographer at the time (creator of icon images for Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, etc.). David Bailey’s show was at Dublin’s Gallery of Photography but the famous photographer of famous people could hardly have imagined being upstaged — which is exactly what happened.

On October 1st 1984 ‘100 Years of Living’ was opened officially by Charles Mitchel, probably the most popular newsreader on Irish Television. Fellow broadcasters Gay Byrne and Mike Murphy, encouraged by the enthusiasm of their listeners, had become even more attached to the idea and continued to talk about it on the airwaves (though no portraits were seen by them or by anyone before the exhibition opened). This radio chat drew busloads of visitors to the Grapevine, relegating Mr Bailey’s show to a distant second in terms of popularity, a rare occurrence for him. Over the two weeks of the show literally thousands of people poured in to see the centenarians. The exhibition ended on October 13th.

Since then these images have never been exhibited. Now, this website allows the entire world to engage up-close and personal with that spirit of ‘old Ireland’ that is personified, I believe, in these seventeen subjects — truly a ‘spirit’ now lost to history.

After the Grapevine show I liaised with interested international newspapers and magazines. Most wanted to publish one, two, or at most three of the centenarian images to accompany a feature about me, the project and the stories and longevity ‘secrets’ I gathered over my two years of research. I declined all requests but two. The Boston Globe and The Chicago Tribune each agreed to my terms, that they would publish at least five images from the collection of seventeen. This was important to me because the project was never about ‘pretty’ or ‘handsome’ or ‘photogenic’ old-timers, as some of the media (quite oddly, I thought) wanted to portray it; it was about seventeen real people, seventeen remarkable lives. It was and always will be a project that set out to capture the spirit, the essence, and the character of an era, and in these subjects — collectively — the soul of a nation.

I think it did that.

Not long after the show, Life magazine called with a request: Would I allow them to feature one of the portraits (which I could select) on their ‘Great Images’ page, an end-of-magazine feature that presented a single, full-page photograph along with a short caption. I declined once again, despite the reputation and global reach of Life (it had long been the biggest picture magazine in the world). Isolating a single subject would miss entirely my purpose, to reflect what existed only in the collective, not in any single image no matter how ‘cute’ or ‘quaint’ or ‘photogenic’. I had to stay true to that purpose. Plus, two challenging years had gone into finding, photographing, and talking with these proud people, and countless darkroom nights had gone into printing and toning their archival silver portraits. I felt I owed them their togetherness, they belonged somehow to each other, to this unimagined communion, and to the moment. No compromise.

Incidentally, archival processing is a long and difficult darkroom process to produce what is called a ‘gallery print’ or ‘museum print’, a photograph that is expected to last at least 150 years with no deterioration.

At that point, I put the images away.

Now, after thirty-four years in dark storage, the entire world can view the collection for the first time. And recognize, I hope, what I saw in these people and why I set out to capture not their secrets, nor their good looks — but their souls.

  — Joseph Éamon Cummins