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August 15 2012

John Minihan's best photograph

'This is Samuel Beckett in a cafe in Paris. He set it all up. He wanted the picture to say: This is who I am'

I'd never heard of Samuel Beckett until he won the Nobel prize for literature in 1969. After that, I went to see some of his shows and quickly became fascinated by this Irishman living in Paris. In 1980, he came to London to direct Endgame. Sam was a recluse, with a real aversion to journalists, but an Irish porter at the Hyde Park Hotel gave me a tip-off that he was staying there. I left him a note and, when I called the hotel the next day, I got put straight through.

At our first meeting, I showed him pictures I'd taken at the wake of a woman from Athy, the Irish town where I grew up. She was called Katy Tyrrell and I took shots of her and her family for three days and two nights. Clocks were stopped, fires were put out, and the mirror was covered with a sheet. He was intrigued. Then I took several pictures of him. Sam probably thought this was the last he was going to see of me, but I don't operate like that. To my mind, a 16th of a second is nothing out of someone's life.

After that, I would photograph stagings of his plays, starring everyone from Patrick Stewart to Ian McKellen. Actors would appear for nothing, simply because the work was beautiful to perform. It was perfect for a black-and-white photographer, too. I sent Sam all the photos, and he would write me thank-you notes on postcards.

In 1985, just before his 80th birthday, Sam invited me over to Paris. We agreed to meet at his local cafe in Montparnasse at 3pm on a Sunday. I arrived at 2pm and found a secluded table by the window with good light. I can still see Sam walking towards me with a smile on his face – he knew exactly why I had chosen that spot.

We talked until 4.50pm. He mesmerised me. Daylight was quickly disappearing and I thought the moment had passed. Then Sam said: "John, would you like to take a photograph?" I got out my Rolleiflex and took three frames. They turned out better than I expected because Sam directed the whole scene. He wanted it to say: "This is who I am."

That night, I was so excited to have snapped Samuel Beckett in Paris, his chosen city, that I went out and got completely and utterly pissed.

CV

Born: Dublin, 1946.

Studied: London School of Printing and Graphic Arts.

Influences: Cecil Beaton, EO Hoppé, André Kertész.

High point: "As an apprentice on the Daily Mail, developing images and seeing them appear before my eyes."

Low point: "When I lose a subject I love, like Beckett."

Tip: "Research your subject. If it's a writer, read their books – it will tell you who they are."

• John Minihan is speaking on 27 August at the Happy Days Enniskillen Beckett festival, where his photographs are on display; 23-27 August.


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May 05 2010

History repeating

This Irish artist recasts history in video installations that draw on everything from Sartre to Playboy – and question our present-day beliefs too

Gerard Byrne's art is riddled with cracks. In his video installations reconstructing events from the recent past, the gaps widen vertiginously between what we see in front of us and what we remember. He starts off with a written document – a story from a top-shelf magazine, a car ad or even a piece of art criticism – anything that dates quickly. Then he restages it with actors, a film crew and a clutch of Brechtian distancing techniques.

Playboy has provided the artist with some juicy material. New Sexual Lifestyles (2002) takes a roundtable interview from 1979, featuring Deep Throat's Linda Lovelace, Screw magazine's editor Al Goldstein and feminist Betty Dodson, and restages it with an Irish cast in contemporary smart/casual office wear. Nonetheless their talk – touching on "the establishment", "swingers" and "leather bars" – clearly dates from another age. Another film, 1984 and Beyond, included in Byrne's Irish pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale, was based on an article where the likes of Arthur C Clarke and Ray Bradbury discussed their vision for the future, from orgasm pills to cheap moon travel. These are comedies of temporal and cultural collisions that work in both directions: are our own present-day assumptions any less volatile than the debates of the free love era?

Born in 1969, Byrne grew up in Dublin at a time when the social changes shaking up the rest of the world were filtered through the Catholic church. He has since become one of Ireland's most celebrated artists, renowned for his kaleidoscopic take on how information is translated and understood. The artistic and intellectual revolutions of earlier generations frequently unravel in Byrne's work. His most recent multiple-screen installation, A thing is a hole in a thing it is not, quotes artist Carl Andre and tackles minimalism's relationship to time. He has also recast the radical work of Beckett and Sartre, cutting them adrift from their historical moment. Rather than lament the good old days, Byrne suggests that things never are how we think about them in the first place.

Why we like him: Byrne's series of photographs begun in 2006, A Country Road. A Tree. Evening., takes its title from the famed stage direction from Waiting For Godot. The dramatic stage-lit images show windswept, blasted trees in the Irish and French countryside – the fruits of his absurd quest to find a real life point-of-origin for an act of imagination.

Doublespeak: Byrne says that he was first switched on to the power of political messages when watching the politician Gerry Adams on the news – at the order of the British government, his voice was controversially dubbed by an actor.

Where can I see him? Gerard Byrne has solo exhibitions at Lismore Castle Arts, Ireland until 30 September and at the Common Guild, Glasgow, until 26 June.


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December 13 2009

Happy days for Mr Beckett

What better tribute to a giant of 20th-century Irish literature than his own bridge over the Liffey?

Can there ever have been a more appropriate memorial to a writer than the new Samuel Beckett bridge that opened in Dublin on 10 December? The several thousand tons of steel deck and pylon were fabricated in a factory in Rotterdam, then carried across the sea by a barge labouring in the churning swell. A stately bridge carried over the turbulent water by a boat? Here's a conceit so surreal it makes Waiting for Godot read like a cereal packet.

The designer was Santiago Calatrava, the Valencian architect who has made expressionist bridges and weirdly torqued structures a trademark. Never mind that Beckett made a virtue of muted understatement. The writer once said "Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness". Calatrava does not think that way. He's in the landmark business.

This is Calatrava's second bridge in Dublin – the first was dedicated to James Joyce and opened in 2003. The new Beckett Bridge is technically interesting: the structure is cable-stayed from a 40-metre pylon. The span across the Liffey is 124m and carries two lanes of motor traffic, one of cycles and one of Godots. Trains may come later. Hydraulic apparatus allows the bridge to swing through 90 degrees in the horizontal plane to allow ships to pass.

Artistically, it is more interesting still. Calatrava has ignored the temptation to use ForEx traders, race-horse owners and other Celtic tigers as a source of inspiration. Instead, he has been inspired by Guinness's traditional harp: the tensioned cables are, he says, to be seen as strings. It reminds me of what Beckett said about Dublin university containing the cream of Ireland: rich and thick.

Calatrava is a form-giver of novel genius. And cities all over the world have eagerly offered him commissions since the dramatic presence of a Calatrava bridge has become short-hand for "go-ahead". Indeed, few people are better engineered into the postmodern sensibility than Calatrava: his PhD was called "Concerning the Foldability of Spaceframes" a title which powerfully suggests the ambiguous fascination of our human predicament. Significantly, Calatrava's work has of late been suffering a little revisionism in the architectural press. Some see him as a showman rather than a great designer. Still, Dublin has a fine new landmark bridge. It's too early to say whether it's a success, but let's remember Beckett's advice: "Fail better."


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December 05 2009

Critical Eye

Round-up of reviews

'Tis the season for Christmas round-ups and "Books of the Year" lists. "The publication of the magnificent six-volume Vincent Van Gogh: The Letters will count for many art lovers as the book event of the year," Rachel Campbell-Johnson announced in the Times, although in the Sunday Times Frank Whitford went one better: "It has already been declared by some not so much book of the year as of the decade." "This is a rare treasure," Margaret Drabble agreed in the New Statesman, "and a joy to handle and to read." A snip at £325.

"Historical ignorance breeds political apathy, and it is this deficiency that two excellent books will correct," Dan Jones noted in the Times, recommending David Horspool's The English Rebel and Ben Wilson's What Price Liberty?. "Both these books felt extremely relevant in a year of expenses scandals, the G20 protests and backbench rebellions in parliament." Dominic Sandbrook in the Daily Telegraph also chose The English Rebel, describing it as "a wonderfully old-fashioned narrative in which few pages pass without somebody losing his head to a masked axeman". Elsewhere in the Daily Telegraph, Boris Johnson chose Stanley I Presume by his father: "It is a rip-roaring read and I hope it helps him to break down the barriers of political correctness and win the safe Conservative seat he so richly deserves."

"The novel that has dominated the year is Hilary Mantel's magnificent Man Booker prize-winning Wolf Hall," Lorna Bradbury wrote in the Daily Telegraph. "The triumph of the novel is its modern sensibility, which keeps it just the right side of pastiche." "Tour de force is a term much overused," Erica Wagner said in the Times, "yet it is applicable here: all Mantel's gifts are on display in this novel painting a searing portrait of intrigue at the court of Henry VIII." Other favourites included Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn ("A work of such skill, understatement and sly jewelled merriment could haunt you for life," Ali Smith warned in the Times Literary Supplement), JM Coetzee's Summertime ("Coetzee is back on form as the world's best novelist in English," Nicholas Shakespeare declared in the Daily Telegraph) and AS Byatt's The Children's Book ("Easily the best thing Byatt has written since Possession," Peter Kemp wrote in the Sunday Times). Robert Harris's Lustrum is dedicated to Peter Mandelson, who claimed it as his book of the year in the New Statesman. "You will not need to be a political animal to enjoy his vivid reconstruction of life at the top in ancient Rome," observed the Prince of Darkness.

"The most bracing read was The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929–1940," Seamus Heaney declared in the Times Literary Supplement, "a portrait of the Dubliner as a young European with a hard gemlike gift for language, learning and mockery." "Seamus Heaney has released a Collected Poems, reading each of his 12 collections on a series of CDs," Paul Batchelor recommended in the Times. "After countless critical appraisals, it is wonderful to be sent back to the poems by the man himself." "The single piece of literature that affected me most was Carol Ann Duffy's 'Last Post', marking the deaths of WWI veterans," Ian Hislop said in the Daily Telegraph. "When she became poet laureate some doubted whether 'public poetry' was possible any more. When I heard this poem read at Westminster Abbey, I knew they were wrong."


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