Frank Stephens – a life in photographs

TCD MS 10842/1/13 ‘Cottage. Aran Is/ Fish drying on roof/ September 1935’.
[Location on Inis Mór, Oileáin Árann]. Surplus fish were cleaned in fresh water, salted and then left on walls or thatched roofs to dry. The fish had to be retrieved every night, and also if there was a shower of rain, in order to dry them properly for storing.

Frank Stephens (1884-1948) was born in prosperous middle-class Orwell Park, Rathgar, Dublin, eldest son to solicitor Henry (Harry) Francis Colcough Stephens and his wife Annie Isabella Synge, sister of the playwright John Millington Synge. Both the Stephens and Synge families lived side by side until shortly before J M Synge’s death in 1909, a proximity that had a profound effect on Frank’s life and interests. From the age of six Frank was being tutored by his famous Uncle John on a range of subjects, among them natural history, archaeology, folklore and music. It was in the last decade of the nineteenth century that the development of small hand-held cameras changed the nature of photography making it more accessible and affordable but also allowing photographers to move away from posed compositions to more candid and natural images. J M Synge and his nephew, Frank Stephens, embraced this new portable technology as a means of recording the people and places they loved in an intimate and uncontrived way.

Frank spent his working life in education, teaching history and Irish, but he also found time to lecture on local history, antiquities and European history for the County Dublin Libraries Committee and various local history societies, deploying his 2000+ lantern slide collection to illustrate his talks. These slides are now being cleaned and rehoused by Trinity College Library conservator Clodagh Neligan prior to digitization.

Frank was one of the photographers who volunteered for the Irish Folklore Commission in 1939 recording the historic landscape of Poulaphouca in Co Wicklow and its farming community before the area was flooded to create a reservoir to supply water to Dublin city. His talents as a photographer were uniquely suited to such a project as he had a keen eye for the intrinsic beauty and honesty of simple things. His photographs celebrate the seemingly mundane aspects of everyday life: the homespun clothes of the Aran islanders, street traders selling their wares in Dublin, a woman and her spinning wheel in Co Wicklow, or a cottage interior in the west of Ireland.

An exhibition Frank Stephens – a life in photographs, co-curated by Felicity O’ Mahony (M&ARL) and Gillian Whelan (DRIS), will be on view in the Long Room, September 2017