Northern Ireland

Eric Luke on 43 years of photojournalism

Boy Belfast Image copyright Eric Luke
Image caption Eric Luke's picture of the little boy standing behind guns in Belfast in 1977

Where is this Belfast boy now?

Photographer Eric Luke sometimes wonders about him.

He took this photo in 1977 when he travelled north from Dublin to cover the Queen's Silver Jubilee visit for the Irish Press.

There was trouble that culminated in a street battle between rioters and the Army. The boy stands, hemmed in by police and soldiers, in the shadow of machine guns.

'Baptism of fire'

His earnest face struck a chord with the photographer.

"That trip was my baptism of fire," said Luke. "There was a lock-down and there were a lot of protests.

"I was with (Irish Press photographer) Colman Doyle. I used to go to the north when I was off duty and cover events like the hunger strikes."

In later days, there were more positive pictures - he came to Northern Ireland to cover visits from US President Bill Clinton and U2.

Image copyright Eric Luke
Image caption Eric Luke was always passionate about photography and enjoyed taking pictures of stars like Rory Gallagher

Eric Luke had a ringside seat on history unfolding. He was present for the great highs and deep lows in modern Ireland.

But he also has that yearning to record the everyday wonder of Irish life.

He started off with the Irish Press and then moved to the Irish Times. In a career of more than 40 years, he won many awards for his work.

But at the end of this week, Luke will be zipping up his camera bag and closing the door on the Times newspaper office for the last time.

The world of photography has changed utterly since he began his trade in the old days of the newspaper dark room.

It was a room that no-one entered without knocking. Photography was a dark art. Walk into the dark room and taste the sting of chemicals.

Watch a photographer butterflying fingers across the developing paper as it lies in its bath of developer and wonder as ghostly faces and familiar places emerge from the shadows to make a print.

Luke, from south Dublin, got his first job with the Irish Press in 1973 when he was 19 years old.

But he had fallen in love with photography long before that. He set up a dark room in his home when he was just a schoolboy and would go off to concerts, taking pictures of rock stars like Phil Lynott and Rory Gallagher, sending his work off to the papers.

Image copyright Eric Luke
Image caption Eric Luke was taking photographs of stars like Rory Gallagher, in the days before strict PR protocol left more room for the imagination

In newspapers back then, there were no fast-track schemes. Would-be photographers started off at the bottom.

"The Irish Press brought me in to the dark room and that was how my apprenticeship began," he said.

"But after a few months, it was straight in at the deep end. The Press had 17 staff photographers and 1,500 employees. There were three newspapers - morning, evening and Sunday - and there were six editions of the Evening Press.

Image copyright Eric Luke
Image caption Vivienne Hillery popped her head out to see her dad, the new President of Ireland, and Luke's picture made that day's front page

"In ways, it was just like the internet now. We had strict time limits and deadlines to meet."

The young photographer's first big state diary marking was the inauguration of Irish President Patrick Hillery in 1976.

"A team of seven photographers were sent from the paper. As I was the most junior, I was basically put in what was deemed the poorest position, on a balcony facing a doorway.

"I would see the procession enter the courtyard before disappearing from view a few seconds later. In among all the dignitaries, I spotted his daughter, Vivienne. She popped her head out to see her dad, the new president of Ireland. I grabbed three frames and in the middle one, I got lucky.

"It was only for a fraction of a second, but it made for a really good picture. Back at the office, everyone was queuing up for the dark room. I went and pleaded to put my rolls in early and jump the queue. That was the picture of the day, the front page of the Evening Press."

Sometimes, a picture is about being in the right place at the right time.

For Luke, that was what happened with the death of the Irish writer Francis Stuart in 2000. He was husband to Iseult Gonne, daughter of Maud Gonne - the woman who was a muse to W B Yeats.

He later married Finola Graham. He was 97 years old when he died.

"I had travelled to Clare to photograph the artist, Finola Graham, who was Stuart's wife," said Eric.

Image copyright Eric Luke
Image caption Eric Luke captured this picture after Francis Stuart's widow, Finola Graham, asked him to help her lay him out

"When she opened the door, she said: 'Francis has just died'.

"'I will leave you to it,' I said. But she said: 'No, you must come in.'

"I asked was there anything I could do to help her... and she said: 'We need to lay him out'."

Luke helped her prepare her husband's body, as she waited for family and friends to arrive. It would be a huge funeral. But Eric Luke had arrived in that little pause before the drama and the flurry of a funeral begins.

The scene was stark, sombre and compelling.

"There was a bare light bulb dangling from the ceiling. She had got out his books and his manuscripts. It looked like a backdrop from an Abbey Theatre set," he said.

"Amazingly, just by the way it happened, I was there to photograph it."

Image copyright Eric Luke
Image caption Local children showed Eric Luke the way to a roof top where he captured this prize winning picture of Mother Teresa's funeral in 1997

It was at another funeral, on a grander world stage, that Eric Luke took another picture to remember.

He travelled to India for Mother Teresa's funeral in Calcutta. There had been some dispute between the state and the nuns about where she would be buried. The state favoured a more public grave, he said, but the nuns had their own ideas.

"I was fortunate in that some children brought me to a place away from the media, on to a roof top," he said.

"The state was handing over her remains to the nuns. It was a very historic picture. The state wanted to put her in a big grave, but the nuns said she would be buried under the floor of the mother house."

His photograph won him a prestigious World Press Photo News award.

Image copyright Eric Luke
Image caption A little piece of history - Dom McClure's barber shop, Dalkey, from Looking Back: The Changing Faces of Ireland by Eric Luke

Regular markings are part of the cut and thrust of a daily newspaper.

But the old easygoing world of concerts and music has been hijacked by protocol.

Image copyright Eric Luke
Image caption A old fashioned Irish fair day - when you went to the market in the square to get a good winter coat: Crossmaglen fair 1976

"I have been to a lot of concerts. Rory Gallagher played every venue, everywhere. I remember him at the old Carleton cinema in Dublin. You could just walk in, go straight up to the stage and take the pictures. Rory was this guy strolling about in his jeans and denim jacket - what a fantastic experience," he said.

"Compare that to U2 who played at Belfast's Odyssey in 2015. You need accreditation, you are told certain song numbers when you can take pictures, it is all very controlled."

It's that control that makes the job of finding that unusual picture all the more difficult.

Image copyright Eric Luke
Image caption A flat cap and a good heavy coat - pictures of the disappearing world of the old Irish fair - Crossmaglen, 1976

It is the spontaneous look sideways or hand gesture that makes the story. In a strictly controlled environment, that is more difficult to clinch.

As a photographer, Luke has also often been drawn to the pictures of a life that is fading fast.

He is a social historian - taking moody shots of an old-style barber's shop or capturing a saddle-maker's shop in the week before the builders moved in to sweep it away and make room for a fancy juice bar.

There are some things he shall not miss about life as a press photographer.

"I won't miss the paperwork or the doorsteps or the endless waiting about for hours for VIPs, followed by 30 seconds of taking pictures," he said.

When Luke closes the door on Friday, he has other adventures planned.

Image copyright Eric Luke
Image caption In retirement, Eric Luke aims to capture the beauty and hardships of island life around Ireland

He has a love of the islands around Ireland and wants to photograph ordinary people getting on with their lives, miles away from the press pack and the PR control.

"I think us photographers are all outdoor people, we have spent our lives outside," he said.

He may have closed the door on the day job, but he will always be a photographer - just one with fewer deadlines and more time to gaze.

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