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It's Life, Jim

Stuart Bailie | 22:47 UK time, Sunday, 14 October 2012

Some of the most dramatic photographic prints I've seen have taken the image right to the boundaries of the frame. A thick, black margin around the picture usually suggests that there's been special alchemy in the darkroom - that the negative carrier that holds the film has been filed away, allowing the light to strike those far edges. In the most extreme cases, you can even see the spocket holes that wind the film through the camera. I love it.

This tradition goes back to Henri Cartier-Bresson, the most magical photographer ever. He was all about quick reflexes, humanity and amazing moments that fleetingly compose themselves in the street. But he had also trained as a painter and so he took pride in the ace compositions that came directly out of his little Leica camera.

Henri insisted that the borders of his pictures were always printed. It showed that his eye was true, that there was no need to crop afterwards. Only one shot from his early days escaped this discipline - a remarkable picture of a man leaping across a puddle behind St Lazare Station, and that was because he had to shoot through a narrow gap between some planks, and the lens was wider than the space.

I was thinking about all this when I walked into a new exhibition at the Red Barn Gallery in Belfast. I've seen Jim Maginn's work online before, while his iconic shot of Ewan McColl has graced a record sleeve and a biography. But his work that's collected as 'The Light Of Other Days' is even more impressive. His evident affection for traditional music has taken him to parlours and cottages, to dressing rooms and back lanes. He's been taken into the confidence of these people, many of whom seem shy and undemonstrative.

But still their souls are revealed, in the landscape, in the rise of the music and the flickering interiors. Some of the tight portraits have been taken on medium format cameras, showing every grain of age and experience in the face. Tommy Keenan with his fiddle and the chiaroscuro lighting is masterly. But I prefer the 35mm shots that are looser, more spontaneous and edged in that signature black surround. There's Derek Bell, impish behind his harps. And flute maker Sam Murray deep in the workshop. Or Micho Russell by the winding road.

Jim says that one educational department in Belfast had reported him for vandalism. When he was teaching there, he had filed the negative carrier to get those edgy prints, and the killjoys were outraged. He laughs about it now. Because McGinn has the method and the style and his photography really sings.

The Light Of Other Days is on show at the Red Barn Gallery until November 28. www.rbgbelfast.com


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