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Caitriona Dunnett: FORMAT Portfolio Review

We speak to Caitriona Dunnett about the inspiration behind her recent FORMAT Portfolio Review submission.

A Well Trodden Path, Hurley's View © Caitriona Dunnett
A Well Trodden Path, Hurley’s View © Caitriona Dunnett

Caitriona Dunnett explores memory using alternative photography techniques.

She was a runner-up in the recent FORMAT Portfolio Review.

“You are always nervous sending your work knowing it is going to be judged but it was a very positive experience,” says Dunnett.

“It was great that Hazel and Klair selected my work as a runner up.”

Dunnett submitted four projects for the review: A Well Trodden PathMass PathsHill Close Gardens and Family Walks.

Kearney's Field Path 1, A Well Trodden Path © Caitriona Dunnett
Kearney’s Field Path 1, A Well Trodden Path © Caitriona Dunnett

A Well Trodden Path

A Well Trodden Path explores the heritage of mass paths in the townland of Lackagh in Co Galway.

Ireland saw scores of new churches built following Catholic Emancipation in 1829.

They were accompanied by networks of mass paths.

For decades parishioners from outlying homes journeyed across fields to celebrate mass.

As part of a partnership project with Dr Hilary Bishop of Liverpool John Moores University, Dunnett mapped out a web of 15 of these paths.

“These mass paths would have been a little bit higher than the land around them,” says Dunnett.

“They often run alongside walls and bushes to protect them from the road.”

Fragments of tracks, stiles and footbridges were pieced together with the recollections of older parishioners.

Dunnett used these fragments to photograph traces of the paths.

Each had their own traits – beautiful pink and purple grasses, a tunnel of trees illuminating a trail of nettles and big dramatic skies highlighting ancient details.

Dunnett converted her photographs into contact negatives creating and then toning cyanotypes with a leading brand of Irish tea, a favourite of many who walked the paths.

The layering seen in her work relates to the years of footfall across the fields and the many stories attached.

Tea toned cyanotype of path to Bishop's Cave/coastal path (2015) © Caitriona Dunnett
Tea toned cyanotype of path to Bishop’s Cave/coastal path (2015) © Caitriona Dunnett

Mass Paths

A Well Trodden Path is a continuation of a long-term project of Dunnett’s – Mass Paths.

These handcrafted photographs portray traces of paths walked by Catholics to reach illegal mass during penal times.

The Penal Laws of 1695 banned Catholicism.

The ban forced Catholics to practice their faith in great secrecy, often walking along riverbeds to avoid leaving footprints.

Families handed down mass path locations by word of mouth through the generations.

The oral tradition in Ireland disappeared gradually around the 1960s alongside land exchange and redevelopment.

Dunnett has spent years researching mass paths and other penal sites, scouring through internet searches, finding snippets posted by schools, regional newspapers and walking clubs.

These fragments led to maps, hunting for locations, hidden in the landscapes.

Dunnett followed in the footsteps of the thousands of people who walked to penal sites across Ireland.

Her recordings of these re-enactments attempt to capture their stories of resilience, courage and commitment.

As with her other projects, Mass Paths sees Dunnett use alternative photographic methods.

She converts her digital photographs into contact negatives, creating and then toning cyanotypes with a tea tannin.

This process opens up the dialogue between photography, painting and etching and echoes a complex landscape.

A picture of Cherokee Roses from the Family Walks series by Caitriona Dunnett
Cherokee Roses, Family Walks © Caitriona Dunnett

Family Walks

Family Walks documents the life of Dunnett’s family in the early days of lockdown.

It captures a series of moments from daily exercise taken around the edge of Warwick.

The disruption to normal life allowed the family to discover their neighbourhood anew.

“Over the weeks I photographed my family’s exploration of our landscape and their delight in the blossoms, dancing shadows and secret passageways,” says Dunnett.

She has used these photographs as source images for anthotypes.

A technique developed by Mary Somerville in 1842, anthotypes employ the photosensitivity of plant material, including strawberries and dandelions, to make prints.

The anthotypes were exposed in the garden for days or weeks at a time before being scanned so a digital record remains when the original image fades.

“The process is not stable and with time the prints will fade, like my memories of our family walks, which were lost when lockdown measures eased,” says Dunnett.

Bramley's Seedling Culinary Plot 30 in Hill Close Gardens by Caitriona Dunnett
Bramley’s Seedling Culinary Plot 30, Hill Close Gardens © Caitriona Dunnett

Hill Close Gardens

Hill Close Gardens captures the timelessness of one of the last groups of detached Victorian pleasure gardens in the UK dating back to 1845.

Local tradesmen tended the original plots which included summer houses complete with working fireplaces.

However in the 1980s the gardens came under threat from development.

“The gardens had fallen into disrepair and were going to be turned into flats,” says Dunnett.

“They were saved by local resident volunteers who rebuilt them focusing on how they would have been in Victorian times.”

Each generation of gardener has brought a layer of history with them.

Again, Dunnett’s multi-layered process reflects the gardens’ past.

She converted her photographs into contact negatives to make cyanotypes.

Then she toned them with pomegranate referencing 19th century painting and photography.

Caitriona Dunnett

Caitriona Dunnett is an Irish photographer based in the UK.

Alongside her own work, Dunnett has been studying alternative developers with Hannah Fletcher from the Sustainable Darkroom.

She is hoping to use some of the techniques she has learned in an upcoming two-week residency in the Beara Peninsula, West Cork, where she will be embracing the local landscape.

To view more of her work visit caitrionadunnett.com.