Irish Independent Weekend
29th May 2004

pankov whole paper

Dublin is beautiful. That’s the unswerving belief of Philip Pankov, a Russian-born photographer achieving increasing recognition in Ireland for his strikingly detailed monochrome prints.

… “I find that almost everybody in Dublin that I meet and work with, they’re all being very negative about the city.” In such conversations the usual suspects crop up – litter, traffic congestion, assaults, binge drinking, even the Luas works – and Dubliners (a bunch he finds amusingly self-deprecating) invariably end up portraying their city as a bit of a mess. But still he ventures out, shooting the most unexpectedly arresting images.

…Born near the Black Sea, Philip received his first camera soon after his family relocated to Moscow. Growing up in the Soviet Union meant he had to teach himself how to develop and print and, by the age of 11, he was commandeering the family bathroom (as a darkroom) for up to three hours at a time. After moving to Ireland, he earned degrees from Trinity College and UCD and has studied photography at the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art and Design. He began his portfolio here “in the ususal places, on the country’s perimeters, the coasts of Galway, Kerry, Clare”, but soon came to focus on Dublin.

He believes the city has been in some ways neglected photographically, and that in particular, good night photography here has been sparse. “Being a relatively young person living in the city centre, going out, in a place that’s quite dark most of the year, this is actually the way a lot of people see Dublin.” (His image of) Grattan Bridge by Night perfectly illustrates his method. Such is the level of detail in the photograph, down to the texture of the individual bricks and lattices, it is as if captured on a life-size negative. This is an everyday view imbued with an extraordinary, almost noir-ish sense of drama. One has to double take – it could be an early 20th century image of Paris.

…Such meticulousness comes with effort, of course. Working with medium-format and black-and-white film is time-consuming and expensive, but it allows for the production of ultra high-resolution images with an almost tactile quality. Hours are spent finding viewpoints, setting up a 10kg kit and exposing for minutes at a time. Philip’s girlfriend thinks he’s having an affair, he jokes – hours are piled on in the darkroom, where pictures are processed to museum archival standards.

The result is a series of images that the viewer may find strangely familiar but, until close examination, isn’t quite sure why. The front door of the Botany Department in Trinity College, for example, is photographed flush with ivy. Leinster House and Custom House Quay are portrayed as disarmingly symmetrical. An exotic stretch of beach “is not Spain or Morocco,” he laughs. “This is actually a view of Howth from Bull Island.”

Given film’s uncertain prognosis in a market dominated by digital cameras, one could almost see the approach as quaint. But his instinct in unashamedly purist… “I grew up doing this the traditional way, I still feel that the quality you get is way beyond what is currently achievable on digital.”

Similarly, he opts for black-and-white over colour film, “because once you take colour out of the equation you are really left only with the shape, texture and the forms, and then it becomes really possible for the photographer to bring something extraordinary out of the normal things.” Take a close-up from the Botanical Gardens, for instance. At first glance, one sees a pleasing arrangement of recently watered leaves. Peering closer, however, one can see veins and tissue. Closer still, the frames of a glasshouse are visible, reflected in individual drops of water. Soon your nose is rubbing the print.

Written by Pol O Conghaile


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