The bearded face of Northern Irish poet Michael Longley stares out pensively from its frame in stark black and white. It is one of nearly 100 intimate portraits of Irish authors captured by Robin Hiteshew over almost 40 years, a project that blended Hiteshew’s profound love of literature and his passion for photography—a talent he has refined to crystalline perfection.
Fifty of these author portraits will be brought together in an exhibition, “Portraits of Irish Writers,” which debuts June 5 at Neumann University in Aston, Delaware County. Sponsored by the Donegal Association of Philadelphia and funded by an Irish Heritage grant through the Irish government’s Emigrant Assistance Programme, it is Hiteshew’s second major photographic project funded by the Irish government. The first was “The Face of Irish Music,” portraits of Irish musicians from elder statesmen like fiddler and composer Ed Reavy, Sr., to young fiddler Haley Richardson, presented at the Irish Consulate in New York City in February 2015.
For this exhibition, Hiteshew will be presenting black and white and color photographs, about evenly divided.
Hiteshew’s dual passions go way back.
“I write poetry, and I love literature. I always have. My best friend in undergraduate school used to chide me for having two muses, photography and poetry. His position was, you can only have one,” Hiteshew recalls. “I told him, I refuse to give up either of my muses.”
Starting decades ago, whenever Hiteshew would attend a reading, he would always have his camera with him, “because that was my other passion. The two pretty naturally melded together. And so going forward a bunch of years, in 1978 when I got involved with the Philadelphia Ceili Group, Irish themes began to filter into my life.”
Hiteshew was fortunate in that, in many cases, the writers whose readings he attended were rising to early prominence. He cites a few examples, names that are well known now but were just emerging when he got to know them: Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon and Paul Muldoon.
He was able to meet Irish writers through friendships with James Murphy, emeritus professor at Villanova and founding director of the university’s Center for Irish Studies, and Lester Conner, English professor at Chestnut Hill College.
“Les ran the Yeats School in Sligo during the summers, and he met the group of Northern poets when they were very young college kids themselves,” Hiteshew says. “So he knew them and supported their work, and he would invite them to read at Chestnut Hill College. In turn, he and I had a good friendship and he said he wanted me to meet these folks. I would take photographs at his house because a lot of the writers stayed with him. In fact, the Seamus Heaney picture that’s in the show is in front of a big tree that was in Lester’s backyard.”
Heaney sat for Hiteshew’s portraits several more times after that, including a color photo in front of the English Building at Harvard that has never been shown before. Heaney is a star, and Hiteshew confesses to being a bit star-struck. “Meeting Seamus was pretty incredible,” he says. “All of the things that everybody said about him being gracious, humble and very warm are true.”
Hiteshew photographed many more authors at readings on the Villanova campus. “I would catch them after their reading and take their portraits,” Hiteshew says. “A lot of them were really kind of on the fly and without the advantages of background screens. I literally had five minutes to take pictures. So that’s kind of how it evolved.”
He has also photographed Irish writers and poets through a listserv organized by Dr. Natalie Anderson, a professor of English at Swarthmore. “Eileen D’Angelo, the founder of the Mad Poets Society, is another source for author portraits,” he says. “And then more recently, the Free Library [of Philadelphia] has done a writers series and they’ve really developed that. However, they’ve recently closed off the ability to photograph authors. I have a lot of pet peeves about that.”
Hiteshew is a perfectionist when it comes to capturing his subjects on film. It’s for a reason. He’s not just capturing an image; he’s trying to catch something of the writer’s soul—initially poets, but later writers of Irish prose.
“By and large, I’d photograph people I admire or whose works I admire,” he explains. “I have to admit, it’s expanded to authors in general because I now have so many different writers. I want to capture a little bit of who these writers are.”
It hasn’t always been easy—but Hiteshew can be relentless.
“It’s been a mixed bag. A few have been more difficult. I’ll tell you my [poet] Eavan Boland story. I met her 30 years ago. She was reading for the English department at Swarthmore and I asked if I could photograph her and she turned me down. I saw her at least two more times and she declined. However, in 2015, when I did “The Face of Irish Music,” and had the support of [Irish] Consul General Barbara Jones, I told her this story about Eavan and she said that she would be in Philadelphia with [Irish novelist] Colm Toibin. I that was 2016, the centenary of the Easter Rising. They were on a panel talking about the influence of Irish literature.
“Barbara didn’t say anything, but I asked her for help with Eavan. So I was there that day and I went up to the stage to say hello to Barbara, who was sitting on the stage with the VIPs, and to make contact with Colm Toibin and hopefully Eavan. Barbara was on the stage talking to both of them and she was very warm in greeting me. Colm was very open and immediately said yes, and Barbara said to Eavan that she should work with me because I’m a talented photographer.”
Hiteshew introduced himself again, and reminded Boland that she had said no before, but he asked her again, mentioned the Irish writers project, which at that point he knew he was going to bring together for a showing.
This time she said yes. “I was ecstatic,” Hiteshew says. “That turned out to be a lovely sitting. We spent almost an hour together. She turned out to be very warm, very supportive of what I was doing, and she gave me a couple of suggestions of younger Irish writers I should photograph.”
In his pursuit of the perfect shot, Hiteshew’s characteristic perfectionist streak comes out. He is not, as a says, a “pose and freeze” photographer. Instead, he tries to have a conversation as he’s shooting. Ultimately, he throws a lot of images away as he endeavors to find just the right one.
He is just as much of a perfectionist when it comes to developing his images. It can take many hours to process a single show-worthy print—and he develops two, one for the show, and one as backup. Crating them up is also costly. It’s an expensive proposition, and although he has a grant, he pays for much of the project out of pocket.
For Hiteshew, in the end, it’s all worthwhile—both his musician and writer exhibits. “I want people to see my work,” he says. “I’ve worked on both of these projects for 40 years. They’re my legacy.”
The opening reception takes place Thursday June 6 from 4 to 6 p.m. Hiteshew has asked the Irish community for support by coming out and joining him at the opening reception. As a condition of the grant, the Irish government is asking for documentation that they are reaching Irish-born people living in the United States. The guest book will include a box that attendees can check off noting that they were born in Ireland.
The exhibit will be open June 5 through 26 at Neumann University, One Neumann Drive, Aston. You’ll find it in McNichol Gallery located in the student center. The student center is the building at the top of the main driveway into the university. There is a large parking lot adjacent to the building on the left. The gallery is located just inside the front door on your right.