Belfast Telegraph

Can you solve the 100-year-old mystery of the unknown photographer?

BY CLAIRE WILLIAMSON

The life's work of an anonymous photographer dating back to the 1800s has been restored and is about to go on display in an exhibition in a bid to identify the original lensman.

Belfast photographer Noel R Quinn was given the collection of 230 negatives by a friend in 1994, but abandoned the project as he realised how long it would take to retouch the degenerated images.

But during a clear-out of his house in 2012 the negatives resurfaced and he decided the time had come to bring them back to life.

Noel said: "With the introduction of digital technology, the task of re-photographing and retouching this set of negatives became a realistic possibility, and in December 2012 I began the arduous task of indexing and archiving them."

The more time Noel spent on the project the more familiar he became with the subjects and he soon discovered they had all been taken by the same photographer.

He learned that the mysterious photographer had been privy to record occasions and events which were sometimes of a "very sensitive nature".

The photos portrayed a range of society from the "poverty stricken working class" right through to the "wealthy, well-dressed upper class".

The subject of some of the photographs have brought about a series of questions as to how or why the photographer had been tasked to take them.

Noel said: "These are not happy snaps, and with the greatest respect have been taken in an amateurish way.

"They are a raw and true record of social history in the north of Ireland before and over the turn of the century."

Among the photographs which moved the restorer were images of the final stages of a dying child's life.

"It's the soulful stare of a sick and dying child as he peers from between the bed sheets into the lens of our author," Noel said.

He has since been able to identify the subjects at the centre of the images as the Robb family.

"I was contacted by a gentleman, John Robb, who was able to identify some of the people and gave me an insight into the Robb family history dating back to 1653," he said.

The family included the owners of Robbs Department Store and Rev Robb, who the Belfast City Hospital's Gardner Robb ward was named after.

While Noel is no closer to finding out the identity of the snapper, he hopes the life's work of an unknown photographer exhibition, which opens tomorrow at 6pm in The Red Barn Gallery, Rosemary Street, Belfast, will help solve the mystery.

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