When Paul Kelly thinks about his childhood in Los Angeles in the 1960s, it is a memory of his father’s visits to his native Ireland that remains indelibly etched in his mind.
His father had grown up in Roscommon and had emigrated to the US in order to make his fortune. And that’s exactly what he did. His success in business allowed him to travel back to the ‘old country’ frequently – and Kelly has lucid memories of the evocative postcards he religiously dispatched across the Atlantic.
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“The pictures on them didn’t look anything like how he described it,” he says, with a chuckle. “He was always talking about how cold and wet and dreary it was in Ireland and that’s why he went. But these lovely postcards looked so different – just gorgeous places that looked so sunny and perfect and happy.”
He didn’t realise it at the time, but the striking postcards with the saturated, vivid colours evoking seemingly magical, never-ending summer were created by the English photographer, John Hinde, who had made Ireland his home in the 1950s. Hinde had spotted a gap in the market and his heavily-treated postcards became sensationally popular.
Years later, on a visit to Dublin, Kelly was reminded of the postcards that had been a small but meaningful part of his childhood. It was while he was browsing in the George’s Street Arcade that he saw a selection of vintage John Hinde postcards for sale. And it immediately made him think of his father – who had died after suffering from dementia for years – and about his childhood.
“It brought me right back,” he says. “Not just to getting to visit Ireland myself for the first time in 1969 – a month after Neil Armstrong had walked on the moon and Ireland had felt so different to the States – but seeing them again brought it all back the way my father had been then. He was energetic and fit and strong and so full of life and that was so different to how he had been at the end when dementia came.”
Although he had worked as a fundraiser in the NGO sector, Kelly was always fascinated by photography and, almost immediately, he hatched a plan. How cool would it be, he thought, to retrace Hinde’s steps – and those of his photography team – and revisit the places he had been all those years ago and capture an identical picture as it looks today.
“I wanted to find the exact same spot he had been,” he says. “And that wasn’t as difficult as you might think. Google Maps was invaluable, as was Street View. I could pretty much pinpoint on the map exactly where he had been and then I’d try to find it for real. Usually, it was possible.”
After years living in London, Kelly moved to Ireland – he bought a home in Greystones, Co Wicklow – and set about making his dream a reality. He had the good fortune, he notes with a smile, to embark on his ambitious photographic project last summer, the sunniest and hottest in decades. “I’d wanted the skies to be blue, not grey, and they certainly were last year.” Unlike Hinde, he didn’t ‘treat’ his photos. Nor did he go to elaborate lengths to capture what Hinde felt was the perfect photo. “He was almost like a movie director,” Kelly says. “He would compose his pictures very carefully and even direct people about how they should pose in them. I didn’t do any of that. I just wanted to make sure I got the vista as accurately as I could.”
He was surprised by how much has stayed the same, more or less. “That’s certainly the case in rural Ireland,” he says, “although one thing that I noticed very quickly was how many more trees and shrubbery are in the Irish landscape now than in Hinde’s time.”
Kelly took modern-day photos of 150 of Hinde’s images and over a 100 of those appear in his new coffee table book, Return to Sender. A cursory glance through the volume reveals it to be a labour of love. On the left-hand page, there are reproductions of Hinde’s originals and on the facing page, we are presented with Kelly’s modern day shots. In those that capture the built environment, it is remarkable how much has changed but also how much has stayed the same.
John Hinde had a fascinating back-story. “He comes from the Clark’s shoe family in the UK,” Kelly says, “but he didn’t stay in the business. He got involved in photography and was a great colour photographer during World War Two, at a time when the work was mostly in black and white.”
Then, in an about-turn that must have shocked the footwear dynasty, Hinde joined the circus – chiefly as a PR officer. “His wife was a trapeze artist,” Kelly says. “He then went on to have his own circus – the John Hinde Circus Show – and he came to Ireland in 1955 but it didn’t work out. It was a wet winter, not enough people went to his show and he went bankrupt.”
But Hinde was nothing if not industrious. The opening of Shannon Airport resulted in plane loads of Americans visiting Ireland and he dreamt up the idea of a postcard business chiefly aimed at this burgeoning market.
“He printed about 500 different postcards and they sold in the millions,” Kelly says. “It’s impossible to quantify what sort of impact he had on Irish tourism, but he must have been at least partly responsible for many, many people deciding they were going to have their holiday in Ireland.”
Although Hinde’s photographs were largely unappreciated by the photographic community at the time, his reputation grew in his retirement and the Irish Museum of Modern Art held an acclaimed exhibition of his work in 1993. Hinde died in France, where he had been living for some time, four years later.
“I think there was great artistic integrity to his work,” Kelly says, “and while some of the postcards may look twee, he had an incredibly distinct style. They still make an impression on me now, just as they did when my father would send them to us from California.”
‘Return to Sender’ is published by Gill Books
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