glass | prism

in this 1870s – 1880s period, while william fee mckinney in country antrim engaged in his antiquarian and photographic practices and enthusiasms – collecting farming, church and other records and artefacts (he had a deep interest in the history of presbyterianism in ireland) and in his participation as member of the belfast natural history and philosophical society and as member of the linen hall library – james glass (born 1847, died 1931) was establishing his skills and business as a professional photographer in the city of derry and also engaging within the broader presbyterian community in the city, becoming a respected member of his local presbyterian church – a superintendent of the sabbath school and senior elder at carlisle road presbyterian church, built in 1879 – to the extent of still being noted within his church community up to some twenty years after his death through a portrait and stained glass window gifted to the church by his wife and daughter and a bequest to the church in 1957 known as the ‘james glass bequest’.

Carlisle Road Presbyterian Church - History6

james glass had arrived in derry around 1861 with his father alexander glass, who in 1858 was farming 16 acres in the townland of ballyboe glencar in conwal parish, county donegal, just to the north of letterkenny. in the city of derry james glass was first apprenticed to alexander ayton who had a photographic studio at kennedy place in the city, with glass later establishing his own studio in the city, firstly in partnership with young and then alone.


with the photographic practices of glass and mckinney as the key agents within our analysis, we are therefore equipped to interrogate the strategic function (i) for the medium of photography, the function of photography as a formation determining linkages between perception, meaning and the construction of identities, the function of photography as a perceptual apparatus with the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings, here across the discourses of the presbyterian communities within mid to late 19th and early 20th century ulster and their agency within that period, and across the antiquarian, archival, institutional and technological frameworks within which we now engage with these practices.

in “the confession of the flesh” foucault notes that “i understand by the term “apparatus” a sort of–shall we say–formation which has as its major function at a given historical moment that of responding to an urgent need” (ii)

to interrogate the urgent need which this apparatus answers we can explore how the  aesthetics, ethics, technologies, beliefs, economies, laws, customs, loyalties, affiliations of  the presbyterian communities of late 19th and early 20th century ulster are refracted through the prism of the photographic practices of glass and mckinney.


(i) & (ii)

foucault defined his use of the term dispositif (apparatus) in 1977:

what I’m trying to pick out with this term is, firstly, a thoroughly heterogenous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions–in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus. the apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements.

secondly, what I am trying to identify in this apparatus is precisely the nature of the connection that can exist between these heterogenous elements… 

between these elements, whether discursive or non-discursive, there is a sort of interplay of shifts of position and modifications of function which can also vary very widely.

thirdly, I understand by the term “apparatus” a sort of–shall we say–formation which has as its major function at a given historical moment that of responding to an urgent need. the apparatus thus has a dominant strategic function. (“the confession of the flesh” (1977) interview. in power/knowledge selected interviews and other writings (ed colin gordon), 1980: pp. 194-228. this interview was conducted by a round-table of historians.)



the image above is from george combe’s a system of phrenology, 5th edn, 2 vols. 1853, perhaps the most detailed and authoritative popular phrenology text ever written, and in print across the 19th century.

as noted by allan sekula in the body and the archive, “the proliferation of photography and that of phrenology were quite coincident”, with the discourse of phrenology determining that appearance and mental capacities and character are concomitant, within the same period that the popular discourse of photography was itself developing.

a glance at any photograph of darwin is sufficient to convince any one that his brain was so imperfectly developed that he was not naturally capable of exhibiting any higher functions of mind, and could only be a keen observer of facts and a steady plodder in experiments. (s. mckinney, the science and art of religion (london: kegan paul, trench & co. 1888), pp. 35–36.)

these are the words of samuel bigger giffen mckinney (1848 – 1908), one of the eight siblings of william fee mckinney.  samuel bigger giffen mckinney practised medicine and was an author of five books on religious and moral subjects (i). his commentary on darwinism and religion was a contribution to the dynamic debate on darwin’s theories – primarily in the manner of vehement rebuttal – across the late 1870s and into the 1880s  amongst the presbyterian hierarchy and the broader calvinist, pan-presbyterian communities in and around belfast and within groups such as the belfast natural history and philosophical society. william fee mckinney was an active participant and presence within these circles across this period, just as his nascent interest and enthusiastic amateur photographic practice was developing.

these debates and vehement rebuttals of darwin’s theories had taken particular strength within the presbyterian hierarchy and the broader calvinist, pan-presbyterian communities in and around belfast as response to an address and subsequent publication in 1874 by john tyndall to the annual meeting of the british association for the advancement of science, which was held in belfast that year. tyndall’s address was essentially a call to liberate the discourse of science from theological control.

for william fee mckinney and his circles what were the other active forces with the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings?



it is worth noting here that i will return later to the fact that samuel mckinney’s texts continues on to accuse the evolutionary anthropologist defenders of darwinism – in strikingly ‘progressive modern’ terms – of racism and imperialism


“i will call an apparatus literally anything that has in some way the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings.” giorgio agamben, what is an apparatus and other essays, stanford university press (2009)



…to speak of ’98

the sentry hill that features as one part in this research was the home of eminent presbyterian gentleman-farming stock. its name given to it as it sits upon the geographic feature of sentry hill, which is just above glengormley and corr’s corner near carnmoney, co antrim, just to the north of the city of belfast.

the early 19th-century farmhouse onsite was the home of the mckinney family who were descended from scottish presbyterians who fled to ireland after the battle of sherrifmuir of 1716, with some of the family out with united irishmen of 1798. in the 1700s there was a thatched cottage onsite and then from the 1830s, once the mckinney family had purchased the land, a collection of larger house and farm buildings.

one family member at sentry hill from  was william fee mckinney (1835 – 1917),  a prosperous farmer and meticulous collector of farming, church and other records and artefacts, and a keen amateur photographer. he was a member of the linen hall library and the belfast natural history and philosophical society. he was secretary of carnmoney presbyterian church for 62 years.

nominative determinism & its reversal

what is a sentry hill? it is a fairly common name, there are probably at least half a dozen such named sites in ireland. each is likely a site which has at some point in its past seen the custom of posting a sentry watchman on its commanding height – to guard against the approach of some enemy force or threat.

so a sentry hill is a site that derives its identity from its function, from the primacy of the visual and named as such. the work here above perhaps illustrates a sentry hill in reverse, with those notional images seen from upon a height that identify the sentry hill being reversed to images on a height being seen and sketched within a quixotic re-imagining of one of the optical devices of proto-photography from the 19th century, the camera obscura.

the work illustrated above is obscura object, one of a series of works – copper engraving, object, and installation – by artist stephen beckman from 2008. for more on the work see the artist’s essay in photography beyond technique, tom persinger, focal press, 2014.

founders come first, then profiteers

an absence on a map is an invitation to speculate.

in contemporary terms, the first ordnance survey act of map-making in ireland in the 1830s  – through an act of government no less –  was an action aimed at more concretely monetising the discourse on irish land. the act of government (1820s?) to update irish land valuations for land taxation purposes sent out surveyors as boots on the ground across the commons, townlands, parishes, counties and provinces of ireland,  instructed essentially to act as speculators, de facto future traders, formatting land through the synced instrumentation and techniques of mapping|monetising – bringing into play the tools of boundaries, borders, relations of contract rather than kinship, corporation rather than association. these negotiations are of course now impossible to conceive of without that overarching representation dramatised within friel’s work translations, so perhaps to mix it up a bit and put a crack in the narrative, we could attempt to see distorted refractions in the seemingly incomprehensible song from John Adams’ opera Nixon in China…

The discussion turns to China’s future.

Mao: Founders come first, then profiteers.



Screen Shot 2017-06-22 at 18.37.01

To all artists, makers and filmmakers here in the Derry City and Strabane District Council region:
As a valued and active member of the Arts & Craft community, we would be keen for your ideas and opinions to be heard in the Council’s co-design process for its Arts & Culture Strategy 2017-2022.
We would encourage you to attend the open “brainstorming” session on Tuesday 27th June, at 2-3.30 pm in the Whitaker Suite in the Guildhall, Derry. Please do click through on the link provided below to register your interest and attendance if possible.

If you want to influence the future development of Visual & Cinematic Arts and Crafts in this Council region for the better, please take this opportunity to participate and make your voice heard.

If timing is difficult for you on Tuesday, you might want to consider the session for Individual Artists and Practitioners at 8 – 9pm on Monday 26th June in the same venue.

(I have volunteered, with Janet Hoy of CVA, to take on the task of co-ordinating the response of the Visual & Cinematic Arts and Craft community here in the DCSDC region to the Council’s co-design process for the Arts & Culture Strategy 2017-2022. )
Thanks, Declan Sheehan & Janet Hoy