Ghosts from past find a home

Simon ParkinScattered personal belongings are the only sign that abandoned ghost houses captured in a new exhibition by photographer Melanie Menard were once someone's home. SIMON PARKIN reports.Simon Parkin

Scattered personal belongings are the only sign that abandoned ghost houses captured in a new exhibition by photographer Melanie Menard were once someone's home. SIMON PARKIN reports.

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Location, location, location is, so they say, the secret to a happy home. Property experts have made a career out of telling us how to find that perfect place to lay our hats.

However, nothing is permanent. What was once a family home, buzzing with life and activity, can easily become a shell - a ghost house, filled only with echoes. Houses are, after all, just four walls.

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Location is the subject of a new joint exhibition at Norwich Arts Centre, that focuses on the work of two contemporary photographers.

London-based artist Anthony Carr has produced a photographic series as a direct response to a particular location or situation and much of his recent work has been in capturing images taken during extremely long exposures.

Typical exposures can last from anywhere between a few weeks to several months. It gives his work a ghostly sepia glow, emphasising the timelessness of location.

Melanie Menard is a photographer based in Cambridgeshire. Her Ghost Houses series, which features in the exhibition, has been a work in progress since 2007 and was shot at several abandoned houses in Kerry and Connemara, Ireland.

Traces of the occupants' lives and aspirations, and of the disillusions and hardships that made them leave their homeland, sometimes decades ago, still remain in the form of scattered personal belongings.

These abandoned houses are the only museums to document the social changes that took place in Ireland during the last 30 years, as the country tends to sacrifice the memory of its tumultuous past.

'The Ghost House project started when I found by chance an abandoned house near our rented holiday cottage, and decided to explore it,' she says. 'Inside I found personal belongings left behind by the previous occupants - household items, clothes, many religious objects and even drawers full of letters.

'I did not touch or read the letters, I felt it would be indecent, but read the stamping dates and sender's address on the exposed envelopes. From those and also from the design of the clothes and items, I deducted that the last occupants either died in the 1970s or left to join family in America.'

The eerie quality of lives abandoned were inspiring to the artist. 'I began to wonder why those houses were never cleared after their last occupants died. It seems those people either had no descendants, I later heard of a tradition of 'bachelor-farmers' in Ireland, or their descendants had emigrated, mostly in the USA and had no desire for a small old fashioned house in the middle of nowhere in Ireland.'

Melanie was left wondering why the local authorities did not clear away those houses to make something useful out of them, or at least keep them in shape for future use.

'My boyfriend is the son of Irish economical migrants and studied the history and heritage of Ireland. From discussions with him, I started to understand that the locals did not see the 'ghost houses' the same way the outsiders did. They were all but invisible to them,' she said.

The sight of empty houses in rural Ireland, of course, evokes memories of that great migrations that followed the famine of 1845-1850. Out the eight million Irish, one million died of starvation and another million emigrated to escape death. The population was abruptly reduced by a quarter.

Then the famine ended and empty houses scattered the landscape, reminding the survivors of the people they knew who died or emigrated.

'The ghost houses I've visited may not date from the famine, but they are reminders of a recent past where, economically, Ireland was mostly rural, poor and lagging behind the rest of Europe and where many people still emigrated to the UK and America to find work,' said Melanie.

Recently the Irish have see themselves as citizens of a modern, booming 'Celtic Tiger' and do not want to be reminded of this recent past. Their eyes scan over the landscape without registering the ghost houses who become all but invisible to them. Though the country's recent economic trauma, and property market collapse may leave more empty homes.

'The ghost houses are not even 'eyesores' like abandoned buildings might be in Britain, they are invisible,' said Melanie. 'The contemporary Irish people deliberately ignore them and build themselves brand new houses right next to them that project the right image of success and modernity with which they identify. The ghost houses stay lying there, waiting to be explored by artists or bought by rich foreigners in quest of picturesque.'

t Long Exposures & Ghost Houses runs at Norwich Arts Centre until April 24, free admission, 01603 660352,