Contact, 2003-4

Eleven single gelatin silver shadowgram films made on location in the Victorian Mallee reiterated as three multi-layered toned silver gelatin film sets made in the studio. Unique objects. Each 75-76 x 199-201 cm (films); 80 x 200 cm (envelopes). Held in the collection of the Mildura Art Centre, Mildura (13 pieces) except one acquired for a private collection in the USA. Enquire here.

The work interprets a small three-square-kilometre block of relict semi-arid woodland, the ‘Meringur Flora and Fauna Reserve’ in the Victorian Mallee. The project used shadowgrams on photographic film of two types: raw, negative (‘shadow’) films made on site at Meringur and positive (tonally reversed) films exposed by contact with the outdoor originals in the studio.

The shadowgrams record living vegetation, animal remains and rain drops that were touching or adjacent to sheets of photographic film exposed to flash and moonlight. The images were then chemically processed, toned and annotated by hand in the studio. The texts quote ecological publications, local headstones and nineteenth century literature about the region, including the journals of squatters and explorers.

Most of the positive films have been sandwiched together to create multi-layered, translucent composites or palimpsests. The scale of the imagery is life-size and the outer shape of most of the pieces replicates exactly the proportions and shape of the Meringur reserve. The pieces made on location reveal an unfamiliar, x-ray or ghost-like vision of a landscape. By contrast, the palimpsests are deep maps evoking the imaginary presence of Meringur itself.

The project critically reflects upon the tension between anthropocentric and biocentric perspectives. I have used the notion of genius loci (the classical idea of place as the habitat of a distinctive deity or atmosphere) to interrogate this perceptual dichotomy. Though long discredited in western culture, genius loci is invoked as a concept ripe for contemporary ecological reformulation.

The project title arises from the working method, which literally brought artist, subject matter and photographic materials into physical contact. It also references the difficulty of conceiving — let alone experiencing — an emotionally intimate or spiritually meaningful relationship with nature in our contemporary world.



  • Life, but not quite as we know it

    Review by Robert Nelson of Transcription exhibition by Harry Nankin, Dianne Tanzer Gallery, Fitzroy published in The Age newspaper, October 5, 2005

    Photography has a well-known kinship with painting; but the relation with printmaking is also striking. The word photography was invented from Greek roots to signify a writing or drawing with light. But in a way it’s more a case of printing with light. The light leaves an imprint, etching itself into the chemical fabric of a plate to form a tone or colour.

    You especially notice it with photograms, which are photographs taken without a camera. A motif is places over a photosensitive surface, which is then exposed to the light. The motif obscures the photographic surface, thus protecting it from the effects of the light. When the photographic paper is developed, the intruding object is semi-transparent, the object will register in half-tones. It’s a kind of negative for the positive form, a trace where the light hasn’t been. This inversion of positive and negative also reminds me of some printing processes.

    The relationship between photograms and printmaking is brought home most forcefully in an exhibition by Harry Nankin at Dianne Tanzer gallery. Entitled Transcription, it contains monumental kangaroo-size photograms, which are themselves transparent and presented as light-boxes. The luminous plastic screens are also held out on the diagonal, which makes them seem like specimen cases in a museum rather than pictures on a wall.

    The motifs are nevertheless the ingredients of colonial landscape: scruffy vegetation of variable density and the large indigenous marsupials that encounter today, mostly via road-kill. The imagery is thus unmistakably Australian, representing samples of the landscape that you don’t often study through photography.

    The creatures are dead, in fact I would say decomposing; otherwise the light would not have seeped into their carcasses during the process of exposure to the light. You see muscle tissue but also some skeletal remains, like the rib cage.

    The art of the photogram finds objects strangely leaky. The things placed on the plate don’t entirely quarantine their place in the world, because ambient light seeps around their form to create a combination of sharp and blurry edges, a host of incidents by looking at the form that sits on top of the photographic paper or film.

    It seems that Nankin may have exposed his plates for long periods, because there’s much evidence of chaotic fragments finding their way onto the exposed field, perhaps airborne particles landing there from the winds or attracted by a static charge. The surfaces are thus aesthetically punctuated with little episodes, a scattering of marked that is random yet not messy.

    Nankin’s photographic absorption of the stipple and scatter of nature resembles another signal feature in the aesthetic of printmaking, especially etching. It’s the random corrosive biting of the plate by acid through the protective layers, a beautiful pitter-patter that is sometimes called foul-biting.

    The control of foul-biting is one of the key ingredients in the charm of the printerly. Irrespective of the image, the surface is visually seductive in its air of push and pull, an organic registration of growth, accident and decay that goes beyond the drawn mark. Nankin manages a similar kind of grainy argument in the photogram.

    From this expression of natural processes, Nankin’s images featuring dead nature acquire a beauty beyond their morbid associations. You realise that the herbivores are rotting; but somehow they’re subsumed in a grand aesthetic entropy, a natural cycle that consumes and produces, claims flesh and leaf but makes living soil.

    Perhaps the reason that Nankin doesn’t use a camera is that the lens inherently spies on nature; and if the artist photographed decomposing animal corpses, you’d see it as a macabre form of voyeurism. Besides, seizing the ghastly or the picturesque side of such spectacles would only inspire disgust and you wouldn’t be drawn to contemplate the greater ecology of nature, much less its relation to a medium that depends on chemical change.

    Cameras set up the world in a flattering and convenient way; but lens photography turns everything into scenery. Using photograms, Nankin deconstructs that very idea of scenery; because although he refuses the optical system of the camera, he still manages to picture nature with a sense of perspective. Things are layered: some branches are tonally fainter and therefore appear more remote.

    It’s quite a spooky result, familiar and harrowed, lyrical and scientific, a world impregnated by decay and now embossed by light.