The Wave

The Wave, 1996-97

This series of unique artworks relate to, or were produced by, the nocturnal immersion of a large photographic ‘raft’ in the sea. These immersions took place at Bushrangers Bay (south of Melbourne) five times between the southern summer solstice of 1996 and the winter solstice of 1997. The artworks comprise over two hundred camera-less toned gelatin silver images on fibre paper made on location plus a cube of sand. All are unique objects of various sizes. Artworks from the project are held in the collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (46 pieces), Lake Macquarie City Gallery, Newcastle, NSW (4 pieces), the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne (1 piece), the Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, Nevada, USA (1 piece) and several private collections (6 pieces). Only a handful of the smaller works are illustrated here. Enquire here.

The majority of artworks consist of images of ocean waves in motion, recorded on gelatin silver paper, which was lashed to the raft and immersed in the sea, and then exposed to moonlight and artificial flash. The resulting images are exquisitely detailed, life-scale shadowgrams of churning seawater, foam, kelp, detritus and sub-marine light refraction, overlain by the linear marks of marine cables that held the raft together, the imprint of paper enfolded by backwash, film negatives, handwritten texts and diagrams on acetate stapled or applied to the paper surface before submersion and various post-development chemical and penciled modifications. Although initially exhibited largely ‘raw’ and unmodified, between 2002 and 2004 most of the paper pieces were trimmed and re-cut into a larger number of more visually coherent objects. In addition to the works on paper, The Wave includes a glass cube encasing a kiln-dried block of beach sand ‘captured’ by the paper during the five immersions accumulated in the darkroom.

The Wave was part performance, part sculpture and part photograph. As performance, each wave event was a collective act of faith (involving 63 volunteers) that was simultaneously an ersatz ritual and scientific experiment. As sculpture, the fragile photographic raft was a functional object designed to sink whilst the geometric glass cube emphatically obscured its photographic origins and organic content. As photography, The Wave revealed an imprint of nature otherwise invisible to the naked eye or camera vision: a kind of cross-section or x-ray of the sea.

In a milieu infatuated with the virtual and the digital, The Wave affirms the beauty of tactile materials, the revelatory power of simple photochemical processes and a sense of wonder in wild nature. By abandoning the camera in favour of a more direct interplay of artist, ecosystem and emulsion, The Wave presents another way of seeing to the cool and familiar optical conventions of the landscape photography tradition. In a culture dominated by anthropocentric hubris, The Wave blurs the boundary between the intentional (‘human’) and unintentional (‘nature’).

The project sub-title, Theoria Sacra Undarum (The Sacred Theory Of The Wave) parodies Thomas Burnet’s biblical Flood-based conjectures on topographical genesis, published in 1681 as Telluris Theoria Sacra (The Sacred Theory of the Earth). Despite Burnet’s disdain for the wild, the sheer grandeur of his observations inadvertently generated public fascination with nature and greatly influenced later Romantic ideas. The Wave allegorizes the intense fin-de-siècle ebb and flow of contested belief and affect regarding the use, value and meaning of nature on this fragile planet.









The spirit of the earth and the
photography of Harry Nankin

by Jorge Calado

1. Old Europe, New Worlds

For the founding fathers of photography, light was a convenient pencil to record their immediate surroundings. The idea that happiness could be found within oneself was a well-establish tradition. The French novelist and essayist Xavier de Maistre published hisVoyage autour de ma chamber (“Voyage around my bedroom”) in 1975: with its opening, apertures and shutters, home is a camera of sorts. Ensconced in the cocoon if his country estate at Lacock Abbey, William Henry Fox Talbot photographed his house and contents throughout the 1830s and 40s: lattice windows and open doors, stone benches animated by a variety of kick-knacks, collections of porcelain, glass and books meticulously laid out on four shelves (four being a magic number). Meanwhile, in France, Nicéphone Nïépce made history with his “hellographies d’après nature” (heliographs according to nature). The earliest (circa 1826) that has survived is the view from his window at Saint-Loup-de-Varennes – a cubist arrangement of roofs and triangular shadows. When they finally ventured out of their homes, the photographic pioneers aimed their cameras at the still beauties of urban architecture and the great monuments of antiquity. The long exposure times were not compatible with the flow of water and the rustling of leaves.

Things evolved differently in America and Australia. The invention of photography and its worldwide dissemination coincided with other revolutionary changes: the development of the steam ship, the railroad and the telegraph. The technological future, like the past, is a foreign country. The exploration and settlement of the American West and of Australia was also a great scientific enterprise. The mastery of the environment and of the traditional land owners was made possible by armies of engineers and technicians. Geological surveys were conducted, mineral resources dug from the ground, bridges built, telegraph lines erected, roads and railways laid out – and all of this was photographed. In unknown lands, photography was a reliable witness. The first European photographers were artists or apprentices to artists; their American and Australian counterparts were surveyors and other technicians. In the new territories, photography was synonymous with possession.

Nature had been prodigal to America. The Manifest Destiny of the young nation was, in the words of John L. O’Sullivan, editor of theNew York Morning News (1845), “to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government”. This ambition was affirmed and publicized through the camera, and a new genre was born – that of landscape photography, touching on the sublime. Nature, in Europe, was pastoral: cosy and tamed, like a private garden. There were a few exceptions: the Alps photographed by the Bisson brothers in the 1850s, or the seascapes of Gustav Le Gray, printed around the same time. Le Gray was inspired to define, through photography, the maritime boundaries of France, but he had to overcome the chemical limits of capturing both sea and sky in a single image. He did so by playing the trick of using two different negatives. The sublime, meditative character of his pictures was based on a technical lie.

People and their portraits were crucial to the development of European photography. An exemplary case is the comprehensive project (1843-47) of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson to record, with the camera, the First General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland. The result is a few thousand calotype portraits – the first attempt in the history of photography to record a whole community. In the new worlds of American and Australia, people were usually figures in a landscape, miniscule yardsticks against which nature’s grandiose scale could be measured. John K. Hillers, who photographed along the northern rim of the Grand Canyon in 1872, was fond of posing himself on the edge of cliffs or of sitting on precariously balanced stones, to enhance the dramatic effect of his pictures. Even at their moist grandiose, these photographs of nature were anthropocentric.

In America, space was defined vertically. The Rock Mountains and the Grand Canyons of the Southwest rise up to the skies or dive precipitously into the bowels of the earth. Progress westwards, towards the promised land of California, was an obstacle course. In Australia, the great red desert stretched out horizontally, like the sea that never was (Tasmania is, of course, the exception to the flat, dry character of the fifth continent). The three-dimensional space that we inhabit is curvilinear: climbing is not the same as walking. The nature of the land moulds the character of the people who live on it.

2. Coincidences

The exploration of nature is akin to self-discovery, and what one finds ranges from a heart of darkness to an enlightened soul. More than a geographical location, the West of the imagination is a myth. According to legend, there was a snowy cross (carved by two intersecting glaciers?) on a Colorado mountain, but the cross always vanished before anyone could get close enough to photograph it: the snow would melt or disappear behind billowing clouds of mist. In 1873, William Henry Jackson experiences an epiphany when he first sighted and photographed the elusive Mountain of the Holy Cross. In the same year, Timothy O’Sullivan took what many consider his photographic masterpiece: the ancient Anasazi ruins in the Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. Present, past and geological time combined, for the image shows tiny little figures standing amidst the crumbling white houses nested in the rock face, everything dwarfed by the majestic cliff rising up almost four hundred meters.

Eighteen seventy-three was a fabled year, in America as well as Australia, it was in that year that William Gosse, a 30-year old bushman, came across as island of stone in the geographic heart of the Australia desert, “an immense rock rising abruptly out from the plain”. He name is Ayers Rock, after Sir Henry Ayers, Premier of South Australia, although he was aware of the sacred character attributed to it by the local tribes. The giant monolith was long known as Uluru to the Anangu people. Gosse and his companion Karran (an Afghan camel driver) explored its recesses, climbed barefoot to the top, and found that the Rock was a “favourite resort of the natives in the wet season, judging from the numerous camps in every cave”. Thomas Keneally has referred to Uluru as a “kind of continental navel, the point at which the aboriginal demi-gods of the ancestor heroes, half-human and half-animal, cut the umbilical cord connecting earth to heaven”. The navel of the earth, like those seen in traditional iconography of Adam and Eve, attest to the fact that there was history before creation.

3. Theories of the Earth

In the seventeenth century, James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland, ventured to make a precise calculation of the Day of Creation. Based on a combination of astronomical cycles, he worked backwards through the chronology of the Bible and came to the conclusion that the universe (including Earth) had been created on Sunday, 23 October 4004BC. In similar fashion, he deduced the dates of other major biblical events, like the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise and the Flood. According to Ussher, Noah’s Ark touched down on Mount Ararat on Wednesday, 5 May 1491BC.

Ussher was concerned with the origin of time. A couple of generations later (1682), Thomas Burnet, royal chaplain to William III, developed his own, Bible-based Telluris Theoria Sacra (or, to give the complete title in English, The Sacred Theory of the Earth containing an Account of the Original of the Earth and of all the General Changes which it hath already undergone or is to undergo til the consummation of all things). Our planet had congealed, out of the chaotic void, into a perfect sphere; however, at the time of the Flood “the fountains of the great deep” had broken up (the oceans being insufficient to have caused the deluge), and the earth’s crust was crushed like an egg, the fragments of the shell becoming mountains. At the second coming, the earth would be burned by fire and revert to its original spherical perfection, this time as a star. In other words, the earth evolved but it is also moving, in a looping cycle, towards its beginning as a perfect sphere.

Burnet’s proposition was a theory of the world seen as a damaged paradise – the evidence of God’s anger, not of his original benign intention. A perfect Creator created a perfect universe, so all celestial bodies had to be spherical. Scientists would concur. In 1609 even Galileo was surprised by the craters and mountains he found on an uninhabited moon, when he first looked at our satellite through a proper telescope. For a while, he thought that the lunar body was covered by the smooth, spherical envelope of a transparent substance, denser than the sidereal either. Burnet, too, was dismayed by the unsatisfactory shapelessness of the seas, and by the fiery distemper of volcanoes. Only the imposing mountains merited his praise. The spherical Eden created by God had given way to a “broken and confus’d heap of bodies, placed in nor order to one another, nor with any correspondency or regularity of parts; And such a body as the Moon appears to us, when ‘tis look’d upon with a good Glass, rude and ragged. […] they are both in my judgement the image or picture of a great Ruine, and have the true aspect of a world lying in its Rubbish”. For Burnet, nature fell into this disarray because mankind disobeyed God and became degenerate. The great cataclysm that shattered the perfect paradise created by God was the Flood.

Nowadays Burnet’s ideas appear as wild fancies, hard to take seriously, but he was a correspondent of Isaac Newton, who by and large agreed wit him. To get closer to the truth, another book, besides the Bible, has to be read – the book of nature. The secrets of the creation (or origin) of the universe and its evolution are hidden inside rocks, volcanic as well as sedimentary. Layer upon layer, leaf upon leaf, geological strata have compiled a book recording the history of the world – a book ready to be opened and deciphered. The proper reading began at the end of the eighteenth century, with scholars like the Scottish geologist James Hutton, a member, along with Adam Smith and the chemist Joseph Black, of Edinburgh’s famous Oyster Club. Hutton, who published his Theory of the Earth in 1795, believed that the earth had also been shaped by convulsive cycles, and that there was “no vestige of beginning, no prospect of an end”. Investigators began to pay more attention to fossils and other remains of organic life imprinted on rocks – meaningful vestiges of times past, which another Scottish geologist, Hugh Miller, memorably called (1851) “footprints of the creator”. Fossils are pictures of another kind. Besides light, nature has a few more pencils at her disposal with which to write her story: pressure, temperature, the chemistry of erosion. Fossils are barographs – pictures created by pressure, more real than photographs because they incorporate the remains of living matter: body art at its purest. This is not the place to describe the whole story of evolution. It is enough to say that finally there was Charles Darwin and all was light!

4. Catching the spirit

Fossils are petrified cadavers; it is up to palaeontologists to interpret their liberated spirits. Photographers perform a similar action. Cameras are shotguns, and by pressing a button, photographers stop the flow of time and shoot pictures. They kill and freeze in order to record the unseen or capture shadows. The photograph is a trophy. If the subject survives to tell the story, he or she knows that something has been stolen: at best, a moment to be preserved for eternity and displayed like a stuffed deer’s head or a dead snake in a jar of formaldehyde. It is well known that people in certain cultures refuse to be photographed, afraid that something precious, like a shadow, can be lost or stolen. In Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s magical tale Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Women without a Shadow), set to music by Richard Strauss, the shadow stands for fertility. From the ethical point of view, shouldn’t a concerned photographer do without a camera?

Some of the earliest photographs were camera-less pictures – contact prints of flat organic matter, from fish skeletons and insect wings to the herbarium that Anna Atkins printed on cyanogenic blue. The reasons for this procedure were technical, but the images can today be read as close relatives of pre-historic pictures, from the cave paintings of Altamira or in the Grampians to the petroglyphs of Arizona or the Coa Valley. For his Master’s (1992-94) research, Harry Nankin developed a project called Cathexis, concerning our role in relation to nature. Nankin’s work was a sensitive artist’s answer to the fundamental question: “How can a sacramental or bio-centric relationship with nature be communicated by or evoked through the medium of photography?” For the Cathexis show (1994) at the Melbourne Contemporary Art Gallery, Nankin combined shadowgraphs of living trees on huge sheets of photographic paper with toned gelatine silver prints of aboriginal cave painting and inscriptions – land are imbued with the spirit of ancestors.

The Grampians/Gariwerd Ranges (now a National Park) have the largest concentration of rock paintings in southeast Australia. To avoid damage and vandalism, their location has mostly been kept a secret, and the few that are open to the public are protected by wire cages. Nankin had special access to these sites, and his photographs of the petroglyphs are some of the most eloquent and emotive images in contemporary Australian photography. Those figures with elongated arms, hands widespread, are posthumous, dreamed portraits, calling to mind the wonderful series of walls with hands photographed by Manuel Ávarez Bravo in Mexico in the 1970s.

Five years later, Nankin united similarly disparate elements in a more personal project, Craters of the Moon (1998-2002), a moving installation about the Holocaust. He had returned to Poland, the home of his Jewish grandparents, looking for traces of a world he never knew. In Warsaw and Cracow bookshops he found pre-war topographic maps, and when he returned to Melbourne, a German lunar map from the same period. Life is usual crisis-ridden, chaotic and fragmentary. For the victims of the Holocaust it was also ignominiously cut short. The loss can never be recovered. Appropriately, Craters of the Moon featured fragments of diverse kinds – maps and texts, pieces of torn fabric, the tallit (prayer shawl) that Nankin was given by a Holocaust survivor. Like O’Sullivan before the Canyon of Chelly, Nankin was facing three disjointed worlds: his own assimilated Australian present, the imagined Poland before the horrors of the Holocaust, and the Poland of today. The chasm between these worlds is as desolate and irretrievable as the craters of the moon.

5. The landscape art of Harry Nankin

Landscape photography in America and Australia began by being utilitarian and documentary, but soon evolved into true art. The more that scientists and photographers learned about the working of nature, the more they came to respect it. A new ecological conscience was born. Art seldom serves any social purpose, but it can be argues that it was the magnificent landscape pictures taken by photographers like Eadweard Muybridge, Carleton Watkins, Frank J. Haynes and others that led to the creation of national parks in America.

Such a tradition of photographically recording pristine nature was carried on in the twentieth century by exponents of the genre like Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter in America and Peter Dombrovskis in Australia. A friend of Dombrovskis, Harry Nankin first made his name in the 1980s as a landscape photographer in colour and then in the early 1990s as a superb printer in black and white. Fine printing is of course essential if the image is intended to serve as a banner for environmental and nature conservation causes: how else can the photograph couch for the beauty of what it wishes to preserve? The Australian Alps, Philip Island Victoria and Tasmania (from the grandeur of its western wilderness to the delicate intimacy of Huon river fossils) were all eloquently portrayed by Nankin’s large-format camera.

Great landscape photography must both reveal the umbilical cord attaching us to the moment of creation and facilitate out union with one another, as part of a whole. Nankin was never interested in portraying the wilderness as a frontier to be crossed and vanquished. Nor was he an apologist for commodifying nature and making it desirable, a procedure others have denounced as “green pornography”. Gradually he came to consider the camera as a physical barrier between its operator and the subject. Moreover, geometrical optics – the scientific basis of the camera’s modus operandi – is as artificial as the linear perspective with a single vanishing point, invented by Alberti in the fifteenth century. The scale, complexity and mutability of the natural world are beyond the comprehension of any manmade machine. As Nankin has said, “in order to narrow the optical and emotional distance between photographic emulsion, artist and ecosystem, I eliminated the lens, then film and finally the camera itself and began making direct images of ‘nature’ on large sheets of black and white photographic paper using light alone”. He started in 1993 by creating studio shadowgrams of Australian animal skeletons from museum collections, and soon afterwards felt confident enough to move outdoors. The landscape itself became the camera. As for the process, the old sequence of exposure to photographic paper, development and fixing would do. To nature, chemistry is a more trustworthy agent that electronics. After all, the earth evolved by chemistry and biochemistry alone.

Nankin’s nature is primordial, made of the four elements. Although the more permanent earth, water and air dominate his art, I suspect that energetic, purifying fire, the agent of renewal, may play an important role in the future. There is significant precedent: the metaphoric Burning Bush, made in the Grampians in 1990. His most recent project, seen in May-June 2004 at the Mildura Arts Centre, was Contact – an installation of huge, life-scale, translucent film (rather than opaque paper) shadowgrams, made in the Mallee bush at night. Hanging from the gallery’s ceiling, they showed living vegetation, animal remains, crawling insects, dust and falling raindrops. Each picture required a scaffold to be built on site to place the photographic film and flash prior to the nocturnal exposure. The results revealed what nature sees when she “looks at herself at night”.

6. The Wave

As an Australian, Nankin knows that water is the most vital product of the creation. Without land, life might have been possible, but not without water. A large part of Nankin’s work relates to water, for instance his beautiful dye-transfer prints of the coast south of Melbourne produced in 1991. Inspired by Thomas Burnet’s theory, Nankin created an ambitious project about the sea and its waves, a sort of Theoria Sacra Undarum (Sacred Theory of the Wave), abbreviated as The Wave. Like any believer, he waited patiently for enlightenment, and the revelation came in the form of a wave, the source of energy. Liquids and shapeless, taking the form of whatever contains them, and water leaves no trace: it only comes alive when energized, which is what happens with waves. Nankin’s idea was to make a photogram of a real wave in real scale, to let nature write its own photograph. He could then manipulate the product and finally – as a last, inexorable court of appeal – accept or reject the result. After the vertical shadowgraphs in the bush, the project also marked a return to the horizontality so typical of the Australian imagination exemplified in the ironic Sunbaker (1937) by Max Dupain.

All Nankin needed was photographic paper commensurate with the dimensions of a true ocean wave and a light source (he used a flash) that could activated at the right moment. The experiment had to take place on a night when the moon was new, to ensure that extra light did not interfere with the photographic process. Nankin and his team built a gigantic frame of wood and iron weighing about 100 kilograms and measuring 6.7 x 4.3 metres, which they called “The Wave Raft”. Into it they sandwiched a nylon fishing net, topped by an aluminium tripod “mast” seven metres tall with the flash at its apex. This structure, which had obvious nautical connotations, served to hold and expose the photographic paper during immersion.

A team of between fourteen and twenty-five people assembled the raft on the beach during the day. A trench was dug so that the net would be supported by the sand and able to withstand the weight of people’s bodies whilst they laid out the paper on top of it. Once night fell, three sheets of eight square metre photographic paper were sewn into the net with fishing thread, using curved bad-needles. The artist then wrote text or stapled photographs and diagrams on the paper and invited participants to gather kelp from the beach for him to place on the assemblage. The prepared raft was the carried to the water’s edge, lowered into the brine, and the flash triggered at the appropriate moment. Exposed paper was transported in light-proof PVC pipes back to the darkroom and developed by hand over the following days.

The chosen site was Bushrangers Bay, on the coast near Melbourne. Five attempts were made in the six months between the summer solstice of 1996 and the winter solstice of 1997. The First Wave was successfully completed on 14-15 December 1996, The Fifth and last wave on 15 June 1997. The resulting images are true shadowgrams – life-size negative shadows of the waves’ turbulence, and of everything they carry: churning seawater, foam, kelp, sand, detritus, the transient presence or remains of fish, submarine light refraction as well as the imprint of the hand inscriptions, photographs, diagrams and cables which held the raft square. Further manipulation occurred during development and processing, using chemical bleach and colour toners, pencil and dyes. A total output of some one hundred square metres of raw imagery were eventually rendered as over two hundred finished and numbered paper fragments of various sizes. Many had been repaired and recut into aesthetically pleasing smaller units.

The tank in which Nankin did the developing was a bath-tub in his back garden; the sand collected in it was shaped and kiln-dried, producing The Wave Cube. The cube is the platonic solid associated with earth (the icosahedron strands, according to the geometry of Plato’s Tumaeus, for water). The Germans say that God always geometrizes. Nature, however is unpredictable and chaotic. It is man and woman who geometrize, to make sense of the world around them. Nankin’s original vision for the project was “a single event producing a dramatic and intact 24 square metre image of a wave front”. Several failures required repeated experiments – the fragile paper tone, the high tide passed, the flash unit refused to work. None succeeded entirely. Science progresses in a similar fashion, by trial and error. Sir Cyril Hinshelwood, Nobel Prize laureate in chemistry, once said that an experiment is successful only if it leads to another experiment. Science and art are both risky enterprises, where the question are often more important than the answers.

The Wave is a photograph, a sculpture and a specimen of performance art, all in one. It is also the fulfilment of the old romantic yearning for the artist’s totally immersion in nature – though this pantheistic longing has been chastened by a modern ecological conscience. As Nankin comments, in his work “conventional boundaries distinguishing the subjective and intentional (art) from the objective and incidental (nature) begin to be dissolved”. To the spectator, The Wave is a return to the sea, and a stimulus to meditation. A significant part of The Wave work formed the climax of Waterproof – a 400 images exhibition I curated celebrating one hundred and forty years of water in photography, which took place is Lisbon as part of EXPO ’98 – The World Exposition dedicated to “The Oceans – a Heritage for the Future”.

Some have commented that Nankin’s mammoth shadowgraphs show Mother Nature to be a “dedicated Abstract Expressionist”. To my mind, this is yet another anthropocentric reaction. Japanese painting evolved without the knowledge of Wester linear perspective, and developed its own point of view – that of the subject itself, even if the subject was a landscape. Nankin is an artist with a vision, but he is also a responsible citizen who reveres nature and does not wish to intrude on it. He has therefore set out to photograph the wave’s view of the world, no his own. As Albert Einstein once remarked, “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious: It is the fundamental emotions which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.”

The Wave: Harry Nankin exhibition catalogue essay published by Monash Gallery of Art, Wheelers Hill, Victoria, 2004
  • Mirrors and Windows

    Essay by Claire Williamson published in Art Monthly magazine #124, pp 4-7, October 1999

    Since John Szarkowski divided the world of photography in two, photography has generally been viewed as performing the role of either mirror or window. But, while some Australian photography of the late 1990s does indeed continue to function in this way, the mirror is as likely to be that of the distorted, funpark variety, and the window now often affords a view that is less than picturesque. But, more significantly, these mirrors and windows are now joined, even overtaken, by the photograph as screen, as archive and as object.

    For an era frequently characterised s post-photographic, it may seem odd that so much photography remans. But photography now, even of the more traditional kind such as documentary or landscape photography, has been informed by the questioning raised by post-photography. At the same time, a range of artists are abandoning photographic media but continuing to apply photographic thinking to their work in sculpture and installation. These ideas were explored in Photography is dead! Long live photography!, curated by Linda Michael at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1996. The fact that this was one of only a few nation surveys of contemporary Australian photography in the 1990s points, perhaps, to the ubiquity of photographically informed media in all areas of exhibition and practice. While photo-specific galleries and journals continue to play a central role in the understanding and dissemination of photography in Australia, the ever presence of photography is evidenced by its place within all recent major contemporary art projects, including Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne Biennials, Asia-Pacific Triennials, Perspectas and Moet & Chandon exhibitions.

    The edges of the photograph have now gone. Not just the white borders, but the very edges of the image, and the point too, as the photographic image slips, melts and dissolves into the computer screen, the video monitor and the installation. The photograph acts as a screen, not only in its evocation of cinematic and televisual realities, but through its very existence now as a formula of digital codes moving across the ‘face’ of the computer monitor. In the wake of such developments, artists are simultaneously extending the capabilities of photography to reflect upon contemporary existence, and pushing against it to produce work which operates as physical object or deliberately ‘fails’ as a photograph. These developments are not unique to Australian photography, but rather, indicate the blurring of local and global within the borderless zones of virtual space and mass media.

    It is impossible here to discuss, or even mention, the work of each photo-practitioner (whether self-describes as either artist or photographer) who currently plays a vital role in Australian photographic practice. Neither is it possible to dissect contemporary practice along all planes, which would include theoretical, technological and social, amongst others. Instead, I have chosen to examine the carious guises that current Australian photography assumes, with discussion of a number of practitioners by way of example. This separation of one person’s practice into any one of the following categories to the exclusion of others is arbitrary and problematic, as much work is concerned with the transgression of such easy codification.

    Australian photography continues to act as a mirror, its reflection revealing either a ‘portrait’ (distorted or otherwise) of photography itself or that of its producer. Artists such as Susan Fereday, Graeme Hare, Merilyn Fairskye and Penelope Davis investigate the properties of the photographic process and the relationship of the image to light, to chemistry and to the camera itself. For example, Fereday’s The object of photography (1994-6) comprised a series of installations of photographs of circular and disc-like forms which, together with a number of circular shaving mirrors and glass and metal plates, threw across the wall and assortment of reflected and actual shapes both suggestive of UFO photographs, and illusion and desire. Fairskye has also worked with light and shadow, reflection and translucence, in works such as After image (1995) which presented large transparencies supersended at a short remove from the gallery wall, so that the image hovered somewhere in between. For many year, Graeme Hare has abstracted (and more recently digitally altered) details and slivers from a database of photographic ‘notebooks’, so that they become studies in the photographic as opposed to depictions of the exterior world. And Penelope Davis’ Blue/green proof (1998) presents photo-portraits of cameras, rendered blind, yet beautiful objects through having been cast in resin and photographed as a form of rayograph.

    The photograph as a mirror also reflects the body, whether of the artist or of another subject. Artists such as Julie Rrap have, since the 1980s, continued to explore or represent the body through a range of projects including re-enactment, and an almost scientific obsession with skin, hair and bone. eX de Medici traces the surface of the body through her photographs of the newly tattooed, while Ella Dreyfus’ series Age and consent (1998) reveals the downward gravitational pull of bodily flesh which comes with ageing. Artists working in digital media such as Justine Cooper, Kevin Todd, Linda Dement and VNS Matrix have extended this study of the body to ‘dissect’ our current makeup and to propose new futuristic bodies for the impending millennium. The absent body has been explored by Kim Donaldson in her 1996v installation From the lecture: A reminder of life, in which projected photographs of everyday and medical objects acted as traces of her brother following his AIDS-related death.

    The self which is explored through photography is no just the physical, bodily self, but also cultural, social and political selves. Artists such as Rea, Destiny Deacon, Brook Andrew and Brenda Croft use photography to examine but also to play with the subvert representations of Aboriginal identity proposed by mainstream media. By choosing to work with photography, they in a sense ‘take back’ the very medium which has been responsible for so much misinformation about and control over Aboriginal people since the nineteenth century. They also collapse neat boundaries of identity demarcation such as race, gender and sexuality by producing work which ‘acts up’ and proposes fictions as well as fact. Linda Sproul has for a number of years engaged with positions of ‘whiteness’ as a signifier of power and the centre. Her photographs both document her performances and stand alone in their depiction of her in a range of guises which question her place as a white woman. Ah Xian, Xia Xian Liu and Emil Goh each incorporate photography into their work to investigate interactions between east and west on both personal and social levels. At the same time, artists such as Hou Leong and Alan Cruickshank play with cultural representation through digitally inserting Chinese or Aboriginal faces into scenes of Australian mateship and heroism.

    Explorations of sexuality include William Yang’s diaristic accounts of desire, friendship and loss. Kaye Shumack’s all-girrrl parodies of cinema, and John Tonkin’s physiognomic portraits which the viewer is invited to rate on such scales as ‘least’ of ‘most homosexual’. Add to this Dennis Del Favero’s studies of masculinity in contemporary Europe, Luke Robert’s self-portraits as both pope and pop star, and Natalie Paton’s humorous but potently political celebrations of herself as both large and sexy, and the picture is diverse to say the least.

    While photography of past eras provided windows onto exotic and hitherto unknown worlds, the window of recent Australian photography is as likely to face a junk-ridden car park, or even our own dish-laden sink. A number of artists, such as David Stephenson, continue to bring us wondrous views of the outside world (galaxies, Antarctica, cupolas). However, photography is now more likely to tell us about our own world, the minutiae of existence which until now we didn’t bother looking at. Ironically, at the same time that the veracity of photography in presenting an authentic window on the world has been dismissed through the manipulation of news photography, the snapshot has features as the vehicle through which ‘real life’ or the ‘everyday’ can be accurately portrayed. Artists such as Dale Frank and Lyndal Walker adopt the ‘one house photolab’ school of photography to document the ordinariness of their lives, their friends, and their homes. eX de Medici engages in personal (one could say obsessive) rituals such as documenting the daily contents of her compost bin, or recording objects that she comes across purely because they are pink or blue, to accumulate databases of her own corner of the world.

    Jane Burton and Justene Williams construct large colour photographs which allow us inside institutional spaces such as psychiatric wards and welfare agencies for the elderly. Their images are simultaneously soulless and yet somehow loaded with human presence and expectation. Anne Zahalka’s series Open house (1995) provides windows into people’s private lives through richly detailed portraits of couples within their domestic interiors. Presented as almost life-size transparencies on lightboxes, these images have proved irresistible to viewers who, seduced by their saturated colour and luxurious detail, play the voyeur.

    To return to the notion of the photograph as screen, one could characterise much current Australian practice as aligned to it either through its referencing of cinema and television, or through its actuality as existing within the screen itself. Australian artists are at the forefront of developments in this area and are regularly well represented at international digital art events. The nature of the photograph as screen is such that distinctions between the still, the moving and the interactive image, between original and copy, and between fact and fiction are increasingly blurred. Digital processes are bringing into question the very definitions of photography and it is increasingly believed that it will soon be remembered as a ‘transitional’ medium. Australian artists have moved beyond the fetishistic excitement first induced by digital processes and now produce work which engages with the impact of such technologies on our understanding of reality, space, time, our bodies and our minds. For example, Brook Andrew’s 1998 work bungal-gara-gara (Wiradjuri for ‘all over the place’) takes an image off the Internet of Di and Dodi’s car to comment on the instantaneous proliferation of imagery worldwide via the net, as well as the fatal attraction to celebrity status.

    Robyn Stacey often draws her imagery, but also her image structures, from filmic genres, from the Hollywood film noir of the 1940s and 50s through to the cinematic jump cut of the 80s and 90s. Much of her work features the city as the backdrop for darkness and glamour, violence and passion, the digital ‘grain’ of her sourced imagery providing form as well as content. Rosemary Laing incorporates the screen as subject as well as medium in her work, as in greenwork where areas of the picture plane suggest the vibrating pixels of a television transmission. These images, together with those in brownwork, explore concepts of time and velocity, and out mediated experience of the natural environment. The sense of movement contained within these works reminds Laing’s viewers that nature has never been in stasis but that our own accelerated passage has now combined to set the world spinning. Patricia Piccinini has produced a number of works using computer-generated imagery to examine the nature of advertising which now pervades the screen, whether it be that of television, cinema or the video billboard now found on street corners. In 1997 she produced Protein lattice, a series of images that replicated glossy magazine-style photographs of female models, cosmetically enhanced and smoothed over by the computer. In place of the beauty products usually marketed through such imagery, she inserted a mouse with human ear attached, referencing the artificiality of both model and product. One of these images recently featured on a billboard in the Melbourne CBD as part of the Melbourne International Biennial, further collapsing the art/commerce divide.

    Tracey Moffatt has throughout her career moved between photography and film, each medium feeding into the other. Her most recent photographic series, Up in the sky, operates as stills for a film that never was. Against a searching sky or the walls of a dilapidated bedroom, a motley cast of ‘saints’ and ‘sinners’ act out a drama which hints at teenage motherhood, the removal of indigenous children, and poverty, violence and desperation amongst a rural underclass. In particular, Pier Paolo Pasolini, but also David Lynch and the Mad Max movies, suggest themselves as filmic sources for Moffatt’s imagery.

    While Moffatt’s work reveals an interest in and parodies documentary photography, this genre continues to flourish in its own right. Rather than fade against the bright light of large-scale constructed colour photography, documentary photography is still a potent form for visualising contemporary life, albeit one which now recognises the fallibility of image as truth. Its ongoing role is evident, for example, in the work of Jon Rhodes, Ricky Maynard, and Charles Page, and in the large response to projects such as the Leica Documentary Photography Award organised by the Centre for Contemporary Photography in Melbourne.

    At the opposite extreme of documentary work lies that which derives from and is fascinated by artifice, fantasy and theatre. Work by artists such as Jane Eisemann deliberately employs technological manipulation to create images which are disturbing in their simultaneous impossibility yet horrifying ‘realness’. Rose Farrell and George Parkin continue to stage elaborate scenes which recreate the gruesome histories of medical technology from ages past, while Pat Bassington references artists and filmmakers such as Dali and Bunuel in her studies of hysteria and nightmare. Bill Henson’s large torn photographs of 1995-96 deny a definite narrative yet suggest dark goings-on between his naked protagonists.

    Continuing the postmodernist project of the 1980s, much contemporary Australian photography takes as its starting point images (whether from photography or other artforms) from earlier times. In this capacity, photography now adopts the role of database or archive, with concepts of memory and history as its subjects. For example, in Martyn Jolly’s Nineteen Sixty-Three (1007), the artist has, in a sense, taken a ‘core sample’ of photographs from 1963 which are housed in the archives of the Australian News and Information Bureau. Using digital processes, he zeroes in on and enlarges details which heighten gestures and the folds of clothing to study the body language of a time gone by. Debra Phillips retrieves and catalogues found photographs from public collections to investigate ideas of memory, language and representation. Elizabeth Gertsakis, Fiona Foley and Fiona MacDonald all explore issues of representation along lines of culture and gender by working with historical imagery. Gertsakis collages photographs of herself and family together with images from high and low culture to undermine any simple binary constructions of immigrant identity. Fiona Foley reenacts retrieved images of her Badtjala kinsfolk with attitude and humour to point out photography’s employment as a classification tool in the nineteenth century, but also in order to find the heroines of her own past. Fiona MacDonald also works with notions of classification and the inextricability of black and white in Australian culture through her images which weave together historical photographs of white colonial power and Aboriginal portraits.

    At the same time that a number of artists are extending the technological capacities of recent photographic processes, others are consciously working with decidedly low-tech forms to ‘unpack’ the very nature of photography and perception. Found photography, whether from the family album or salvaged from the street, is utilised by artists as diverse as Brenda Croft and Elvis Richardson. By overlaying her father’s photographs of suburban life in the 1950s with text, Croft produces work which operates on two levels: as personal narrative and as statements about national history and the stolen generation. Camera obscura, the simplest and oldest form of photography, has been used within complex photo/video installations by Leslie Eastman, Andy Thomson and Daniel von Sturmer to generate fleeting images which distill ideas of perception, observation and space. In works such as Can’t live without plastic (1995), Justene Williams uses disposable cameras to take photographs that are so out of focus that they become abstract forms ranged along the colour spectrum. Artists such as Rozalind Drummond, Les Walkling and Susan Freeday have deliberately employed camera shake, incorrect exposure and graininess to create ‘bad’ photography which by its nature speaks volumes about the photograph itself.

    With the abstraction of photographic content has come as elevation of the status of the photograph as physical object and the incorporation of photographic thinking into other media. A number of artists, including Jacky Redgate and Geoff Kleem, have moved into sculpture and installation practices. Their work at time includes actual photography, but is always informed by the application of photographic theory. At the same time, other artists extend the materiality of the photograph by revealing sprocket holes and negative frames, by tearing photographic paper, printing on oversized sheets and allowing prints to hang freely against the gallery wall. In her large scale photographs, such as The price is right series (1994), Fiona Hall merges photography and relief sculpture to reference the seductiveness of the glossy advertising brochure.

    If there is one image that, at least to some extent, could sum up the place in which Australian photography finds itself at the end of the 1990s it would Harry Nankin’s The Wave of 1996. An enormous shadowgram that has ‘taken itself’ with the direction of the artist, this work is simultaneously abstract and a visual documentation of something that has been. It records a moment of churning seas and darkness, creation and confusion, with the camera clinging to a raft that will carry it forward into an unknown future.

  • Nature’s Self Portrait: The Photographic Art of the Australian Harry Nankin

    Essay by Dr Jorge Calado published in Actual magazine (an Expresso magazine supplement), pp 50-52, Lisbon, Portugal, November 6, 2004

    Photography’s original sin is to be machine made. As few did, Baudelaire sensed the cross between the Arts and the correspondence of the senses and he was not shy to condemn the contamination of technology. He believed that most material (industrial) progress inevitably led to the lack of artistic genius. Photography could be used as a humble service to the Arts & Science – just as the press serves literature. Such faithful copy of nature that is created by photography does not allow the artist to dream and the dream is always superior to the vision.

    Only years later did we realize that photography suffered yet another limitation: the point of view. We photograph to see things, however the act of photographing, as any observation in an interference that modifies the object of interest. It is nearly always subjective; the objective truth could only be regained if the object in question would be shot by millions of photographers. There are curious examples of this method being applied onto icons such as the Pyramids of Egypt, the Eiffel Tower or the Flat Iron Building (the first skyscraper built in New York). What can be seen and photographed has always been determined by technology. Meanwhile in Europe, the great founders of photography pointed their cameras at still objects, well lit and generally close to home. In America and Australia the dissemination of photography coincides with the great technological revolutions (i.e., train tracks, telegraph pole, etc…) and the exploration and population of these continents. European nature was more intimate and domesticated, like a private garden. In America, as it slowly unfolded, it was graciously huge and sublime. As a result outdoor photography was born, from European parents, just like its immigrants.

    Nevertheless, it was common to refer the magnitude of Nature to the nearly irrelevant smallness of the human figure. Men and women, often the artists themselves were secondary actors of amazing nature portraits: mountain climbing, close to the edge of a cliff, under a waterfall or beside a giant old tree. The subject was nature but the method was anthropocentric. Still nature is in transit; it moves and exists in time and space. So does the observer. How is it possible to conciliate these two binomial terms in a flat surface? Braque and Picasso were the creators of cubism. Seventy to eighty years later Hockney applied it to photography. The history of paint shows yet another way – the representation of the point of view of the represented. The East did not know of the ‘renaissance’ linear perspective. Throughout the eighteenth century they were capable of developing yet another model of transition of space – time, a more fluid and flexible model, where the narration is done by the object itself.

    The most interesting applications of this model to photography were made by Harry Nankin (b.1953). His great quest is “how to evoke or communicate throughout photography the sacramental and biocentric relationship with nature?” To resolve this question, he modestly gave up the camera and made use of nature’s eye. He was celebrated in the early nineties as a nature photography (greatly impressive) on the same lines of Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter or the Australian Peter Dombrovskis (1945-96). However, contrary to his fellow photographers, Nankin was not interested in presenting nature as a desirable or adorable product (what some call green pornography). To photograph is to shoot (or to kill) or at least to steal. From an ethic point of view the photographer should dispense of the camera. So Baudelaire was right after all.

    There is a respectable tradition of pictures taken with no camera, from the pioneers of photogenic drawings (simple digital impressions of flat objects, drawn through the light in sensitive paper) to the photograms and ray graphs from the modern days such as Man Ray or Moholy-Nagy. The camera is a barrier between the operator and the thing to be pictured. The scale, complexity and mutability of the natural world are far beyond any men or women made machines. Nankin himself confessed, “I started by eliminating the lenses, then the film and finally the camera itself. I then started making straight images of nature in large sized photographic paper using only light in order to shorten the optic and emotional distance between the emulsion, the artist and the ecosystem”.

    The origins go back to 1993 when Nankin created ‘shadow grams’ out of Australian animal skeletons from a museum collection. So next came the confidence to be adventurous outdoors, making contact with the wild. The miracle then occurred: Nature turned into the camera and shot itself. The method was simple and traditional; exposure of the photographic paper, development and fixation. Nature used chemistry rather than electronic. The role of the photographer then is to simply provide the light. Baudelaire accused the photographers to be the new “sun lovers”. Nankin works at night, under moonlight, occasionally using a flashlight.

    His work was first seen in Portugal in 1998, at CCB [Belem Cultural Centre]. The exposition “Waterproof” was integrated in the “100 Day Festival” where he presented his ambitious installation “The Wave”. The central work was gigantic (6.3 x 4 metre) triptych of shadow grams of a wave at its real size. Through 1996’s summer to 1997’s winter Nankin and his crew attempted five times to capture the impression of the wave and all its contents: foam, seaweed, sand, various time worn pieces, transient trails of fish, the water turbulence and underwater light refractions. An enormous fishing net backed the paper, stretched and framed by an iron frame (called the wave’s raft) that was able to support the impact of the sea movement. At night they seamed the net with nylon thread and adorned it with diagrams, texts and limestone from the beach. Then the raft was taken to the water’s edge (these experiments were conducted at Bushrangers Bay, Victoria), waited for the wave to break and shot the flash in the right moment.

    Just as with science, not all experiments succeed as we expect. As Chemistry Noble Prize Sir Cyril Hishelwood once said, and experiment succeeds the moment it allows another experiment to take place. Nankin ended up with nearly two hundred paper fragments of various sizes, some of them cut over and over, in order to form aesthetically interesting units. The most recent exposition of this project, “Contact”, opened in May 2004 at the Mildura Arts Centre. An installation of shadow grams in translucid film (negative but also positive) in real size that were captured at night at Meringur Reserve, Mallee Bush. Here, instead of a horizontal raft, a system of scaffolds sustained the film. The result was what Nature sees when it looks at its own surroundings at nighttime. Trees and other type of vegetation, crawling and flying insects, dust, storm drops or a passing night animal. To emphasize, the artist attached inscriptions of texts by explorers who visited the same region in XIX and begging of the twentieth century.

    Prior to “Contact”, there was also “Cathexis”. It was developed by Nankin in 1994 and it is a combination of shadow grams of trees in giant photographic paper – with orthodox pictures (gelatine-silver proofs) of paintings and traits of aboriginal culture.

    Nankin also seems to carry in his art an umbilical connection to the big bang of creation, we become each on of us part of a whole. It is an art made up of, sometimes-ghostly memories as is the vegetation in “Contact” and other times so real as he adds documents and old pictures to the installations. Nankin’s Nature is primordial, based on the four elements. His next project, “Syzygy” (astronomic term that represents alignment of three or more celestial bodies) is centralized in the sky, above Lake Tyrrell, Victoria.

    To some, these ‘mammothean’ shadow grams only show how Mother Nature is a dedicated practicing of the abstract impressionism. This accusation is nothing but an anthropocentric reaction. Nankin is an artist with a singular vision but he is also a responsible citizen, reverential to the nature he doe not wish to intrude. What he shoots is not his vision of the world but Nature’s incognito vision. As Einstein once said, “the most beautiful experience we might have is mystery: it is the fundamental emotion which is in the routes of true Art and Science. He who has not experienced it does not know of wonder (enjoyment), it is as if he was dead, with his eyes shut”. Nankin is able to make Science happen through photography.

    Kindly translated from Portuguese by Maurice & Fiona Baxter