Of moths, mystery and meaning

Life, but not quite as we know it

Mirrors and Windows

A Hermeneutic Interpretation of Place

Visions of grandeur

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

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.