Sunday, August 16, 2009

New Visions

"Phantasia" at the Samstag Museum of Art, Adelaide

Recent exhibitions in both Sydney and Adelaide suggest there is an accelerating change occurring in Australian photography - away from familiar forms of narrative, observed imagery to new ways of creating staged, magical reality before the camera. This is not necessarily new for Australia. It is only two decades since Tracey Moffatt kicked the door open for manipulated, staged photographic tableaux with images like her startling, now iconic 1989 colour photograph, “Something More #1”. This picture may be seen, together with much of Moffatt’s body of work, at
But something is definitely moving. The remarkable new Samstag Museum of Art in Adelaide recently played host to “Phantasia”, a touring exhibition from the Australian Centre of Photography where it was first seen in 2008. Looking at this exhibition for the second time in the large, concrete vault-like Samstag galleries, reminded me of the importance of the works of Simon Strong, Alexia Sinclair , Magdalena Bors , Andrew Mamo and Mark Kimber After a season in Adelaide at the Samstag, Phantasia is appropriately touring next, later in 2009, to the City of Light - Paris
There is genuine visual mystery in the works of each of these artists, with Kimber revealing his yearning, technicolor vision of prehistory, Sinclair animating famous regal women of history and Strong creating something altogether different - sombre, almost film-noir visual dramas that seem, to paraphrase Sam Spade in John Huston’s 1941 film “The Maltese Falcon” - fashioned from ‘the stuff that dreams are made of.’ I mentioned to Simon Strong that I felt there were fraternal references in his work to U.S. photographer Gregory Crewdson. Strong agreed and generously acknowledged the American’s influence.
“I love his work, but I am concerned with different things. But what I really like is that he pushes it to the edge. It’s so stylised - like Old Hollywood. He showed what you can do ... that this kind of work was possible. It (Crewdson’s work) is so considered, so perfectly lit and composed. And I could see that someone else was delving into the darkness of the imagination.”
Strong, however, more than holds his own with Crewdson in originality with enigmatic masterpieces like the Melbourne photo artist’s moody “Even if you leave, I’ll always be with you ...” made in 2007. This rather complex link supplied by Alexia Sinclair will take you to her website and an ABC ARTS television program on the Phantasia exhibition, conducted by Peter Lindon.

In Sydney I visited Tamara Dean’s exhibition at the Charles Hewitt Gallery and saw change of a different order. As one of our most gifted, evocative photojournalists, Dean has consistently observed youth culture, especially women, with great subtlety. Her pictures at the Hewitt Gallery however, were seismic in change to her better known, observational pictures - especially as seen regularly in the Sydney Morning Herald. This gifted artist has taken us to where the literal image cannot be trusted.
The central colour photograph in this exhibition - The Bride - exuded the same, irresistible attraction I felt when I was first seduced by Tracey Moffatt’s “Something More”. Both are visual microdramas pulsing with emotion. In Dean’s large colour image, a tattooed, nude bride is dragged, perhaps reluctantly, through high grass towards an unseen, but clearly imminent ceremony.
“I had the skeleton of this picture ... before I started. When I ‘imagined’ the image, I had Carol Jerrems’ “Vale Street” in mind for its intensity. My picture represents contemporary youth now,” says Dean, “but I didn’t set out to challenge notions of beauty or power. A certain amount I leave to chance ... the subconscious takes control.”
This is an unforgettable, uncompromising image which asks many more questions than it answers, while still managing to convey an urgent, kinetic mystery. When I first saw this image I knew this photograph would become famous. And it will.

PETER SOLNESS - Illuminated Landscapes

There were other pleasant shocks to be felt in exhibitions in Sydney. Another of Australia’s accomplished photojournalists, Peter Solness, showed a selection of his illuminated, nocturnal landscapes at the Storm Gallery in Surry Hills. These were also imaginative and radical in their execution. Instead of relying on natural light falling on the landscape, Solness chooses to physically (and selectively) light every centimeter of his subject’s foreground with a small torch during long, nocturnal exposures. For a technique so rooted in artifice, his stylised naturalism was easy to accept. Each chosen landscape (Solness only works at night when there is moonlight to see with) pulsed with subtle, non-directional light emanating from within the scene. The result is eerie - but also comforting. Though using a high end Nikon digital SLR, Solness drew a surprising analogy with making silver prints in (wet) darkrooms. “It is only after leaving the shutter open for minutes while you paint the landscape (with light) that you can get to see what the camera has recorded ... rather like waiting for the image to come up in the developing tray.

Solness’s pictures invite the viewer to share kinship with the sometimes threatening nocturnal atmosphere of the Australian bush, finding a unique balance in portraying the densely detailed world occupied by Australia’s flora and fauna.

RICKY MAYNARD - Portrait of a Distant Land
At the cavernous Museum of Contemporary Art at Sydney’s circular Quay, indigenous photographer Ricky Maynard is showing “Portrait of a Distant Land” thoughtfully curated by the MCA’s Keith Munro. I caught up with Maynard and Sandy Edwards during a panel discussion chaired by Munro. Within the inclusive space of the MCA it proved a funny, candid, serendipitous dialogue with spirited questions from a large, knowledgeable and

Indigenous Ph
otographer Ricky Maynard with his large format Wik Elder portraits at Sydney's MCA
enthusiastic audience. Maynard, Edwards and myself each shared the experience of having worked on the massive 1988 documentary project, After 200 Years. Brilliantly organised by Penny Taylor of IATSIS, this project became an enduring, well designed book that documented life in indigenous communities, urban and remote, in Australia's now distant Bicentennial Year. Twenty years on “After 200 Years” remains Australia’s largest, orchestrated photojournalistic project. It was also the practice of After 200 Years for the community to experience the pictures each photographer produced. Maynard’s portraits from two decades ago of his Tasmanian Mutton Bird Community (as seen in After 200 Years) form an important component of Munro’s curatorial arc at the MCA, as did the Tasmanian photographer’s unsentimental, bleak, portraits of dispirited indigenous men and women marooned in prison. For admirers of documentary photography there was much to absorb, including extended captions explaining cultural context. However, there was another bonus to this show to be found upstairs at the MCA where Curator Munro had gathered together seminal works by photographers Maynard had named as his important influences. As I stated in my Sydney Morning Herald review, it was like entering a room full of old friends - from luminous, planetary landscapes by Ansel Adams (Moonrise, Hernandez New Mexico was there) to Lewis Hine’s tragic early 19th Century child workers and W. Eugene Smith’s afflicted mercury poisoning victim Tomoko in Minamata. An unexpected, thought provoking reward after viewing Maynard’s carefully fashioned portrait of our Southernmost state.

LUKE HARDY - Yuki Onna
While in Sydney I also attended the opening of Luke Hardy’s exhibition at the new Meyer
Gallery in Darlinghurst This new body of work by Hardy was inspired by a traditional Japanese ghost story - the legend of the snow witch, Yuki Onna. (Woman of the Snow). Gallery Director Mary Meyer has clearly created an important new space for lovers of photography to visit. Opened by the eminent fashion designer Akira Isogawa, Hardy’s suite of pictures took yet another step away from photography’s literal strengths. By giving life to a Japanese myth with a series of delicate colour images, Hardy skated effortlessly on thin artistic ice - exploring what might seem alien mythology - but ultimately leaving the packed opening with an understanding of the beauty to be found within such stories. In a brief conversation with Isogawa I mentioned casually how curious it was that both America and Japan had been redefined artistically on occasion by outsiders - the U.S. by Swiss-born Robert Frank on his Guggenheim Fellowship in 1958 which led to the remarkable book, The Americans (Aperture 1978) and Japan in 1978 by Australian photographer Bob Davis in a book little known in Australia - Faces of Japan (Kodansha 1978) The quiet, elegant Japanese listened politely to this idea and made a note of the book’s title and its Japanese publisher. During the opening it was also hard not to notice how vibrant and knowledgeable the community of photographers and admirers of fine art photography had become, with the Meyer Gallery being densely packed for the opening.

While I was in Sydney I was contacted by an accomplished young advertising photographer who was the source of a seemingly manipulated series of landscapes - using the female nude as their focus. In his “Fallen” series Toby Burrows featured suspended, agile female nude figures tumbling into an Antipodean landscape. When I first looked at Burrow’s immaculately rendered images at Sun Studios I thought I detected the hand of Photoshop, so seamlessly did each woman’s form dissolve into the landscape. Not so, revealed Burrows. Computer manipulation played no role in these disturbing, dreamlike images declared the young photographer. As to visual secrets, Burrow was guarded.
"It was actually a very organic process. It was the landscape that first drew me. I found the form of the landscape uplifting ... and very natural . I found a strength in that imagery . But was it was always about shape - (and) to see how a woman’s form felt like (within the picture). It was (also) about learning ... it was uplifting and all done physically. The woman was taken to her place in every scene, and never moved around. It was important to make clear (at the exhibition) that all those figures were (photographed) where we trekked (to) through the forest with our equipment. They were never shifted around ... it was quite confronting ... a real learning process of working with the girls ... and growing as an artist... allowing it to happen.” In an aside Burrows added, “I went to Sydney College of the Arts the other day and a girl walked past who was saying, ‘ I wish I cared about something enough to make a theme about it in my art.’ That’s what I am (now) exploring ... and enjoying it.”


Sydney Photo Artist Tony Peri won the Kirribilli Art Prize in June with a bromoil print of a dog sitting outside the 'Kirribilli Wildlife' hairdressers shop.
Peri also won the photography section of the North Sydney Art Prize with a large (16x20 inch) bromoil called "Page To Stage", featuring noted actress/director Elaine Hudson in script rehearsals for a forthcoming Ensemble Theatre production. Peri clearly feels the 19th century printing process still has a role to play.
“My aim is to use Pictorial style printing methods using (the) modernist/1950s reportage techniques of contemporary 21st Australia. So by branching across photography's history I hope to make my own style and record history in a unique way.” Peri is also experimenting with making bromoils out of colour prints and negatives, and eventually from digital negatives. “I have been getting quite a few requests and commissions for work from people who want their own personal photographs 'bromoiled', but don't have the time or inclination to do it!” says Peri.
For the forthcoming “The Print Exposed” exhibition featuring alternative print processes, Peri’s prints will utilise a particularly rare process.
“I will be showing two Bromoil Transfers, another technique used at the turn of the 19th century ... It allows one to print on beautiful hand made papers (such as) the French made Arches and also Stonehenge papers.”
Information about “The Print Exposed” can be found at
STEVEN CAVANAGH - Masculine Bodies In Space
Sydney photographer Steven Cavanagh showed an interesting series of well observed colour images in one of the National Art School’s curved sandstone galleries scattered though the grounds of what was once a feared jail in 19th century Sydney. Cavanagh’s restrained, concise compositions, entitled “Masculine Bodies In Space”, concentrated on the unconscious body language of men in public, observed with an accurate and an unsentimental eye, creating images with enduring archival value.

While in Sydney it was my pleasure to award the Critic's Choice Award for the HeadOn portrait competition to well known Sydney editorial and advertising photographer Gary Heery for his elegant black and white observation of celebrated Australian actor Cate Blanchett. HeadOn again provided a barometer for contemporary Australian photographic portraiture, with occasionally a quite elastic definition emerging of what constituted a memorable likeness. Heery's portrait of Cate Blanchett was universally popular for capturing the actress during a moment of grace.

GREG WEIGHT - photographs on clay tablets
Portrait and fine art photographer Greg Weight, - one of the founding forces of the legendary Yellow House art community, is proving the Woody Allen homily correct - life is about (keeping) turning up. After creating his series of altered desert landscapes shown at the Australian Galleries Works On Paper gallery, Weight has recently exhibited colour inkjet images printed on thin clay tablets. “In a nutshell Lino Alvarez from La Paloma Pottery, Hill End collaborated with Garry Shead, Euan McCloud, Elizabeth Cummings, Adam Rish, John Firth Smith and myself to produce works for Australian Galleries Ceramic Triennale exhibition which opened at Mary Place Gallery, Sydney on the 15th July. All my works were 400mm x 500mm x 15mm clay tablets printed on a flatbed UV cured digital printer. It was trial and error for me but (eventually) the best results came from using as flat as possible (clay) tablets. It was appropriate to use these claypan images on clay tablets for obvious reasons. The ink from the printer was sucked up by the clay to such an extent we increased the intensity of ink ... to up to 80% at times. I discovered that a well prepared surface, sanded and smoothed, then coated with a few coats of matt polyurethane worked best (creating) colour saturation ... intense and deep. People loved looking at the edges as well as the surface and would tap them with their knuckles. They’re durable and appear to have become (art) objects as well as photographs.”

RECEIVED MOMENTS - Manly Art Gallery & Museum
Finally, I am deep in preparation with Curator Sarah Johnson for my touring retrospective exhibition which will open at the Manly Art Gallery on December 3. As this display will include both recent and vintage prints, I would like to hear from anyone with vintage prints who may wish to loan them for this exhibition which at this stage will be touring to eight regional art galleries (including Orange and Broken Hill)


New South Wales photographer Richard O’Farrell has won the $10,000 Olive Cotton Award for Photographic Portraiture with his haunting 2008 portrait of “Savitri” a blind albino Indian girl, made during a recent, extended journey to India. “I am both elated and humbled,” O’Farrell said when he learned of the award. “This will be good for Savitri and the Headmaster who got her ready to be photographed. To be recognised by this award gives me further confidence for continuing my silver-gelatin portraiture.” Originally exhibited in Sydney at Point Light Gallery in Surry Hills, O'Farrell's portrait is the kind of image that, once seen, is not easily forgotten.

Copyright Robert McFarlane 2009

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