Monday, August 29, 2011

The Divinity Is In The Detail

To paraphrase legendary U.S. showbiz newspaper, VARIETY, the Ballarat International Photo Biennale's program is "Boffo", according to BIFFO, as the Biennale
 appears to want to be called. The core program appears to have something for everyone - from the melancholy, richly ochred, erotic images of Czech masters Jan and Sarah Saudek to an influential British photographer from the 1960's Brian Duffy (1933-2010) who I thought had been forgotten. During my five years in London in the early 1970's, I quickly discovered Duffy was a key figure in British editorial photography but all too often pigeonholed as solely a fashion photographer. This display at BIFFO reveals Duffy as a man who seemed to effortlessly inform his fashion photography with the visual grammar of photojournalism but could also turn either to documentary observation (witness his resonant B&W picture of one of the notorious Kray twins) or startling, stylised portraiture - as this image (pictured, above) of David Bowie shows. Australia is also well served by the talented images present by John Gollings, Frances Mocnik, Heather Dinas (pictured, right) and Jack Picone (pictured, left, an observation from Picone's Nuba essay). There was also work by a photographer whose pictures arrested me for their perfect expression of perhaps the most difficult form of adventurism of all - mountaineering. Alfred Gregory's timeless image of a distant line of climbers bypassing a vast crevasse (pictured, above right) is surely one of most definitive images drawn from this challenging vocation. Frances Mocnik also challenges viewers in a different way with her visual essay exploring death and rituals associated with dying in her remarkable suite of B&W images "The Night That Follows Day". And this is only the core program at BIFFO. Another 70 photographers are showing their work in this Biennale. Clearly, a journey to Ballarat will prove rewarding and should not  be missed. Until September 18
William Yang: A Perfect Witness for Pina Bausch
During the 1982 Adelaide Festival of Arts  William Yang documented two performances by the dance company of the late Pina Bausch (1940-2009) , capturing the elusive and enigmatic camera-shy choreographer's "Kontakthof" and "1980". (pictured, above and right) Yang's extensive experience in documentary and theatre photography enabled him to capture intimate and inspiring moments between Bausch and the performers as she directed two of her greatest works. Yang commented "In an interview she was asked how she chose her dancers, and her reply, as I remember was – if I could somehow love them. Her work had a huge impact on me. It was the first time I fully engaged with a dance work, albeit dance theatre, on a level of feeling, emotion and intellect.” Yang has also created an unsurpassed archive of photographs documenting Sydney social life with a strong emphasis on Sydney's artistic and gay community - as well as the Chinese presence in Australia. In the last two decades he has also made photography as a performance on stage his own, with his best known work "Sadness" (1992) being made into a film by Tony Ayres in 1999. The Sydney Opera House are exhibiting Yang's photographs in the Western Foyer during its astonishingly diverse Spring Dance 2011 Season. William Yang will give a talk on September 3 following Pina Bausch: A Celebration.
Philip Quirk Sees The Big Picture
By photographing the opposing northern and southern facades of Oxford Street, Paddington, Philip Quirk is addressing that broadest common denominator of civic life - the street. One only has to look at the remains of life in Pompeii or the avenues of great lost cities recently documented by famed war photographer Don McCullin in his book "Southern Frontiers", to realise the street - either now or two thousand years ago - defines our daily existence. 
"Oxford Street, Crossing William St, Paddington" by Philip Quirk

''People use the street for their specific needs," Quirk told the Sydney Morning Herald's Linda Morris recently, "whether (it is) for business, pleasure, shopping or traversing the suburbs.They become familiar with the street and presume it will remain the same but change is inevitable and ongoing. The more we use our streets, the less we see them as they are.'' In "Oxford Street Profile", the accomplished Sydney photojournalist presents
the popular Sydney avenue in amazing detail. (eschewing digital, Quirk recorded his scenes using a 5"x4" sheet film-fuelled view camera) "I was amazed by how much information a 5"x4" negative contained" says Quirk. This photographer also avoided the current trend (whether using scanned film images or digitally shot files) of using software to neatly stitch together his progressively taken street scenes (pictured, above) The results have an unlikely spontaneity and are printed as a sequential strip of images which are available as a single, concertina-folded book. In creating this project, Quirk acknowledges inspiration from Ed Ruscha's 1966 documentation of every building on Sunset Strip, West Hollywood, California Quirk's take on Oxford Street is now on view, appropriately, at the Barometer Gallery,13 Gurner Street, Paddington and can also be seen online at This exhibition has been produced in conjunction with the Josef Lebovic Gallery Until September 5. 
Photographic Books Are Changing
In producing his recent book, "PORTRAITS FROM THE EDGE - PUTTING A FACE TO CLIMATE CHANGE", photographer Jon Lewis continues his long committment to photographing some of the crucial social and environmental issues of our time. (Lewis was involved with the early years of Greenpeace in their campaign against whaling, for example) The new book is interesting for a number of reasons - it shows that Lewis has extended his documentary vision to exploring more fluid, spontaneous observations as well as producing his characteristic, confronting portraiture in which  subjects address the lens very directly. This approach works well with the citizens of Kiribati, one of the first Pacific island communities to be affected negatively by global warming. In this book, with beautiful reproduction and production by Momento (details from two double page spreads, pictured) Lewis presents Kiribati's citizens unvarnished and unstereotyped - working, playing and leaving the viewer with a sense of the unique rhythm and nature of islander life. This book is also an example of the new publishing and printing techniques being currently pioneered by organisations such as Momento and Blurb where the cost and practicality of publishing a book are managed by digital publishing - i.e., cutting your cloth by simply producing one, a hundred or a thousand books - whatever the budget allows. Lewis's book was one of several prize-winning books acknowledged during the recent Head On Festival. Details of the winners can be found at
The Sue Ford Archive is Online
I recently received a note from Ben Ford, the son of Sue Ford (1943-2009) to let me know that her photographic archive was now online at The Melbourne woman (pictured, right) was a force in Australian photography for several decades and her untimely death robbed our photographic community of a passionate artist who possessed a vivid, poetic vision. Ford's elapsed portraits, showing the changes in a subject's face after as little as a decade, form an important element within the history of Australian fine-art photography. For those wishing to explore her remarkable life's work, including her film-making and photo-media, this evolving website is most welcome.
The Occasional, Irresistable Photograph
David Flanagan is one of the quiet achievers of Australian photography - dedicated to landscape photography during the era in which Richard Woldendorp has set the standard for all. However Flanagan follows his own vision, establishing a way of seeing that I first encountered and reviewed at Marrickville's Addison Road Community Art Gallery in Sydney. Like Woldendorp, Flanagan is sensitive to the anthropomorphic, sculptural forms within the Australian landscape (pictured, right) but the vision he explores is expressed in subtle black and white, whereas Woldendorp's vision seems mostly committed to colour. Flanagan's elegant way of seeing also seems fraternal with pioneer U.S. aerial master photographer William Garnett (1916-2006) whose B&W photographs revealed the sensual forms that can emerge from the planet's surface when seen at altitude.
Cindy Sherman Tops The Bill.
A 1981 Colour Copier Print by Cindy Sherman, "Untitled 96" (pictured, above) has established the highest price - $USD 3,890,500 - ever paid for a photograph at auction, eclipsing Andreas Gursky's "99 Cents II, 2001" which sold for $USD 3,346,456 at Sotheby's in London in 2007. Sherman's photograph was sold at Christies to prominent New York art dealer Phillipe Segalot. The picture's former owners had bought the Sherman print as one of an edition of ten in 1981, when the American artist's career was in its infancy. As an artist, Sherman plays an intriguing game with her audience - presenting herself as the central archetype in tableaux meant to illuminate and parody the transience of fame - the kind of notoriety so efficiently purveyed by American media, especially Hollywood. But look carefully at a Sherman image and the joke she is playing with the viewer can be seen, shimmering just beneath the surface. I confess to first being underwhelmed and singularly unimpressed by this artist's imagery until I saw a relatively unkown work of hers at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art at Circular Quay. Instead of drawing from her more familiar faux Hollywood film stills imagery, Sherman presented herself as no less the mother of the Messiah, seen firmly balancing her infant in her arms - the chosen one. This photograph heavily referenced religious art but her meaning seemed clear: there was, in this essentially unremarkable looking woman, always the possibility of divinity - and in this image Sherman firmly pricked fame's bubble.
Helpless In The Presence of Beauty
Wal Richards led a blameless,  simple life in historic Maryborough in Victoria. Physically and mentally disabled from birth, he was remembered by residents fondly as a lonely character who always dressed neatly and could often be seen standing beside his bike at a place in the town known as Moore's Corner. Richards was also a perennial presence at local weddings."He was part of the town. Wal used to deliver messages ... simple things ... (because) he couldn't read or write. He was a man of very few words but who (still) understood money." remembers Betty Osborn, the secretary of the town's historical society."He used to visit old Mrs Chadwick and get the names of who were getting married. She would (also) tell Wal how to get to the churches and he often cycled over thirty kilometers to Avoca and places like that. There wasn't a wedding around Maryborough unless Wal was there." But the secretary of the Maryborough Historical Society also recalled the surprise, when Richards died in 1996, of discovering thousands of wedding photos, spanning five decades, as no one in Maryborough (ever) thought he had film in his camera. "Everyone put up with Wal ... he was at one of my daughter's weddings and I remember him shaking quite a lot ... when I knew him in the 70's, 80's and 90's Wal shook so badly we just did not think he (could have had) a film in his camera. But when his photos were discovered, after he died, in packing cases in a shed in his backyard, we were amazed. Everyone had seen Wal at the weddings, and (we found) most of his photos were quite interesting, because people didn't realise they were being photographed. So they were more natural." No one, not even his relatives, knew why Richards photographed so many weddings. "I think he just loved the occasion," suggested Osborn, "perhaps the girl all dressed for the event mesmerized him. But he never spoke to anyone. And after a while the wedding photographers that were there realised Wal had to have his turn, too, and they were very good (about it). But no one took him really seriously." Osborn added that only yesterday a woman visited the Historial Society who had been married in Maryborough in 1963. Knowing Wal had been at the wedding, she asked, 'do you have a photo?' "I told her we had over 20,000 pictures," said the secretary, "and only some had been identified. I handed her one album and believe it or not, she found her wedding photo. And it's the only photo she has of her wedding! The beauty of Wal Richards' shots was that he just caught it ... " Wal Richards was 67 when he died in 1996.
The photographs of Wal Richards (pictured, left, in Betty's Osborn's photograph) are perhaps the perfect expression of an obsessive, intuitive, photographer who possessed little technical skill, but was still able to divine a woman's beauty on that most symbolic of days. There is also an almost autistic feeling of "otherness"within these pictures - that Richards is compulsively observing a world he senses he may never enter, but whose emotional importance he feels he must acknowledge with his camera.
The Poetry Found Within Decay.
Sally McInerney's recent exhibition in Sydney, at Chippendale's Pine Street Gallery presented perhaps her most coherent, resonant series of observations of nature and industrial detritus. McInerney's images carry the notion that photographs can vividly convey a sense of industrial archeology. This accomplished photographer and writer's poetic eye homes in on the beauty that slowly emerges from everyday objects in terminal decay - from a discarded car steadily oxidising into a relic of primitive automotive technology in "AWY 087" (pictured, above) to the peeling walls and unread books she observes in "Local Scene, Koorawatha 2011", taken in the farmhouse (pictured, left) in which her late mother, eminent Australian photographer Olive Cotton (1911-2003) once lived with her husband, pioneering Environmentalist. Ross McInerney. This artist has a similarly unvarnished eye when she comes to looking at the Australian landscape - showing, in "The Quarry" cause and effect as seen in Nature, where a substantial boulder rests in an unlikely position on the side of a hill.(pictured, right) McInerney's picture suggests that it was not always quiet and pastoral in this place and that great forces had repositioned this stone, ages ago. Regrettably I only saw this exhibition in high resolution online (it concluded at Pine Street Gallery on August 22) but McInerney is represented by the Josef Lebovic Gallery - where these memorable images may now be accessed in archival print form.
Finalists announced for $25,000 MGA Bowness Prize
Australian photographers are blessed with a remarkable variety of  rewarding photography prizes - from the currently most lucrative $100,000 Moran Contemporary Photographic Prize to Head On Portrait Prize and of course the William and Winifred Bowness Prize, whose finalists are currently on view at Flickr and that consistent venue for fine photography - the Monash Gallery of Art Until October 16.  (pictured, above Natalie Grono's memorable evocation of childhood. From her series "Sea dreaming 2010") The William and Winifred Bowness Prize is an initiative of the MGA Foundation. (Errata: our apologies for a previous edition of this blog in which we inadvertently published Canberra photographer Lee Grant's  winning entry in the 2010 William and Winifred Bowness Prize)
Text Copyright 2011 Robert McFarlane

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