Populate or Perish
Published in Hijacked 3 (Kehrer Verlag)
Edited by Louise Clements, Mark McPherson and Leigh Robb
The trafficking of photography between the United Kingdom and Australia is believed to have begun as early as 1839. Reports of the photogenic experiments of William Henry Fox Talbot and Dr Andrew Fyfe appeared in the news chronicles in the colonies while some of the more privileged new-arrivals brought first-hand accounts of witnessing displays of the “remarkable new achievement”.[i] Two years later, on May 13 1841, the first photograph created on Australian soil was made by a man called Captain Lucas. Now, however, all that remains of Lucas’s daguerreotype are accounts of its production, descriptions of the view it apparently depicted and an uncertainty as to whether the photograph was actually created by an Englishman.[ii]
The fact that all that remains of the earliest Australian photograph is an incomplete account of its creation and a question mark over the origins of its maker greatly captured my imagination as I considered the work of the photographers selected for Hijacked3 – Australia & UK. Much like the story of Lucas and his photograph, both the photographic medium and national identity have always been unstable, shaped by representation and perpetually engaged in a process of reinvention.[iii] While the photographers presented in this publication have ostensibly been selected as representative of either Australia or the United Kingdom, some of them may define their nationality as being free casino slot games with bonus rounds from elsewhere. However, all photographers are unavoidably subject to the socio-cultural contexts of where they live, where they come from, the places they undertake their practice and the forums in which they choose to present their photographs; even if we are only able to find traces of the ‘real world’ in what they show us.
In looking at much of the work by these artists it seemed to me that some of the kinds of questions that might be asked of Australia’s first photographer and his photograph could be applied: what methodologies or strategies have these artists employed? How might their images be interpreted to bring an understanding of the subjects depicted? What can the technological, aesthetic and conceptual qualities of their work tell us about the state of photography at this time? I also wondered: what threads might bind together a community of photographers working in two places so remotely situated as Australia and the United Kingdom?
The Australian photographer and writer Robert McFarlane reinterpreted Henri Cartier-Bresson’s notion of the ‘decisive moment’ by describing photographs of the otherwise unnoticed situations of daily life as being received by the photographer. For McFarlane the “received moment” emphasises the essentially subjective nature inherent in the act of photography as a process that is predetermined by both the photographer’s physical and emotional proximity to their subject.[iv] This proximity may be seen as a space in which the photographer constitutes what it is they have to say about the world, despite the apparently instinctual nature of the reflex that guides the engagement of their shutter release.
Jesse Marlow is a street photographer who documents situations he encounters in his home city of Melbourne. The highly-saturated colour compositions in his series Don’t Just Tell Them, Show Them are graphic yet often they are indistinct, requiring the viewer to spend time deciphering the scene. There is a performative quality to Marlow’s photographs, as he depicts people mid-flow in absurd poses or objects found in peculiar still life arrangements, appearing as if they have been staged for the camera. The effect of which invites the viewer to marvel at the unusual in the overlooked.
In Cardiff After Dark, the UK-based Polish photographer Maciej Dakowicz also presents extraordinary scenes from the street. The situations Dakowicz photographs are populated by the social interactions of people seeking temporary psychic relief at the end of the working week. The uninhibited parade of bacchanalian compulsion, emotion, sexuality and loss of body control depicted in Dakowicz’s photographs may be seen as an inquiry into the codification of socially acceptable behaviour in public space.
The received moments of both Dakowicz and Marlow are born out of a keen eye, a quick finger and a point of view on the ebb and flow of the street life they encounter. The wry humour imbued in Marlow’s images is elicited in the exactness of the moments he chooses to photograph, while the tragicomic quality of Dakowicz’s work is perhaps more contingent on the display of behaviour at odds with what is considered appropriate in the sober light of day. Both of these projects evoke themes of isolation, abandonment and a sense of strangeness in the banality of the everyday.
Michael Ziebarth also photographs aspects of the everyday that appear strange or unsettling. In Waiting he depicts plants that have been clipped into unusual inorganic shapes and other exotic specimens that seem at odds with the built environment they’re set against in the suburbs of Australian cities. Ziebarth’s photographs call to mind the critique of the aesthetics of Australian architecture and suburban planning by Robin Boyd in The Australian Ugliness. Boyd described the propensity to eradicate all native Australian vegetation from suburban plots and replace them with more manicurable or European varieties as a symptom of the “arboraphobia” of the enduring Australian pioneering mindset.[v]
A number of artists have used photographs made by other people, found imagery or archival photographs. Allan Sekula has described the photographic archive as a “clearing house of meaning” where the semiotics of the image are poised to be liberated by new contexts determined by the archive-user.[vi] The recent practice of the UK-based South African photographers Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanaran has focused on unpicking aspects of the ontology of the archive as a repository that facilitates the reappropriation of representation. In order to create People in Trouble Laughing Pushed to the Ground Broomberg and Chanarin made a selection from the archive of Belfast Exposed Photography; a collection of photographs established in 1983 by professional and amateur photographers to chronicle the socio-political conditions of living in Northern Ireland through the Troubles. However, the artists eschewed the particularities of the events, people and places represented and the specificities of the creation of the original photographs. Instead, they focused on interpreting the evidence of the trace of activity left behind by previous archive-users, drawing attention to the portions of images obscured by coloured dots. In this sense the work may be seen as a conceptual comment on the protean, partial and subjective nature of archives by inviting the viewer to respond to the formal and aesthetic dimensions of aspects of the photographs, free from the anchorage of their original production.
The appropriation of other people’s photographs is a strategy also employed by the British artist Natasha Caruana in her Fairytales For Sale. Caruana posed as a bride-to-be and orchestrated a dialogue with people selling second-hand wedding dresses in order to obtain print-resolution versions of the images used to advertise the garments. The photographs feature various reworkings to mask out the faces of the individuals depicted, the effect of which draws attention to the tropes of the ideal wedding photograph; sunsets, beachfronts, municipal parks, bouquets and intimate body language, all artfully arranged for the perspective of the camera. Fairytales For Sale may be interpreted as a study of the codification of one of the most defining images of the family album.
The sustained investigation of a particular event, phenomenon or group of people through the form of a collection of serialised photographs is a strategy employed by some of the artists seen here. The British photographer Sarah Pickering has an interest in the simulated and constructed environments of disaster preparation, law enforcement, military and emergency services training. Made in response to the British entry into war with Iraq, the photographs in Explosions were created at a sales exhibition held by an explosive manufacturer for police and military departments. Pickering’s images have the visual appeal of a celebratory firework display set against a Turner-esque landscape. However, the seductive beauty of these images is belied by the sinister undertone of the intended purpose of the subject depicted, inviting the viewer to consider the ethics of the industry of warfare.
‘Yimpininni’ is a word used by the Indigenous Australians of Tiwi Island to describe male to female transgender individuals who were traditionally held in high regard as the nurturers of the community. The religious missionary work that came in-hand with colonialism brought disruption of the traditional place of the yimpininni, leading to homophobia and marginalisation. Sistagirls is a series of portraits of modern-day yimpininni or ‘sistagirls’ by the Wathaurung artist Bindi Cole. There is a theatricality to these portraits as the sistagirls pose for Cole’s camera and controlled lighting, dressed in glamorous clothing, make up and tribal body painting. Many of the sistagirls are also depicted with props including parasols, fabrics and traditional Tiwi sculptures. There is a sense of contemplation articulated in Sistagirls that may be seen as an expression of defiance against the residual effects of colonialism and a pride in their contemporary Aboriginal transgender identity.
The self-portrait is most often used as an exploration, assertion or deconstruction of the subjectivity of an identity, physiology or psychology of an individual. Many artists interpret this ‘self’ through the presentation of staged or performative imagery created in relation to a range of issues shaped by the social, domestic, cultural or political spheres. Trish Morrissey is an Irish artist based in the UK who often employs a performative mode of self-portraiture in order to disrupt received notions of how we look at the family. In order to create her recent body of work Front,Morrissey travelled to beaches in the UK and near Melbourne, Australia, to invite family groups to collaborate with her to make portraits. Morrissey asked a female in the group to swap places with her so that the artist could temporarily become ‘part of the family’ while they would become the ‘photographer’, operating Morrissey’s equipment under instruction. As a form of self-portraiture Front may be perceived as a conceptual reconfiguration of the photographic transaction in order to draw attention to the notion of boundaries, both psychological and physical, that demarcate both the family and the act of photography.
A performative mode of self-portraiture is also evident in the work of the Australian artist Christian Thompson who has a cultural background rooted in both the Bidjara people of central south-western Queensland and colonial British descent. Much of Thompson’s practice is invested in reckoning with issues of race, identity and history. In King Billy the artist appears with his face obscured by strings of pearls, dressed in clothing that appears to be adorned with Aboriginal motifs. The pearls deny the viewer access to the artist’s gaze, inviting reflection on the incongruity of the concealment of an Indigenous Australian viewpoint in the writing of history and the selective appropriation of Aboriginal culture in the production of Australian national identity.
In the 170 or so years since the creation of Australia’s first photograph, the photographic medium has continually reinvented itself with a veracity that has seemingly over-populated the world with images. The possibilities for the exchange of technological, conceptual and aesthetic advancements of the medium in 2012 are undoubtedly more infinite and expeditious than Captain Lucas could have ever imagined when he brought his camera equipment to Sydney in 1841.
Both Australia and the United Kingdom have their own distinctive local characteristics and histories, and as such photographic practices across the industries of art, science and commerce have been implicated in fabricating the mythologies of nationhood particular to each place. In this sense, perhaps the most significant difference between the two countries is the fact that photography in Australia has been inescapably shaped by the country’s colonial invasion / inception.[vii] However, as much as the work of the artists presented in Hijacked3 – Australia & UK can tell us something about the socio-cultural landscapes of the people, places and ideas it represents, it also communicates information about the range and diversity of the conception of the photographic medium now. To riff on Benedict Anderson’s notion of the mutable threads that bind national identity as a manifestation of an “imagined community”[viii]: the photographers presented in Hijacked 3are not only representative of the countries they’re ascribed to but can be thought of as emissaries of the state of photography, united by the various conceptual, aesthetic and technological strategies that they use to tease out their own particular preoccupations with the world.
[i] See Robert Holden’s discussion of the work of the early Australian writer and illustrator Louisa Anne Smith in Photography In Colonial Australia: The Mechanical Eye and the Illustrated Book. Sydney: Horden House, 1988:pp.16–18.
[ii] R. Derek Wood. “The Voyage of Captain Lucas and the Daguerreotype to Sydney” in NZ Journal of Photography 16 (1994), pp. 3–7. See also Alan Davies and Peter Stanbury’s The Mechanical Eye in Australia: Photography 1841 – 1900. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1985; Gael Newton’s Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839 – 1988. Sydney: Australian National Gallery 1988; and Helen Ennis’s Photography and Australia. London: Reaktion Books, 2007.
[iii]As Stuart Hall has noted: “national identities are not something we are born with, but are formed and transformed within and in relation to representation.” See his “The Question of Cultural Identity” in Stuart Hall, David Held and Tony McGrew, eds, Modernity and its Futures. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992, p292.
[iv] See Robert McFarlane’s Received Moments: Photography 1961 – 2009. Sydney: Manly Art Gallery and Museum, 2009.
[v] See “Pioneers and Arboraphobes” in Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness. Melbourne: Penguin Books, 1960, reprint 2010. pp.93–123.
[vi] See Allan Sekula’s “Reading an Archive: Photography between Labour and Capital” in Patricia Holland, Jo Spence and Simon Watney, eds, Politics Two. London: Comedia, 1986, pp153–61.
[vii] As Helen Ennis has pointed out “Photography in Australia is not simply a product of the modern era, but is tied inextricably to the imperialist andcolonialist underpinnings of modernity”. See her Photography and Australia. London: Reaktion Books, 2007. p8.
[viii] See Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. London: Verso, 1983.