- C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
Photography is a popular artistic medium in Australia, where there is no lack of subjects, from the wonderful natural landscape to the multicultural population. Contemporary artists are using the camera to portray everyday life and its transformations, as well as the changing natural and social landscapes. From more traditional uses of the medium to testing its boundaries and limitations and crossing genres, these 10 photographers are among the best working today.
Justine Khamara (b. 1971) investigates and challenges the boundaries of the photographic medium, re-interpreting photographic portraiture and questioning contemporary notions of being. Her three-dimensional sculptural and collage works offer a manipulation of reality that engages with notions of self-representation in an era of instant, endlessly generative (re)production technologies. Her oeuvre employs thinly sliced photographs and images of a single subject captured from multiple angles. Erysicthon’s Ball (2010) was inspired by the Greek myth of Erysicthon, King of Thessaly, to question the vanity of modern societies, evident in the widespread, self-absorbed activity of taking multiple images of oneself and posting them through diverse social media channels—thus attempting to control personal representation and perpetuating the phenomena of vanity. In many of her works, Khamara uses images of herself and her family or friends, which enables her to work intimately with her portrait subjects. In Watch me slip through these thin sheets (2011), a fabric sheet printed with images of herself and her mother is combined with a mirror, to draw attention to the possibility of individuals experiencing multiple aspects of themselves.
Bill Henson (b. 1955) makes use of a particular time of day—twilight—to capture images of landscapes and adolescent youth that create a kind of ‘modern mythology.’ The lighting conditions of twilight and techniques of underexposure and printing adjustments allow Henson to achieve contrasts of shadow and light—chiaroscuro—that are akin to Flemish masters’ still life paintings. His oeuvre conjures an atmosphere of transcendence and supernatural events, exploring the recurrent theme of duality. His subjects are portrayed in darkness and faint light, never looking directly at the lens, partly hidden to create an aura of mystery and bacchanalian existence. Henson’s painterly, staged tableaux continue the tradition of 19th century Romantic literature and art and the concept of the Sublime, in which Nature’s grandeur provokes the conflicting sensations of astonishment, terror and awe. Blurring the lines between reality and the unconscious, Henson transports the viewer into a parallel dimension hiding behind thick veils of darkness and richly charged with references to our past. For the artist, landscapes are strong elements of our memories, and his interest in capturing them in memento mori images that have the power to transport the viewer into a timeless world.
Filmmaker, video artist and photographer Tracey Moffatt (b. 1960) creates thought-provoking works that explore issues such as race, childhood trauma and the media, as well as Aboriginal subjugation, maternal domination, gender stereotypes and class division. Works produced in the 1980s include Some Lads (1986), a series of black-and-white photographs that she showed alongside the color photograph The Movie Star (1985). In Disappointed Dreams (1989), Moffatt presented a rich, fragmented narrative with suggestive images of violence, glamor and disappointed dreams. Her interest in power relations is evident in Scarred for Life (1994), a set of lithographs juxtaposing photographs and text, mimicking the layout and format of old, faded Life magazine pages. The series portrays childhood and adolescence as times saturated with violence, neglect and psychological turmoil. In 1998, Moffatt experimented with a new medium, creating Laudanum, a series of photogravures—or photo engravings—that focused on the relationship between a woman and her aboriginal servant. Her recent body of work, ‘Spirit Landscapes’ (2013), on show at QAGOMA in 2015, comprises five new photographic series and a film, exploring spirituality, memory in landscape and the supernatural, and offering a meditation on the significance of land and place through personal and universal histories.
At the center of Patrick Pound’s (b. 1962) practice lies an interest in the notions of collecting and the archive, which enable him to create a sort of ‘mapping of human culture’. Holding a view of the world that equates it to a puzzle, the artist attempts to reconnect its pieces one by one by painstakingly accumulating, categorizing and classifying found photographs and ephemera. Pound’s practice aims to reach an unattainable understanding through infinite collection. His collages and assemblages of found images and discarded objects are not random, rather they function like definitions in a dictionary or like compiled and constructed evidence. Pound ‘defines’ abstract notions that are captured on film, but overlooked by the common observer—materializing portraits of the intangible. For instance, Portrait of the Wind (2013) comprises a large collection of found portraits of people ‘who happened to be in the wind,’ while the Crime Scene series (2013) features photographs in which the subjects appear to be deceased—in truth, the majority of them were sleeping. The Photographer’s Shadow is a series of photographs in which the shadow of the photographer is captured on film, while in The Missing Pound has deleted people from postcards and photographs using Photoshop.
Originally from China, Liu Xiaoxian (b. 1963, Beijing) moved to Australia in 1990, after the Tiananmen incident. His Chinese background and his life experience as an ‘adopted’ Australian play an important role in his artistic practice, which explores the differences as well as the commonalities between East and West on issues such as culture, tradition, politics, religion, identity and gender. Through photography and sculpture, Liu analyses iconic or culturally significant Western and Eastern symbols as an expression of the migrant experience, juxtaposing them in his work. His monumental diptych Our Gods (2000), in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, brings together representations of the suffering Christ and the laughing Buddha. More than just placed alongside each other, the two portraits are composed—with the aid of montage and digital manipulation—of 22,500 tiny, repeated images of the other, like pixels. In an earlier work, My Other Lives (1999), Liu used photographs from his extensive collection of vintage Australian family albums. The artist digitally inserted his face into stereographic images of turn-of-the-century Australian families. Liu attempts to give visibility to an often overlooked history of Asian identities within the construction of Australian culture, as well as addressing notions of displacement, migration and identity.
Working in photography and digital media, Pat Brassington (b. 1942) draws influences from Surrealism, delving into the uncanny and the provocative effect that ambiguity has on interpretation. Her work unfolds into images that morph like the inkblots of a Rorschach test, opening up to the endless possibilities of our inner psychological states related to narratives of sex, memory and identity. Brassington’s dreamy images combine analogue and digital, past and present, creating an ambiguous, at times abstract (sur)reality. In her early work, she used black and white film to capture poetic, dark images of nudes near doorways and other works. In the 1990s, Brassington veered away from the more traditional medium and started to embrace digital manipulation. The ability to dismember, deconstruct and re-construct images gave way to her boundless imagination and allowed her to pursue her long-standing interest in the space between reality and fantasy. The artist uses found photographs or existing ones from her own personal collection, combining them with ‘foreign elements’. Disturbing images of gagged mouths, like in Forget Your Perfect (2008), contorted thighs and genitalia-like elements—such as in her series In My Mother’s House (1994)—are only a few among the numerous she has produced.
Peta Clancy (b. 1970) explores themes of transience, temporality, mutability and the corporeal and subjective limits of the human body. Her photographic practice veers away from the two-dimensional limitations to embrace photography’s expanded field, with interventions such as piercing, crumpling, creasing and embedding it in wax, as well as producing installation pieces such as This Skin I’m In (2002)—with images printed on fabric pillows. Addressing a preoccupation with skin, mortality and aging, her series She carries it like a map on her skin (2005-2006) is comprised of images of a woman’s eyes and lips punctured with a fine silver needle, to create a lace-like effect. Clancy says that ‘Skin doesn’t have roots, it peels away easy as paper,’ (PDF download) and ‘the surfaces of the skin and the photograph are central’ to her work. The realization of the vulnerability and fragility of the human body and how it can change so rapidly are at the core of another series, paper thin (2007), where the paper is also representative of human skin—the artist not only punctures it, but crumples it, as if to represent wrinkled skin. Waiting for the Dust to Settle (2000-2005) captures the passing of time and ‘the minute residues of our everyday life,’ with images of traces and shadows left behind by objects when removed from their place. Enlarged fragments of dust and dead skin suggest mortality and ‘the dust from which the body comes and to which it will return.
Magnum photographer Trent Parke (b. 1971) is inspired by his everyday life experience and primarily works with street photography. In 2003, Parke traveled almost 90,000 km around Australia with his wife and fellow photographer, Narelle Autio. The result was Minutes to Midnight, a collection of photos from the journey that offer a disturbing portrait of twenty-first century Australia, from the desiccated outback to the chaotic life in remote Aboriginal towns. In 2007, Parke embarked on an interior journey, to explore his own life and past—as he says, ‘to excavate my own histories.’ For seven years, he worked on The Black Rose Diaries, shown at the Art Gallery of South Australia in 2015. The series started as Parke reflected on a night when at age 12 he witnessed his mother’s death from an asthma attack. From that point on, the artist shut off all memories of his childhood, until he confronted the issues and began creating a body of work around it. Comprising photographs, letters and texts, the series not only narrates Parke’s life—past and present—but also poses universal questions about our very existence. Deriving from his daily experiences of and reflections on life, the work is a meditation on life’s journeys and how present, past and future are interrelated.
Petrina Hicks (b. 1972) utilizes ‘the seductive and glossy language’ of commercial photography—her professional background—to engage with issues of beauty and perfection, while also exploring the ability of photography to create and corrupt processes of consumption and seduction. Her images feature seemingly flawless subjects, juxtaposed with ‘alien’, uncanny elements that disconcert the viewer—pointing to the tension between beauty and imperfection. In Shenae and Jade (2005), a young model holds a budgie by its head in her mouth—an unlikely, unconventional combination that throws the perfectionist fashion-style portrait off balance. Hicks often explores female identity, referencing mythology and art history, and linking them to contemporary image culture. This is evident in Hippy and the Snake (2011), a series comprised of a video and large-scale photographs that subtly referenced Eve and the serpent in a re-imagined Garden of Eden. In Venus and The Birth of Venus, she aptly points to a mythological goddess and other female symbolism, while also echoing more contemporary notions of feminism and the sexualized male gaze. (PDF download) Other works reference the symbiotic relationship between human and animal, such as Lambswool or Rosemary’s Baby (2008).
Photographer and new media artist Sonia Payes (b. 1956) has in recent years veered towards the surreal, creating haunting, multi-layered images in which elements are inverted, obscured and left unseen. Through her photographic practice and her new multimedia animations and three-dimensional installations, Payes explores themes of environmental destruction, apocalypse and renewal of our future. The artist gained attention with her photographic essays on 60 Australian artists in UNTITLED. Portraits of Australian Artists, published by Macmillan in 2007. In 2012, Payes undertook a residency with the Australia China Art Foundation in rural Beijing, which culminated in the production of the Interzone series, shown at Fehily Contemporary in 2013. During her time in Beijing, Payes was immersed in the harsh environment of China’s rapid urban development—farmland was being quickly replaced by quarries and cement. The artist was witness to significant changes not only in the landscape and the environment, but also in human relationships. Through her series, Payes provided a social commentary as well as reflected on the new human-environment interrelationships caused by China’s vast industrialization. ‘Re-generation’ (2014) explored Payes’s practice through a variety of works, including Earth Warriors and Ice Warriors—presented as ‘guides’ to direct humanity in its quest to find new solutions to the degradation inflicted on our environment. Other series illustrate and reflect upon the resilience of humanity and its capacity of endlessly change and adapt to the earth’s mutable environment.