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From working within the traditional boundaries of photography to pushing its limitations and crossing genres, these Australian photographers in our Culture Trip guide are among the best working today.
With its stunning and diverse natural landscapes, young, vibrant cities and multicultural population, it’s not hard to see why Australia makes such a compelling subject for its resident photographers. Contemporary artists are using the camera to portray everyday life and its transformations, as well as the changing natural and social landscapes.
Justine Khamara (b. 1971) creates three-dimensional sculptural collages using thinly sliced photographs and images of a single subject captured from multiple angles. Her work engages with the idea of self-representation in an era of instant, easily accessible reproduction. Her work Erysichthon’s Ball (2010) was inspired by the Greek myth of Erysichthon, King of Thessaly, to question the vanity of modern societies. 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 beautiful young people that create a kind of “modern mythology”. 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, richly charged with references to our past. For the artist, landscapes are strong elements of our memories, and his memento mori images 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 a diverse range of social issues such as childhood trauma, Aboriginal subjugation, maternal domination, gender stereotypes and class division. 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 Spirit Landscapes (2013) 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 centre of Patrick Pound’s (b. 1962) practice lies an interest in the notions of archiving, which enables him to create a “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, categorising and classifying found photographs and ephemera. 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 – creating portraits of the intangible.
Originally from China, Liu Xiaoxian (b. 1963, Beijing) moved to Australia in 1990. 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. 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 on surrealism to create images that morph like the inkblots of a Rorschach test, asking us to examine our inner psychological state. In her early work, she used black and white film to capture poetic, dark images of nudes. In the 1990s, Brassington veered away from the traditional medium and started to embrace digital manipulation. The ability to dismember, deconstruct and re-construct images 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”.
Peta Clancy’s (b. 1970) photographic practice veers away from two-dimensional limitations to embrace photography’s expanded field, with physical manipulation such as piercing, crumpling, creasing and embedding photos in wax. She also produces installation pieces such as This Skin I’m In (2002)—with images printed on fabric pillows. Addressing a preoccupation with skin, mortality and ageing, 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,” and that “the surfaces of the skin and the photograph are central” to her work.
Magnum photographer Trent Parke (b. 1971) primarily works with street photography. In 2003, he traveled almost 90,000km (5,5923mi) 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 21st-century Australia, from the desiccated outback to the chaotic life in remote Aboriginal towns. In 2007, Parke embarked 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, aged 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, comprising of photographs, letters and texts.
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.
Photographer and new media artist Sonia Payes (b. 1956) has in recent years veered towards the surreal, creating haunting, multilayered 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. In 2012, Payes undertook a residency with the Australia China Art Foundation in rural Beijing, during which time she was immersed in the harsh environment of China’s rapid urban development – farmland was being quickly replaced by quarries and cement. Her Re-generation (2014) series explored this experience 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.