Dark Reflections

5 minute read
Michael Fitzgerald

Behind every great photography show is the most merciless of picture editors. Such is the abundance of arresting images these days that the trick is knowing when to stop. And strikingly absent from the latest survey of contemporary Australian photography, at the National Gallery of Victoria until February 18, are the loudest, most conspicuous names: Tracey Moffatt, Bill Henson and Rosemary Laing. The image fatigue some critics have complained about in recent times has been as much to do with the overexposure of some of these aptly acclaimed artists’ work as with the explosive growth of the medium. So to enter “Light Sensitive: Contemporary Australian Photography from the Loti Smorgon Fund”—which comprises 65 works by 38 artists, assiduously collected by NGV senior curator Isobel Crombie in conjunction with the prominent Melbourne benefactor—is to see Australian photography afresh.

Children of the postmodernist late ’80s, when large-scale color photography stepped boldly onto the world stage, Moffatt’s minx, Henson’s nymphs and Laing’s flying bride have been among the most reproduced images in Australian art. Crombie helped define the moment, co-curating 1990’s “Twenty Contemporary Australian Photographers: From the Hallmark Cards Australian Photographic Collection,” and 17 years later the medium she returns to is quieter and less declarative. Walking through “Light Sensitive” at the Ian Potter Centre, one could be forgiven for thinking that the era of the defining image has passed. Pictures prefer to slink from easy definition: neither one thing nor the other. Rather than being a cop-out, though, it’s perhaps a simple acknowledgment that life is more complicated.

Consider “Brett” and “Davood,” the blokes of David van Royen’s domestic portraits—one a home handyman trapped in his glassed veranda, the other half-dressed on his bed, staring out beyond the noose of his window’s chain pull, their masculine identities hovering uncertainly in the air. While Van Royen uses simple color printing, as do many of the photographers in the show, the lingering impression is of grayness. Even in the exhibition’s most Day-Glo work, the bright-faced trio of teenage girls snacking on fast food in Darren Sylvester’s If All We Have Is Each Other, That’s OK, 2003, the subliminal message is muted. As Sylvester has written, “It’s about what happens when you buy something and nothing changes.”

Depending on whom you speak with these days, the technological advances brought by the digital age are either killing the magic of photography or unleashing unprecedented creativity—as former New York Times critic Vicki Goldberg recently noted, the medium is “reproducing faster than rabbits.” But if anything, “Light Sensitive” captures an art form reconnecting with its original mystery: paper, chemicals, light. Such were the essential ingredients of the early19th century camera-less process of photograms, and by casting everyday objects in a contemporary light, current practitioners such as Christl Berg, Anne Ferran and Penelope Davis seem to reveal the very essence of the photographic process. Here light carries an almost god-like aura, peering into the most inscrutable of subjects. Even in the subtly manipulated Lauren, 2003, Petrina Hicks uses new technologies to highlight photography’s old-fashioned alchemy. Left any longer in the darkroom, one imagines, her pink-lidded albino girl would bleach to white.

In an era when the photographic process is increasingly demystified, “Light Sensitive” demonstrates again and again why the best pictures can tease and suspend our disbelief in ways that painting and sculpture can’t. Here the lens dissembles as much as it documents, stretching “the camera never lies” maxim to breaking point. Appropriately titled Tensio—Latin for tension—is Brook Andrew’s mirrored image of a currawong poised as if to attack a coiled snake. These are in fact stuffed museum exhibits, reappropriated by this Aboriginal lensman to tell his own personal Dreaming story (as academic Marcia Langton tells it, “When color spread throughout the bird world, crows ignored their fellow birds and missed out, remaining black like the inchoate world from which life sprang”). If Andrew’s silken surfaces seduce the eye, Liu Xiao Xian’s My Other Lives #7, 2000, positively winks at us. Here the Beijing-born artist has taken the twin images of a 19th century stereograph and replaced one of the faces with his own, peeping out improbably from the garb of a parasol-holding Edwardian lady. The playfully made point: the camera can erase as much as it records, so remember to keep its autocratic tendencies in check.

Despite a range of photographic practice, from photojournalism to portraiture, curator Crombie brings together a remarkably coherent vision. Haunting the show are spectral presences, from the dapperly besuited Aboriginal gent of the ’50s that Brenda L. Croft retrieved from her late father’s shoebox of slides, and Darren Siwes’ ghostly self-portrait projected onto a Henson-like night-time landscape, to vacated urban spaces in which we are left to trace subtle signs of life—whether it be in a ray of sunlight retreating from Annie Hogan’s Brisbane rental house, or the silvery spray of Scott Redford’s Gold Coast urinal. Such images remind us that reality is sometimes best expressed by what is absent or left behind. The exhibition is not called light sensitive for nothing (this also happens to be the nickname given to the NGV’s departments of photography and works-on-paper). And astute viewers might also note the number of mirror images that appear throughout the show—from Andrew’s currawongs and Liu’s “ladies” to Peter Kennedy’s twinned self-portrait in which he regards his own cancer cells. Made abundantly clear is the camera’s singular ability to both mirror life and morph it, expanding our perceptions in the process. As curator Crombie says, “photography is a slippery business. It kind of slips between truth and fiction.” And “Light Sensitive” allows us to bask in its many deep, dark reflections.

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