The photograph as place

Isobel Parker Philip: Lens Love

Jess, Oskar, Kai and Mia 2011, Marzena Wasikowska, Lens Love, photo courtesy Canberra Museum & Gallery

Jess, Oskar, Kai and Mia 2011, Marzena Wasikowska, Lens Love, photo courtesy Canberra Museum & Gallery

Lens Love: the tender gaze of six Canberra region photographers, featured six photographers who are unified by geographic context. Living and working within the Canberra region, they share an affiliation with this landscape. The way each artist’s personal relationship to the same place manifests in their aesthetic and thematic predilections is wildly divergent. Yet the simple fact that they share common topographic roots is crucial to an appreciation of the associative threads that bind their work.

Irrespective of whether or not they enlist their immediate geographic context as a thematic proposition, the six are all concerned with the mutability of place and the prospect of displacement. In the work of Martyn Jolly, Marzena Wasikowska, Lee Grant, Denise Ferris, Cathy Laudenbach and John Reid we witness careful studies of the way space is inhabited and settled (or unsettled). These artists do not simply document the fleeting ‘I was here’ of the casual snapshot but chart more complex networks of belonging.

The first work to greet viewers as they enter the gallery is Denise Ferris’ The Long Hot Summer. The sundrenched tones of the dry brush in the foreground of this sweeping landscape photograph are intercut by the lumbering presence of four white vehicles in the distance. Vans and motor homes, the vehicles are peripatetic placeholders. These detached and transportable domestic spaces can claim any unknown and foreign territory as a potential backyard. A caravan or motor home situates its inhabitant within an expansive and open-ended landscape, offering them the opportunity to domesticate any site they so desire (at least in theory).

In The colour of snow, a grid of nine photographs, Ferris recalibrates the subject’s relationship to place. Blizzards and blankets of snow overwhelm the winter landscapes depicted in these images. The figures that populate this alpine world are threatened with invisibility. As the cloak of snow thickens, they are gradually erased. The figures are absorbed into the landscape and belong to its abyss.

Three bodies of work by Lee Grant approach this motif of habitation and belonging in a didactic manner. Grant anatomises cultural signposts and explores the way cultural identity is constructed and disseminated. In The Korea Project, portraits of Koreans living in Australia are interspersed with photographs of urban environments in Korea that are devoid of people. This enquiry into cultural transplantation (and translation) is inflected with personal context. Treating the series as a way to explore her own Korean heritage, Grant indirectly inserts herself into these scenes.

Marzena Wasikowska’s series, I left Poland when I was 11 years old and 36 years later I returned for the third time, similarly interrogates cultural displacement and maps the return to a site of diasporic departure. In these sets of clustered photographs (two gridded arrangements featuring nine images each) Wasikowska assembles discrete snapshots taken on a journey back to her childhood homeland. Like film stills from a road movie, these are pictorial vignettes from a story narrated by an outsider. Yet there is still an intimacy here. The images of domestic settings, the affectionate family portraits and the semi-abstract close-ups of water droplets on a window or leaves on a snow-covered ground do not speak to detachment or withdrawal. Wasikowska has stitched herself into this cultural landscape. Her view is not that of the panorama but the closely cropped frame of familiarity.

In Wasikowska’s suite of images, light becomes an animative agent. It does not merely designate a temporal framework (insofar as one set of photographs appears to have been taken during the day while the other is enveloped by the cover of darkness) but also defines space. The nocturnal scenes are lit by dim light sources: small domestic lamps, the blue-tinted glow of a computer screen and weak streetlamps. These minimal light sources shrink and condense the spatial field of each image, heightening the sense of intimacy Wasikowska cultivates in her candid yet poetic photographs.

Cathy Laudenbach also recruits light as an animative force in her series The Familiars. The empty rooms that appear in these photographs are rumored to be haunted or plagued by supernatural spirits. Forgotten narratives and ghostly apparitions fester amid slightly dishevelled furnishings. The light that penetrates deserted interiors, streaming in through the windows or reflecting off the patina on the floorboards, becomes a surrogate for the departed occupants. It assumes a phantom-like human presence.

While also composed of light, the spectral forms that populate Martyn Jolly’s series Faces of the Living Dead possess a more explicit, or assertive, legibility. The images in this series are scanned and cropped re-presentations of spirit photographs from the Cambridge University Library archive. Disembodied ghost-like forms are suspended in mid-air and faces of then-deceased figures are superimposed onto portraits of their mourning relatives. The ghosts in these photographs are fabrications. This is divination by way of chemical blotches, multiple exposures and bursts of light. In some of the images, the spectres take on recognisable human form while in others their physique is reduced to an abstract flicker of light against a dark, indeterminate background. All of these (fictitious) phantoms float and hover. Having left the world of the physical and the embodied, they are ungrounded. They occupy a non-place.

Conversely, the ghostly spirit that John Reid memorialises in the body of work he dedicates to a fictional folkloric character—the “fishman”—is indelibly linked to place. Part man, part fish, Reid’s homespun mythological creature is nothing if not situated. These photographs document a counterfeit natural history specimen. The blurred figure that darts in and out of each landscape shot is an imaginary native of National Parks surrounding the Canberra Region. By offering (fabricated) evidence of its existence within its natural habitat, Reid perpetuates the mythology. He recasts this landscape as a folkloric backdrop.

From its position in the centre of the gallery, Reid’s work mediates between states of settlement and vacancy. The fishman belongs to his landscape (he is local fauna) yet at the same time he does not exist. He is both placed and displaced. Reid’s work provided the pivot on which the rest of the show hung. The figures—corporeal or otherwise—featured in the work on display each navigate the tension between placement and displacement. While some situate themselves by making claims to a cultural heritage, others remain untethered and denied a physical body in which to place themselves. By allowing this tension to unravel, Lens Love mapped a contrastive yet cogent study of habitation beyond the strictures of the domestic.

Lens Love: the tender gaze of six Canberra region photographers, curator Shane Breynard, Canberra Museum and Gallery, Canberra, 30 Nov 2013-23 Feb 2014

RealTime issue #120 April-May 2014 pg. 52

© Isobel Parker Philip; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

22 April 2014