How to start? Always a difficulty, getting to that moment when I just . . . do.
I spent a few days recently at the Daylesford Foto Biennale in Victoria. The trip was personally rewarding. I got to spend some time with friends indulging in great food, evenings by the fireside, frequent and meandery conversations about photography. And, of course, the whole point of the Biennale: the chance to see a wide range and a large amount of photographic work.
The shows were put on in a diverse array of venues all across the Daylesford shire: church halls, cafés, function centres, a lake (yes, the pictures were in the lake). One of the venues was an old mill that had, in a large shed, some of the strongest work I saw over the weekend. Masaki Hirano’s large montages of the deforestation of old-growth forests in Tasmania were impressive in their scale and appropriate in being stuck, bare, on the large wooden walls and floor. Some of the edges were peeling away, some scrunched in behind old machinery. Hirano had made two kinds of views: cross-sections of tree stumps, and five- or six-metre high by one-metre wide vertical strips laid out, about 12 across, into a panorama of tree uprootedness. He seemed to have tilted or offset the camera between each shot, because the overall effect was a vertiginous one with the curve of the landscape being exaggerated wildly. It was as if the viewer had stumbled into something alien and desolate, with any prior sense of direction gone.
I’m sure I’ll return to the question of the relationships between photography and politics and activism at some stage in this blog, but for now it’s important to note the commentary that Hirano is constructing. The Biennale catalogue suggests that Hirano’s project is aimed at Japanese consumers who believe they are using paper made from plantation wood when in fact it is old-growth forests that are being cleared to make way for these plantations. It’s an issue that’s obviously of concern for Australians too. Although we need to read the catalogue to glean this detail, the work in the shed signals clearly that something is wrong with this landscape. It’s a different move from having a book with lush rainforests with the proceeds going to the Wilderness Society – ‘by the way, the gorgeous foliage you’re looking at is under threat…but enjoy the view’.
There’s another discussion in photography about the ethics of looking at some bad event that’s been presented in an aesthetically satisfying way in a nice gallery. Some say that beautiful pictures actually mask the bad stuff and merely serve to make it palatable for viewers with their red wine and canapes. I think there should be another word, like ‘beautiful’, that conveys that seductive attraction of looking while at the same time keeping us aware of the inherent flipside. Because Hirano’s pictures are beautiful. But they’re also horrifying.
I’d seen one of Eduardo Gil’s portraits in the Daylesford brochure: a head-and shoulders shot of a woman who looks Latin American, apparently unclad and with her eyes closed, against a neutral grey background. It was intriguing and I wanted to see more. The actual gallery space, with about 20 similar images was engaging and immediately got my compadres talking. Did the closed eyes make it easier to stare at them? Did they reveal more? I was surprised at how different each person still looked. There was still a sense that one person was calm, another tense, just from the way their faces sat. I think closed eyes doesn’t just suggest a change in the viewer-subject relationship, but it actually changes what we are looking at as well. Usually when we see a face with closed eyes, it’s only for a moment, or it’s only one among many others where we can see eyes. It’s only with rare intimacy and trust that we can stare at a face that’s not itself looking, even if looking elsewhere. That emotional aspect aside, here we see the shadows under the eye sockets, the skin of the eyelids, the downward fall of shut eyelashes. One of my friends liked the feeling, especially where the hair was pulled back, that gender was not so evident, that they were “just human”.
Another portrait exhibition was Tobias Titz’s farewell 665. This series was not only a tribute to a soon-to-disappear Polaroid film; that film is important also because the instant negative is produceable right on location. Titz took one picture of his subject then another of the background sans subject who now had the opportunity to scratch something on the negative, in the empty space. Elaborate self-portrait sketches. “A year of perfect days.” A snowman. “Last night I had a dream about a grizzly bear.” “Die Welt ist nicht nur shwarz-weiss…” “Old? Of course I’m bloody old!” A pregnant woman: “The potential of the unknown.” (At the opening I think I saw that woman: it looked like that unknown was was now running around in a bright purple parka.) There was not only a sense of collaboration here, a sense of time spent between photographer and subject, but also a fuller-than-is-usual sense of the subject as well. Not just because of their choice of words, but also from the shape of the marks they made in the emulsion. Tobias was a good friend of the Melbournians in my group; he stayed with us for a while and ‘twas indeed a pleasure to meet him.
The pictures in the lake. We got to Lake Daylesford about 4:30 in the evening. The light was disappearing, but I think we’d timed it about right. Floating at various points in the water were Kim Percy’s Submerged pictures of blurry lights and underwater bodies. The notes suggested that it was work about nostalgia and mystery. Did the abstract lights suggest a dream of the past? Maybe the East Asian figures were meant to evoke the gold-rush days? It was generally pretty effective: the open-ended pictures, the walk around the lake, the clear relationship to the present environment, all made for a satisfying way to end the visual tours of that day. There was a false note for me, though. One of the pictures I saw was of a child dressed in bright clothes, looking at the camera, like a family portrait. I’m sure that’s one of the range of connections that Percy was making, but visually it seemed dissonant with the mysteries of bodies in dark water, closed eyes and soft blue faces (yes, those closed eyes again). The bright portrait seemed too ordinary for the mythic quality that the rest of the pictures were reaching for.
The lake and wooden shed were two really appropriate environments, and that’s one of the strengths of a festival like this. This wasn’t completely successful everywhere (how could it be?). In fact, my first encounter with David Callow’s Avedon-like portraits of folks from various Aboriginal communities was disappointing. It was as a slide show in the Daylesford town hall, with cheesy orchestral music soundtrack that was trying too hard to evoke…empathy? connection? compassion? When I saw the large prints in the local Uniting church some days later, I was amazed at the simplicity and power of the pictures. The white background allowed the subjects’ faces, clothes, stances, to tell us something about them. Everyone was named, and the direct address to the camera suggested that everyone was freely giving as well.
The way Callow’s work changed for me makes me want to talk about how pictures can change depending on how they’re used in different media. But then I’m aware that my medium here is a blog rather than a New Yorker article. If you’re still with me, here at the end of this beginning, then thanks. But we probably both need to take a break for now.