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looking through photography

darren jorgensen: fotofreo 2010


Pat Brassington, Twins, 2001, series Gentle, Fotofreo Pat Brassington, Twins, 2001, series Gentle, Fotofreo
courtesy the artist and Stills Gallery
PHOTOGRAPHY IS ABLE TO EMBRACE A VARIETY OF GENRES AND PRACTICES. FROM JOURNALISM AND DOCUMENTARY TO THE CONCEPTUAL AND PERFORMING ARTS, FROM THE SENTIMENT OF PRIVATE PHOTOGRAPHS TO THE MASS SPECTACLES OF MEDIA AND MARKETING, IT TRAVERSES VERY DIFFERENT MEANINGS. SHOWING SOME OF THESE MEANINGS HAS BEEN THE MISSION OF THE BIENNIAL FOTOFREO FESTIVAL, FOREGROUNDING BOTH THE DIVERSITY AND UNITY OF THE MEDIUM.

The effect of its many shows in many venues is to confuse the easy categories with which we are used to classifying photographic images, so that the conceptual begins to look like documentary and vice versa. Two black-and-white exhibitions on this year’s program highlight this category confusion. One is from Tasmanian photographer Ricky Maynard and the other shows John Joseph Dwyer’s meticulous images of Kalgoorlie from the beginning of the 20th century.

At first glance, there is nothing much to see in Maynard’s show, touring from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. Portraits of Tasmanian Aboriginal people sit alongside various landscapes of the region. What brings the show to life is the information that accompanies the photographs. An image of a tree and surrounding bush is called Traitor (2007), and Maynard tells us that it marks the spot where Tasmanian chief Manalargenna made an agreement for his people to stay on the islands of Bass Strait. They were to die there, never to return to their homelands. The photograph now bears the weight of a violent history, and one’s attention is drawn to its meticulous framing and careful exposure, to the grain of the tree and tone of the shadows. In Healing Garden (2005), an image of a fenced-in garden of trees sits on a flat empty plain. Maynard writes that this surreal site is where a massacre took place. The haunting of Tasmania appears to bleed through the image, as Maynard brings his documentary mode of photography to life with conceptual information.

John Joseph Dwyer, Untitled (Mr Allum), 23 June 1908 John Joseph Dwyer, Untitled (Mr Allum), 23 June 1908
image courtesy Western Australian Museum
Different sorts of revelations take place in Dwyer’s images of the mining town of Kalgoorlie during its boom years early in the 20th century. They show some of the quaint customs of its residents, pictured in fancy dress, as well as the architecture of the city and mines that surround it. Dwyer’s work is of retrospective interest not so much for its subjects but for its photographic style. While we are accustomed to thinking of the documentary image as something of an objective record, here the perspective of Dwyer’s images anticipate the American and British periods of social realist photography in the 1920s and 30s. They are framed to give their subjects, whether people, buildings or mines, a sense of grandeur. Time allows us to see Dwyer as an artist rather than as a simple chronicler of his times.

Conceptual photographers are very aware of these kinds of paradoxes, in which the angle of the lens is warped by one’s own historical gaze. We live in an era that is overheated by imagery, in which we tend to look through photographs rather than at them. Narelle Autio brings the invisible to the fore as she packs the walls of the Fremantle Maritime Museum with photographs of flotsam and jetsam recovered from her local, South Australian beach. Collections of crab claws and coral remains are arranged in great optical patterns from floor to ceiling and photographed against a uniform white background. Lonely shoes and gloves clogged by oceanic detritus and sand appear like stains on the purity of this colour. Images of old lighters, fireworks, matches, dolls, underwear, bottles, coconuts, goggles, glasses, knives, starfish, stingrays, birds and seaweed speak of a collector who can’t leave anything out. The obsessive quality of the show contains both an intimacy and a careful objectivity, Autio handling her throwaway materials with care.

In the last FotoFreo in 2008 there was a serious absence of female photographers in the major exhibitions, but this time the gender numbers are near even. Pat Brassington’s moody composite photographs could have been taken straight from a French surrealism magazine. Her renderings of torsos, tongues and limbs in pink, brown and orange exposures have the mark of a suburban imagination gone strange. Legs suspended between floral pillows and blind mermaids sit alongside one another in an assemblage of dreamy softness. Two series of photographs, one from the 1980s and another more contemporary, share a series of motifs. The corners of rooms, blinds and curtains turn conventional spaces and objects into the haunting material of dreams.

It is difficult not to compare 2010’s FotoFreo with its blockbuster precedent in 2008. There are fewer featured shows this time, and fewer international and national names. In 2008 Edward Burtynsky’s commission to take large scale photographs of West Australian mines provoked much local discussion, as did a series of standout international shows by Roger Ballen, Chen Nong, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chardin. It also gave locals a chance to see interstate photographers Brook Andrew, Marian Drew, Polixeni Papapetrou and Darren Siwes for themselves. FotoFreo plays an important educational function for isolated Perth audiences. The non-appearance of Jeff Wall, rumoured to be among the guests, was disappointing given the high expectations that FotoFreo has set up.

Yet the excitement of FotoFreo lies as much in the festive atmosphere created by shows organised independently around town as it does in the main galleries. During March and April it was near impossible to walk into a Fremantle cafe, restaurant or venue without encountering a series of photographs neatly placed on the wall. The flexibility and honesty of photography makes the festival a friendly one, accessible to practitioners and viewers alike. So it is that FotoFreo brings people’s eyes to a medium that is all around us and is yet rendered invisible by the same saturation, as we take for granted the most encompassing media of our age.


FotoFreo 2010, venues around Fremantle and Perth, March 20-April 18

RealTime issue #97 June-July 2010 pg. 44

© Darren Jorgensen; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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