Photographs by Elam School of Fine Arts' students Carolin Casey, James Lowe, Geoffrey Habberfield Short, Dane Taylor, and Mhairi-Claire Fitzpatrick. George Fraser Gallery, University of Auckland, Princes Street, Auckland, 28 May to 20 June 2009, curated by Ariane Craig-Smith as part of the Auckland Festival of Photography 2009.
Introduction by Ariane Craig-Smith
Recently I have been watching films, trying to understand the mechanisms by which they can impart to us a story richer than that told purely by script and sequence - through details of colour, composition, subtleties of editing, the way characters and landscapes draw on older archetypes. It's not really fashionable to talk of storytelling in relation to contemporary art, although one might refer to "narrative". Yet the works of these photographers tell me stories - or rather the stories form in my mind, unbidden. I seek clues to their past and future, to the images beyond the frame, to the time and motion that runs on around them.
Yet you can't escape the fact that these are photographs. Frozen surfaces, they tease us with their stillness and in that stillness ask us to halt and look - really look. The detail that is lost in the constant image flow of film is, in a still photograph, held for our scrutiny; to linger over, return to, admire or reject. It is partly because time is stilled, a moment frozen, that photography has such a powerful grip.
Since the first photographic images were made in the early 19th century - an age when images of any sort were scarce and often expensive to obtain - photography and its cousin film have changed the visual landscape. How has this in turn changed our perception? In an image-saturated world of advertising, cinema, television, computers, magazines and books I wonder - have our eyes become jaded in what they see and what they look for? How much do we come to rely on this parade of images for our blueprint of the world, our archetypes? For certainly we bring memories of other images to our viewing. Film theorist Vera Dika has written on the uses of nostalgia - what she calls "recycled culture" - in contemporary art and film, and how such references can be consciously used to rupture and critique established expectations of both past and present. As film has become one of the dominant and powerful modes of social storytelling it has, in turn, formed a set of archetypes upon which to draw - both for viewers and artists. There is, I would suggest, such a "nostalgia" for film to be found within much contemporary photography.
Cindy Sherman, with her classic photographic series of the late 1970s, Untitled Film Stills, was one of the first and most successful at manipulating this relationship, casting herself in the roles of assorted female archetypes from 1950s film. Describing Sherman's images, Dika points out that because we are never given the shot that would answer our implied questions (i.e. locate the image in narrative) we tend to fill in the sequence from our store of cultural memory. This absence of this "counter-shot" draws our continued and attentive gaze always back to the given image, in the process revealing our own scrutiny within the gaze of the camera, as well as the cracks in Sherman's representation.
The photographs of both James Lowe and Mhairi-Clare Fitzpatrick echo this effect. Composing their images in the manner of a director, they mimic the compositions and techniques of film, placing the models as actors in a story that is never played out. Fitzpatrick's young women purposefully reference recycled narratives within popular culture and mythology, revealing to us our reliance on cultural memory - in this case the archetypes of classical mythology and the styling of 1990s era "coming of age" films. Lowe, on the other hand, offers us a diptych - so providing a counter-shot. Unlike in a film, however, the implied narrative of the two images begins to break down as we try to form a story in the gap between images. Instead we are drawn deeper into the individual images. Isolated in inky dark settings, the spaces Lowe's characters inhabit becomes increasingly surreal and dream-like.
Using the technology of film effects and professional pyrotechnics to set up spectacular explosions, Geoffrey H. Short distils an event usually associated with destruction and terror into a series of compelling photographs. For most of us, in our comfortably safe worlds, the idea of an explosion is to moving image - either through the entertainment of film or the grain of news footage. Detached from the familiar contexts of film or television narrative and physically isolated into empty, almost barren sites, the explosion in Short's images is reduced to an essential event; a symbol for all other explosions. The cathartic emotional release of combustion is stalled. Short takes us instead into the aesthetics of the display, in search of the sublime within the terrible, stilling for us the flame, sparks and smoke, and the billowing clouds of fire to expose a formal beauty.
Dane Taylor's images are closer to snap-shots, recording moments and sites through which he has travelled. Rejecting the slickly structured and composed surfaces of Lowe's, Fitzpatrick's or even Short's practices, Taylor's photographs embrace the accidental bleed of light from a broken camera or the blur of motion. Re-combined in the artist's book black ink, they form a disrupted narrative in which time and location are subordinated to an aesthetic logic that feels more like excerpts of dream, sequences from surrealist film or slippages of remembered postcards. In book form, time is enacted in their viewing - a timing and order controlled by the viewer as they flip thorough the pages.
Carolin Casey's work sits furthest from an hypothesis of reference to film. Her images instead fully embrace photography's characteristic ability to freeze time and document the world. She takes her camera to sites in transition; landscapes in flux due to human intervention, in order to capture moments and views usually lost or ignored in the momentum of construction, such as stacked pipes and carved earth. Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan has described experiencing both the specifics of place (stability) and possibilities of space (change) as crucial to the formation of the self. Casey draws attention to the moment of transition as a politically loaded re-framing of space. Stilled in a point of flux, as spaces are redeployed as man-made places, she captures and presents to us the scenes we usually choose to overlook in creating/seeking the comforting place of our social archetypes.
Photography has long traded on its aura of veritas - of representing some kind of real. This still holds true in the minds of most of us, despite recent concerns over the threat of digital photography toward the sanctity of that belief. In their stillness, and conversely, in our willingness to give them time, perhaps can be found the "truth" of these photographs - not as bearers of narrative, but as mirrors to our own storytelling.