Four by Five by Six - reviewed October 2018

Four by Five by Six (curated by Thomas Slade)

Harry Culy, Sam Curtin, Tash Hopkins, Tom Hoyle, Clayton Morgan, and Thomas Slade

Photospace Gallery, Wellington

22 September to 20 October 2018

Reviewed by Andy Spain

4x5 relates to the size of the film on which the six photographers have created these images. The cumbersome camera that is used to hold the single frames of film are not for those seeking to capture the decisive moment. Work from such cameras frequently involves landscapes, interiors, or highly posed portraits (i.e. things that don’t move much). The scale of the film translates into images of exceptional detail. These photographers are highlighting a moment in time and asking us to give it the same level of contemplation.

Much of this type of imagery owes a debt to the group of photographers in the U.S. brought together under the New Topographics exhibition in 1975 and in the Dusseldorf school of photography in Germany[1]. The names of Joel Sternfield, Stephen Shore, Robert Adams, the Bechers, Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer etc. read like a who’s who of the photography greats and so it is of no surprise that emerging photographers often look to them in their early moves into the gallery space. But unless you know this history of photography then the whole exhibition is pretty much lost on you. This is work by photographers for photographers. The nothingness of the imagery might please fellow graduates in the know but to many it will leave them cold.

The work by Tom Hoyle is a triptych of a Wellington quarry, a pulp mill at Tangiwai and the rigging in the TSB Arena, high above the WOW show. Connected by their unveiling of the hidden workings of our contemporary world, the images are cohesively brought together by their strong structural elements; the conveyor belts moving the excavations from truck to truck like a marble run, the lines and diagonals of the pulp mill spewing out gasses into the night air and the magical structure of the rigging above the TSB arena. It is perfect subject matter for a 4x5 camera providing a level of detail needed to elevate these images from the mundane to the sublime.

The work of Sam Curtin is no exception to the New Topographic/Dusseldorf axis on show here, his road trip around New Zealand allowed him to stop and set up his camera at various sites and photograph in the highly formal style similar to Gursky, achieving a contradiction between the seemingly banal scenes and the high production standards and formal considerations of the final image. Such a formula forces the reader to look harder for meaning amidst the human traces on the land.

Clayton Morgan plays with the hyper-real quality created by the 4x5 process by making work that looks so perfect you question its authenticity. He has shot two images of the Mount John Observatory at Tekapo. The staircase image is like a Thomas Demand photograph (interiors that look at first glance real but then reveal themselves to be models made of card). The other could be a photo-realist painting by Gerhard Richter. It feels like an image gone wrong with all its mess and blocked sight-lines. You question why has this been photographed but revel in the details. It treads a gentle line between documentary and fine art with striking splashes of colour.

The 3 portraits by Tash Hopkins are of 3 young adults in that well-worn photographic subject (see Rineke Dijkstra’s beach portraits[2]) of the in-between age of childhood and adulthood. Their revealing details of adolescent awkwardness are a fitting subject for shooting in 4x5. Everything about the girl standing by the tree screams vulnerable and awkward (Western Springs 1), her eyes peeking through her hair as a metaphor for the emerging woman, the clothes anchoring her in one period of time but her body and mind about to explode into another. The boy by the concrete wall (Western Springs 2) testing out his masculinity whilst wearing his sports gear and harbouring a broken arm from his schoolboy antics. The fact that these are slowly taken photographs forces the subjects to reveal themselves not in a fake iPhone selfie but in an honest, contemplative assessment of who they really are.

Thomas Slade takes us inside an ambiguous institutional interior in his first image, Waiting for Collection, then moves outside to an abandoned swimming pool and the Hawkins Hill Radar. These images are hard to tie together but appear as if from a previous age, an abandoned TV from the 80s (opposite a judgmental iMac), a derelict swimming pool; old technology. They feel like non space, an investigation of the places left behind. But, if the game is to hold the everyday up to the scrutiny of the detail of the large format camera then the viewer still needs some excuse to step inside.

The single image by Harry Culy is a perfect ending to this exhibition. He has shot a landscape with its winding road to nowhere, dry grass, a single red car in the car park and a solitary figure. Through this he has created an incredible feeling of desolation, isolation and impending fear. Unlike the other images in the show, it is cinematic in its implied narrative, with its washed out feel and careful colour control - the vast landscape versus the isolated figure. If you changed the car for a Chevy it could be straight out of Hawke’s Bay and into Nevada.

This show successfully examines the nature of 4x5 photography through the eyes of New Zealand photographers still keen to experiment with film. But at its crux is the problematic issue of believing that the act of using the slow and detailed process of large format photography is sufficient in itself to justify wall space, the work still needs to engage and be about something, not simply of something. This is a frequent problem with a group show as we only see a limited selection of each artist’s images so the bigger themes of an artist’s on-going series are hard to see, especially when the theme holding it together is as narrow as a 4X5. Having said that, it is an exhibition well worth seeing as a useful gauge of contemporary photography in New Zealand.

Andy Spain is a photographer from Wellington working on commercial and personal projects.

[1] New Topographics show discussed in the Guardian Newspaper

[2] An interview with Rinke Dijkstra