Momentum: 21 years of the Perth Centre for Photography
100 Aberdeen Street until 8 December 2013
I built my East Perth studio at the end of the eighties. I included a small windowless room with a big sink and a large work surface, moved in an enlarger and some tanks and trays. I thought it was going to be my darkroom. Two and a half decades later it is filled with old cameras, computers, printers and so on but the enlarger is gone. I have yet to print a single negative there.
From the beginning digital photography was easier and far more flexible for my purposes – mainly research and publishing work. It took a little longer for art photography in Perth to change markedly. Even so the advent of digital photography, scanning and processing was the most important event during the two decades of image making covered by Momentum.
Digital introduced photography without many tears. Most importantly it challenged almost everything about the aesthetic and aims of art photography, which were, one way and another, all about technique. On my recent visits to bookshop photography shelves, I have noticed a book that explains why photos need not, perhaps should not, be in focus.
The mass experience of digital changed everything, most importantly the way we make, read and receive all photographs, digital or not. Their connection to the world will never be the same.
The work of two excellent photographers that I have known for some time highlights the problem. Both John Austin and Christopher Young reverence vision and control but their attitude to digital is very different. Austin made his silver gelatin vintage print Woman Diving in 1997 as part of a series of nudes in the landscape. A woman enters the water head first, legs akimbo from some massive rocks. Subject and technique reach back into the history of photography to a time when it was still close to painting and painting was much concerned with the female nude in the landscape. Austin has added an anarchic eros to the theme. To this day he believes, absolutely, that printing with light and paper offers the most magical connection possible between photographer and subject. Another of his vintage prints, Port Jackson Shark, 1990, uses the power of black and white printing to capture the finest degrees of texture to ponder the relation of animate and inanimate. The dead shark is posed along the curved horizon of a large rock.
Christopher Young is just as keen on the resonances that technique can build into any image, but he has no problem working with digital processes. For some time he has been interested in the existential possibilities of stillness and light, the various ways this can operate in interiors, especially old and abandoned spaces, to reconnect the viewer with their human origins. He works with an old, large scale, conventional camera, well adapted to stillness and detail. Then the negative is scanned at ultra high resolution and used to make large immaculate coloured light jet prints.
Young’s Five #4 (2009) is a ‘symphony in white’ made possible by this process. In an immaculately framed composition, he balances a shiny electric wall plug with delicately toned planes of peeling paint above the white and grey horizontals of a sink bench-top. Young makes full use of the capacity of the mixed digital process to capture every inflection of colour and texture in the white surfaces. In Five 08 he uses its potential to make a poetic parade of light and shade. Both Young and Austin are deeply committed to the notion that photography is primarily about an absolutely compelling presence, but they get there from opposite attitudes to technique.
As an exhibition Momentum completely ignores this. It presents a heroic rather than a eclectic choice of work arranged up and down the gallery walls to follow a crazy graphic time line that does little or nothing to help the viewer but a lot to suggest that PCP has had triumphant upward and onward life. I remember it very differently, a rocky up and down existence, at sometimes almost a photo commune, at others, as now, an organisation with snappy professional aspirations. I reviewed many of the early shows in the William St space next to the Bridge; I remember their informal presentation and a feeling of being in a really good amateur photo club feeling its way forward.
My best memories of PCP are of the Brisbane street premises when it seemed at its most open and experimental. I made my one creative appearance there in the Crime Scene show of 2005. I produced an installation modeled on the idea of a crime scene photograph but also on the notion of all photographs as a crime scene. In both cases there is a human absence; the photographer like the murderer is long gone from the scene of the photograph, so, often, is the human subject and the dead body of the victim. I do not think that the photographs of the work by Tony Nathan reflect anything of the quality of the original piece.
Despite the extraordinary difficulties of its presentation (when I visited it was impossible to identify many of the photographers as there were no wall labels) this show is not to be missed. There is much to be enjoyed from Graham Miller to Toni Wilkinson and the inkjet pioneer Paul Shewchuk. My favourite is Persona Non Grata by Juha Tolonen, a bleak snow-filled view of a Dutch high-rise painted in pastel colours and its power transformer bunker, on which someone has painted ‘persona non grata’ in black letter gothic graffiti.