wild colonial girl

A freelancer moves to Castlemaine

ABC Arts Online: photography critique

This is an example of the critical writing I do for ABC Arts Online, where I cover regional arts.

I have chosen this particular article because themes surrounding photography —  subject/object, portraiture, incorporation of the digital, rights of consent, power/control — will be key for my next novel and explored in depth in the proposed intertextual website.

This kind of critical voice will also be crucial in the analysis of a variety of photographers’ work on the site (who do portraits of children and teenagers) including Bill Henson, Sally Mann and Jonathan Hobins.

Questions more interesting than answers: Ballarat International Foto Biennale

Kirsten Krauth

A modest king walks across the river

The Ballarat International Foto Biennale is celebrating photographers like John Cato and Erika Diettes who are willing to sit and wait a long time to capture the perfect image, writes Kirsten Krauth.

Where do you look when confronting fierce grief? As you walk into the Mining Exchange building in Ballarat, where the Ballarat International Foto Biennale is currently on show, a series of photographic portraits hang at different heights from the ceiling, women with their eyes closed, on the edge of tears, on the brink. The black and white digital prints on silk flutter and move in the breeze as a new person walks in the door, offering a ghostly presence of grief. Colombian photographer and anthropologist Erika Diettes captures these women at a moment of abjection. The point where an emotion is so hard to deal with that the face closes off and the subject stops talking.

“Many times with my camera I have witnessed the moment when people have to close their eyes as they recall the event which divided their life into two parts,” says Erika Diettes.

Diettes is interested in tales of survival and how women’s faces and bodies express emotion as they recall and share trauma. Her photographic installation is a series of shrouds, or sudarios. Her photographs are the testimonies of 300 victims of violence in Colombia, women who have been first-hand witnesses to unimaginable atrocities to family and friends.

The Ballarat International Foto Biennale began in 2005 in neighbouring Daylesford under the directorship of photographer Jeff Moorfoot. As the only regional festival in Victoria focusing on international and local photography it soon outgrew its home base and moved to Ballarat, where it now exhibits at 73 venues around Ballarat and Creswick. The festival has workshops and talks with international guests, and often singles out photographers flying under the radar, whose works are rarely seen in Australia, let alone on regional tours.

This year the core program of 21 artists (there’s also a large fringe program) includes nine Australians plus international photographers from the US, Germany, South Korea, the UK, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Sweden and Colombia. While the biennale seems a quirky and compelling mix — performative portraits, classic nudes, close-ups of insects, personal memories — it is Erika Diettes’ soft confrontations that remain with you, her compassionate eye, her ability to connect, her patience in a world that barely stops moving.

Like Diettes, the work of the late Australian photographer John Cato comes from a willingness to sit and wait a long time — to capture a single and defined moment. This is rare in a digital age where photographers machine-gun click, pointing now, choosing later. Both Cato and Diettes’ work seems to demand private space and the time for contemplation. It seems a shame that in Ballarat they are both exhibited in a space that’s too busy (other photographers, other people); it would have been wonderful to see Sudarios in a local church, as Diettes often exhibits in sacred places.

Throughout his career, Cato was happy to spend months in the desert immersing himself in landscape, waiting for the conditions to change to get the perfect shot. Born in 1929 in Tasmania, and apprenticed to his photographer father (Jack Cato), John died in 2011 and the biennale hosts a major retrospective of his work, John Cato – A Tribute (1971–1991). A photographer reluctant to promote himself, he was an early pioneer of the lyrical in landscape, and was a wonderful teacher and mentor to a generation of photographers who attended Prahran College, including Bill Henson (a “freak” who Cato encouraged to leave the college as early as possible, because he “couldn’t teach him anything new”). Filmmaker and fellow tutor, Paul Cox, curated the retrospective (and launched it in Ballarat), after the idea was suggested by former student, Andrew Chapman.

Cato came to art photography late in life after what he called a ‘menopause’. Previously a commercial and press photographer, he took a match to all his previous work, and decided to focus exclusively on landscape photography and teaching. Cato’s early compositions of trees have the ability to transform one thing to another; an alchemy of texture and element. His Tree, A Journey series [1971–73] is a photographic essay featuring close-ups of trees — it’s tempting to call them portraits as they are so intimate— of stretched, dry bark as a melancholy face (#7), intricate patterns as if hovering above the deep dark etchings of waterways (#9); a sensual abstraction of a woman’s body (#12); and cobwebs of a hollowed out tree invoking an overexposed sci-fi future (#7).

As intimated by the series title, all of Cato’s work is about journey and process. In a documentary about his life’s work, John Cato, Between Sunshine and Shadow, produced by Andrew Chapman and David Callow, Cato says: “Questions are much, much more interesting than the answers. I don’t like the answers. I just want the questions.”

He wants you to ask questions too. In the Seawind series [1971–73], his focus is more on transience, elements in the landscape constantly shifting and changing: shapes of sand, seaweed, things that ebb and flow, rocks and seawater, the traces and imprints of trees and twigs. In Seawind #13, the water etched into tiny channels in the sand forms the shape of a tender plant and you wonder whether it’s an imprint of what was there before — or just the way Cato seems to see what others don’t.

In the documentary, Paul Cox reflects that Cato would think about a particular composition all day. Cato’s love of reflection, both contemplative and mirrored, is explored further in Alcheringa, a series [1978–81] of kaleidoscopic fibres and shadow realities, “another world”, where he removes the landscape from the literal, forcing you to “step back and interpret”. For this series he camped by a waterhole (he often travelled to the Flinders Ranges) for 40 days, over four years, and in the end used only 11 photographs. He would capture the water and reflections in the early morning each day for the short time before the breeze would come, skimming across the water, and the mirrored surfaces, and the photo, would be gone.

Cato’s photographs are exhibited in a series of small, sometimes dark, rooms off the main gallery space at the Mining Exchange. Each time you leave the quiet walls of Cato you confront the visual assaults of South Korean photographer, Young Ho Kang’s, 99 Variations — bold portraits that stop you in your tracks. Young Ho Kang, now in his early 40s, was born in Seoul. With no background in professional photography, his first photos of his girlfriend caught the attention of the South Korean fashion industry in 1998, and he quickly launched a career in advertising, fashion and film photography. His portraiture is unique in his interaction with mirrors, in how he dances in front of the camera, in his lack of training (in either photography or dancing), and his seamless movement between observer and participant and, at times, both at once; each photograph becomes a performative act — reminiscent of Cindy Sherman — a chance to shape an intimate connection with the viewer and explore his feminine, masculine and androgynous sides.

“Am I photographing the mirror or is the mirror photographing me? … the mirror became the space where I am both the director and the actor on stage,” says Young Ho Kang.

Kang’s contemporary portraits are playful, confronting and self-mythologising. He experiments with what he calls “image-telling” (beyond storytelling: combining performance, photography and characterisation), capturing figures often looking at the camera. A woman with a tousled bob (The Woman Without Bones Shoots the Arrow, While Hidden) is sheathed in delicate black lace flowers. She shoots from the hip, the camera and tripod projecting out from between her legs, the black lace creeping up to obscure her face, a triffid, a passion vine, taking her over. It takes me a long time to realise it’s Kang in the image, in all of them. In 99, a man with long black hair does a Blade-Runner-tango, caught in a vicious embrace with a cyborg — part-machine but with expressive head, hands and feet. The dance continues as we encounter a man covered in mucus (The Bird that the Fisherman Caught is Haughty), holding himself erect, torso twisted at the waist, ribs exposed, looking bewildered through the slime of the reborn, yanked out of the succulent ooze before he’s ready, other hands stuck to him, the camera covered in plastic wrap like a prophylactic. Highly choreographed, Kang photographs himself in a mirror, the camera positioned sometimes like a gaping hole — an umbilical cord linking Kang’s alter-ego to us, binding Kang to himself — or a sexualised eye, peering back at the viewer, questioning our viewing: just who is judging who?

Young Ho Kang is famous in South Korea for being the ‘dancing photographer’ when he does film shoots (of others as well as himself). Visiting Ballarat for the biennale, he did a performance of this dance to bemused dinner guests sitting around tables. Dancing in an office chair, he swanned around the space with a camera, moving with the flow of music to take photos of guests. It seemed to capture the spirit of the biennale overall: quirky and emotional, with highly personalised self-expression, and portraits on the edge.

At the Mining Exchange, and elsewhere through the program, performative elements of the everyday are emphasised, leaving you to consider the position of the observer, and where you are placed. What if the subjects are performing for you? When landscapes and portraits become lyrical, when they merge with the mirror, are they transformed into something else — and can you ever truly let go of the original image and be seduced by the new reflection?

The Ballarat Foto Biennale features a core and fringe program of international and Australian photographers, in a range of venues around Ballarat, until 15 September 2013.

– Kirsten Krauth

Kirsten Krauth is a writer/editor based in Castlemaine. Her first novel, just_a_girl, was released in June 2013. She blogs at Wild Colonial Girl and is Editor of the NSW Writers’ Centre magazine, Newswrite.

Original version of this article appeared at ABC Arts online:


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