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FROM SMALL THINGS … : Queensland Small Towns Documentary Project

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Queensland Small Towns Documentary Project - Invite

Queensland Small Towns: Documentary Project – Invite

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Queensland Small Towns: Documentary Project

Brisbane Powerhouse, 12 November to 1 December, 2013

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Queensland’s regional areas are fast becoming the most common subject for the scrutiny of the photodocumentary image-makers. In August the Central Queensland Project exhibition was shown at the Powerhouse in Brisbane and now, only a few months later, another show entitled Queensland Small Towns: Documentary Project is hung in the same venue. This new contribution to the documentation of regional communities is a student/lecturer project initiated by the three big Institutions: University of Queensland, Queensland University of Technology and the Queensland College of Art (QCA).

With the support of academic staff, students of these photography and photojournalism faculties descended on the Queensland towns of Moranbah and Dalby. The exhibition’s coordinator Earle Bridger from QCA, chose these two regional localities because of the impact of mining. To add contemporary photodocumentary rigor to the activity, professional photographers: Russel Shakespeare, Adam Ferguson and Shehab Uddin were collaborators and advisors to the fieldwork.

The project’s mission, as stated in exhibition press, was to capture: ‘The stories, characters and everyday lives of people in Queensland outback towns’1. They further claim that:  ‘this unique photo-documentary project [will] reflect[s] the changing face of rural Queensland.’ 2

This project was instigated to provide an in-field experience for the students. They were charged with the challenge of avoiding the traditional news story and to: ‘capture a visually appealing and thought-provoking narrative to a high-professional standard.’ 3

The exhibition at the Brisbane Powerhouse was extensive–the photographic images and video interviews were shoehorned into every available space. This made viewing of the show a little like a ‘hide and seek’ exercise. Its curation within this space created a fragmented view confusing the holistic flow of the exhibition.

Queensland Small Towns Documentary Project - Installation ... Photo: Doug Spowart

Queensland Small Towns: Documentary Project – Installation … Photo: Doug Spowart

Queensland Small Towns Documentary Project - Installation ... Photo: Doug Spowart

Queensland Small Towns: Documentary Project – Video and Photo installation … Photo: Doug Spowart

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Under the tutelage of lecturers and the photodocumentary practitioners assigned the project, as well as study, research and personal preparation, one may think that these primary concerns are well covered. However there is one other critical factor–The preconditioning from existing media overexposure and hype. This rhetoric includes the following: That these small towns, besieged by the extraordinary pressures of the extractive mining industries, are places in a state of flux between the perceived benevolent farming practices of the past and the boisterous bully of mining. These once sleepy rural places are now zones of friction between itinerant workers, inadequate infrastructure, fractured families and ‘fracked’ communities. Any documentary commentator must not let this prejudice impede their impartial reportage. Furthermore one must consider methodological and ethical issues around the selection of subject/s, the gaining of access and trust and the authenticity of the resulting work.

All that aside, what of the exhibition Queensland Small Towns: Documentary Project? What I found was a proficient and diverse presentation of contemporary photodocumentary work. Mixed in amongst the contemporary trend of the bland document aesthetic were emotive and sensitive photographs of private lives in difficult times. Images were grouped as mini photo-essays enabling a concept or a subject to be pursued.

Importantly the opportunity provided to these students and the lecturers to get into the field is one of the best lessons they both can have. As mentor Russell Shakespeare comments: ‘I think these projects are so important on every level. To get students out working on self generated stories and also for the Town to have a group of photographers recording “History” as they see it, and then to be archived by the State Library, hopefully this project will continue on throughout other Qld Towns in years to come.’ 4

Unlike the financial reality that students may encounter in their post graduation world, a $50,000 Arts Queensland Creative Partnership Grant funded the Small Towns Documentary Project5.  And fittingly, considering the generous budget for the project, the photographs and video works will be gifted to the people of Queensland by their inclusion in the permanent collection of the State Library of Queensland.

This work will add to a significant archive for the future, however I’m concerned about the ‘thought-provoking narrative’ and its importance now. The exhibition at the Brisbane Powerhouse only marginally serves the purpose and power of contemporary documentary work … to communicate. No mention is given to exhibitions in Dalby and Moranbah–the communities that gave the project subject matter to image and document. The project is also left wanting in the application of eJournalism platforms like YouTube, Facebook, blogs and websites. Googling the project one encounters variations of the same succinct media release without external links to any online archive that says what was done, who did it and most importantly, provide a space for the communities documented to share and extend their stories.

The domain of the photodocumentary practitioner is not just the creation of material for the archive–its perhaps more important role is now, being in and of the times, and the communities and people who shared stories and submitted their lives to the gaze of these lens men and women. These stories are required now to inform, to cajole, to stir commentary and demand corporate and political acknowledgement, response and action. That’s where documentary photography does its best work …

Dr Doug Spowart

December 27, 2013

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1  http://brisbanepowerhouse.org/events/2013/11/12/queensland-small-towns-photo-documentary-project/

2  Ibid

3  http://www.uq.edu.au/sjc/qld-towns-project

4  Online correspondence from Russell Shakespeare

5  http://www.linkedin.com/pub/earle-bridger/b/521/737

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What follows are images and videos from the exhibition.

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Please Note: The photographs in this exhibition were presented as multiple image groups – only single images represent the photographer’s body of work. I have included the photographer’s statement under most images to give an understanding of their project and the context for the work. Most images in this review are from camera exposures within the exhibition environment and may not represent the image/s accurately due to reflections and uneven lighting.

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Al Phillips, Drilling Supervisor  Moranbah   Adam Ferguson and Brodie Standen, 2013

“Al Phillips, Drilling Supervisor + Chris Mannion, Driller, Moranbah” Photo: Adam Ferguson and Brodie Standen, 2013

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Kimberley McCosker Potential buyers survey a pen of cattle at the Dalby sale yards. The weekly auctions are Australia’s larget one-day cattle sale, with over 6,000 head of cattle passing through each week....Photo: Kimberley McCosker

Potential buyers survey a pen of cattle at the Dalby sale yards. The weekly auctions are Australia’s larget one-day cattle sale, with over 6,000 head of cattle passing through each week.Photo: Kimberley McCosker

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Joyce Coss 83 years old with "Waddles" her Sliky Cross. 63 years living in Warra Warra. Dalby Region. Russell Shakespeare 2013

“Joyce Coss”
83 years old with “Waddles” her Sliky Cross.
63 years living in Warra.
Photo: Russell Shakespeare 2013

Beyond the sporting ovals, on the outskirts of Moranbah, Sean lives in a trailer. The trailer is powered by a petrol generator and drinking water tanks are filled at a family member's house. He lives there by choice, a house has “too many walls” . Separated from his wife Sean shares custody of their 5 boys. Charlie, Darcy, Bailey, Harley, and Riley spend each weekend with their Dad and I was fortunate enough to spend a few days with them while they visited over school holidays.  With Moranbah as a backdrop, a town w here much of the population's main objective is obtaining and retaining material wealth, getting rich and getting out, Sean's lifestyle begs a closer look at what separates need and want. I would like to thank Charlie, Darcy, Bailey, Harley, Riley and Sean for their hospitality and allowing me to tag along with them. ...Photo: Cory Wright

Beyond the sporting ovals, on the outskirts of Moranbah, Sean lives in a trailer. The trailer is powered by a petrol generator and drinking water tanks are filled at a family member’s house. He lives there by choice, a house has “too many walls”. Separated from his wife Sean shares custody of their 5 boys. Charlie, Darcy, Bailey, Harley, & Riley spend each weekend with their Dad and I was fortunate enough to spend a few days with them while they visited over school holidays. With Moranbah as a backdrop, a town where much of the population’s main objective is obtaining and retaining material wealth, getting rich and getting out, Sean’s lifestyle begs a closer look at what separates need and want. I would like to thank Charlie, Darcy, Bailey, Harley, Riley & Sean for their hospitality & allowing me to tag along with them. Photo: Cory Wright

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Moranbah McDonald’s which lies on the outskirts of town. ... Photo: Julia Whitnell

“Moranbah McDonald’s which lies on the outskirts of town” Photo: Julia Whitwell

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Eva Turek-Jewkes-Queensland Small Towns Documentary Project

The Wilkie Creek Rural Fire Brigade in conjunction with other local fire brigades, coordinate necessary hazard reduction fires, as well as keeping life threatening fires at bay during the high risk summer season. Pictured [in my project] are their lives on a daily basis, as well as their involvement in a hazard reduction fire completed near Lake Broadwater in October, 2013. Photo: Eva Turek-Jewkes

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Four videos by students from the University of Queensland School of Journalism and Communication:

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Grassdale Feedlots ... Photo installation: Victoria Nikolova

“Grassdale Feedlots”
A curios 2 year old, 620kg Hereford steer in Grassdale Feedlots state of the art facility (to extreme left of series). Pens are cleared every 50 days as part of the facilities self-audited quality and health assurance measures. World class traceability systems allow staff to track, monitor and isolate specific data on each individual beast, including birth date, purchase date and origin, weight, breed, feeding ration and medical record. Established in 2008, Grassdale Feedlot is a 13,000 acre property 30kms south of Dalby centre. Currently with over 38,000 head of cattle and a capacity of up to 50,000 head, the feedlot boasts one of the largest and most technologically advanced feedlot facilities in Australia. The estimated $60 million facility employs over 50 staff and is a major driver in the economic stability of the Dalby, Millmerran and Chinchilla region and remains at the forefront of grain-fed beef production in Australia employing some ground breaking technologies in milling and feeding processes. Photo installation: Victoria Nikolova

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Grassdale Feedlots ... Photo installation (detail): Victoria Nikolova

“Grassdale Feedlots” Photo installation (detail): Victoria Nikolova

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Liss Fenwick Garden Bed. Cunningham Street ... Photo: Liss Fenwick

Garden Bed. Cunningham Street Photo: Liss Fenwick

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"Some Trash, Others Treasure" Pioneer Park Museum in Dalby seems a place suspended in time, somewhere around the beginning of the 20th century. Located on Black Street - once very quiet and peaceful but nowadays one of the main truck parking spots in town - the museum is a magical space with colonial houses and antique machinery, accompanied by rustling of leaves and birds trill. Elaine and Daniel Fox, the main founders, have lived on-site for almost 11 years, taking care of this magical place on a daily basis. They began 23 years ago with only seven antique tractors. Today, they can boast of one of the largest collections of operating antique agricultural machinery in Queensland - some of which date back to the early 19th century. Together with a few passionate volunteers they keep the place alive and once a year, during Field Weekend, the town of Dalby travels in time to discover again the old knowledge, tradition and way of living of their ancestors. The Museum is mostly financed by an annual fund from the local government, entry tickets, and the craft shop income and he Field Day. However, it is hard enough to keep it working, with a fast developing technology and little funding; they struggle to keep their museum operating in the modern, quickly changing mining town, that Dalby as become. ... Photo:  Kasia Strek

“Some Trash, Others Treasure”
Pioneer Park Museum in Dalby seems a place suspended in time, somewhere around the beginning of the 20th century. Located on Black Street – once very quiet and peaceful but nowadays one of the main truck parking spots in town – the museum is a magical space with colonial houses and antique machinery, accompanied by rustling of leaves and bird’s trill. Elaine and Daniel Fox, the main founders, have lived on-site for almost 11 years, taking care of this magical place on a daily basis. They began 23 years ago with only seven antique tractors. Today, they can boast of one of the largest collections of operating antique agricultural machinery in Queensland – some of which date back to the early 19th century. Together with a few passionate volunteers they keep the place alive and once a year, during Field Weekend, the town of Dalby travels in time to discover again the old knowledge, tradition and way of living of their ancestors. The Museum is mostly financed by an annual fund from the local government, entry tickets, and the craft shop income and the Field Day. However, it is hard enough to keep it working, with a fast developing technology and little funding; they struggle to keep their museum operating in the modern, quickly changing mining town, that Dalby has become. Photo: Kasia Strek

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No Access. This work is not against mining. For whether it be the computers we use to stay connected, the solar panels we purchase that make us feel socially responsible or the cameras I use to tell stories, mining is embedded into the fabric of the 215 t century. The debate should not be whether or not to mine, but rather how is mining to be controlled. What became obvious in Moranbah was that combined the mining companies controlled the political and social agendas. Through ostensibly generous salaries, subsidized housing and rare community donations mining companies have become the pushers and the population the addicts. Mine workers are afraid to speak to strangers for fear they are the media. Criticism is only whispered when in the company of friends. The right to have an opinion that may differ from the company has been severely eroded. To express that opinion puts job and home at risk. No Access argues that Australia should retain exclusive rights to its resource management. It argues for controlled mining. But most of all it presents a snapshot of the liberties we have sold in order to satisfy those who seek to maximize profits and minimize social responsibility. Moranbah. David Lloyd. 2013.

“No Access”
This work is not against mining. For whether it be the computers we use to stay connected, the solar panels we purchase that make us feel socially responsible or the cameras I use to tell stories, mining is embedded into the fabric of the 21st century. The debate should not be whether or not to mine, but rather how is mining to be controlled. What became obvious in Moranbah was that combined the mining companies controlled the political and social agendas. Through ostensibly generous salaries, subsidized housing and rare community donations mining companies have become the pushers and the population the addicts. Mine workers are afraid to speak to strangers for fear they are the media. Criticism is only whispered when in the company of friends. The right to have an opinion that may differ from the company has been severely eroded. To express that opinion puts job and home at risk. No Access argues that Australia should retain exclusive rights to its resource management. It argues for controlled mining. But most of all it presents a snapshot of the liberties we have sold in order to satisfy those who seek to maximize profits and minimize social responsibility. Moranbah. David Lloyd. 2013.

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The photographers and video producers retain all copyright in their images and presentations. Text and installation photographs © 2013 Doug Spowart

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FACING FACES: Judging the photographic portrait

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Catalogue_PIC

OCA Catalogue Cover

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Olive Cotton Award Floortalk, Tweed River Art Gallery

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On September 15 about 30 people attended a floortalk in the exhibition space of the 2013 Olive Cotton Photography Award (OCA). In my preparation I reflected on the demands of a floortalk. Over the years I have given quite a few floortalks about my own as well as the work of others, including one at a previous Olive Cotton Award. I have also attended presentations by others. In this years OCA award I wanted to create an inclusive space for the audience. Rather than taking centre stage, I wanted to empower the attendees in a kind of role reversal­–to bring to the discussion their approaches to looking at, and responding to, the photographic portrait.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Olive Cotton Award installation at Tweed River Art Gallery

 

I introduced a concept for viewing and interpreting photographs that I call ‘positioning’. It relates to the interaction that takes place when looking at a photograph – particularly a portrait. It is what reaches into our emotions lived experience and solicits our response. The premise of this floortalk format draws upon the notion that everyone is a judge and is also informed by Roland Barthes’ concept of the ‘death of the author’. I am interested in how the viewer’s interpretation relates to their own life’s experience rather than a direct connection with the author’s intent for the communication. After all, I as the floortalk presenter, can only offer an opinion based on my personal experience and knowledge.  

What follows is a conversational précis of the floortalk and the concepts covered relating to portrait photography and the OCA. After a formal introduction by Tweed River Art Gallery’s Public Programs Curator and Coordinator of the Award Anouk Beck, I addressed the group.

 

Doug Spowart presenting the floortalk

Doug Spowart presenting the floortalk

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We stand this morning in a gallery exhibition dedicated to the most photographed subject of all – the human face! The floor talk today will explore the idea of the photographic portrait and how we reflect on the success of this visual communication.

There is an old saying that you can tell a great portrait because the eyes follow you around the room – Well any portrait, even a painting, where the subject is represented looking toward the photographer’s/artist’s viewpoint will capture the subject in a way that will enable this ‘phenomenon’ to be observed. So this method for assessing a portrait will not successfully operate here.

Another way of knowing what great portraits look like is to ask an expert, whomever they may be, to make a decision. Awards such as the Olive Cotton Award use this principle and over the years an impressive list of pre-eminent photographers and/or critics and commentators on photography have been commissioned for the task. I must acknowledge the judge for this year’s award – Helen Ennis. I cannot think of anyone who would be as knowledgeable of the ideas, thoughts and working methods of Olive Cotton than Helen Ennis. In her connection with Olive Cotton, Ennis has written several books and catalogues, selected works and curated exhibitions and is in the process of writing Cotton’s biography. Ennis has provided for us all a greater understanding of Cotton’s work and prominent position within the history of Australian photography.

Now, let us think about portraiture and the act, as we find ourselves today, looking at and evaluating portraits. It is interesting to note that although the portrait is at the top of the list of photographic subjects, we can see in this award there is no standard approach. As we look around this gallery space today no two portraits look the same – I’m not referring to the diversity of subject’s portrayed, but rather the way the photographer has created and presented the subject to us. The photographs range from snapshots of unplanned spontaneous moments to documentary reportage and illustrative magazine styled images, and then to the overtly staged theatrical tableaux. Some images are derivative – that is that the approach to the image replicates time honoured, and sometimes perhaps over used or common, techniques, styles or treatments. Other images may represent subject and styles in ways that are vibrant and fresh.

When a portrait is made the photographer makes personal decisions relating to equipment selected, technique, style, lighting, posing, gesture and subject expression. They make a portrait that satisfies their personal urge to tell a story. This story is usually firmly related to the subject; although it can be a theme the photographer is investigating or be based on something from the photographer’s own life experience. The photographer may want or even demand that viewers take from the work a particular and specific meaning. The artist’s statement accompanying exhibited works can support and signpost and influence the readings that a photographer may want to pass on.

However, I would suggest to you, that once the image leaves the photographer and is presented publically a new paradigm exists. Writer and commentator on photography Roland Barthes wrote ‘… the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.’ (Barthes 1977:148). In this instance I propose that the photographer is the author – the reader is the viewer. When looking at photographs the viewer connects their life experience to what the work presents, and the narrative or meaning that emerges can no longer be the photographers alone – it is a hybrid born by the activation of the viewer.

We are all judges in a way and each of us has a unique experience of the world that directs and supports our response to images that we view. We will no doubt encounter portraits here today that are universally powerful and profound yet there will be other images that may reach individuals amongst us in the most direct and personal ways. What this means is that each of us is a kind of judge, and that our individual responses may be just as profound as those experienced by Helen Ennis five or so weeks ago.

Today then, I invite you all to be the judge and what we will be doing is engaging with selected works from the exhibition to discuss and review – and I will be asking you to contribute to the conversation. To assist you with this I’d like to pass on the concept that may help us with this process – it’s essentially about what I will call ‘positioning’. Your response to a portrait photograph, or perhaps in another context any photograph or work of art, is informed by your personal background as we have already discussed.  Your ‘position’ can be informed by the synergies of your life experiences that may include; physical, ideological, religious, gender, specific demographic, life experience of birth, death, love, illness, war or personal achievement or tragedy. So when we talk about a portrait please consider your position…

[What followed in the floortalk was a conversation by the participants moderated through my involvement. The audience contributed some interesting responses and ideas about portraits that included; Tamara Dean’s ‘Brothers’ 2013, Russell Shakespeare’s ‘Bob Katter’ MP 2011, Tina Fiveash’s ‘Twin Spirits’ 2013, Imogen Hall’s ‘Barry Jones and the ancestor’ 2012. At times there were powerful and emotional connections made by particular participants which were then shared through this floortalk conversational strategy.

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Brothers

Tamara Dean’s Brothers

Participants discussing their position and response to a portrait

Participants discussing their position and response to a portrait

Russell Shakespeare's Bob Katter MP

Russell Shakespeare’s Bob Katter MP

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I was asked to give my position on the winning photograph – Trent Parke’s ‘Candid portrait of a woman on a street corner’ 2013. Many attendees did not –or– could not find a ‘position’, that would enable them to understand the reason behind its selection. I spoke from my position informed by my background in the art and professional practice of photography and many years dedicated to the education and critique of this medium – I knew from comments made by the judge on announcing the award that she found Parke’s image something that she at first didn’t standout as so many images do – but she kept coming back to it. My position on the image was as follows…]

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Trent-Parke's

Trent Parke’s Candid portrait of a woman on a street corner

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On first encountering Parke’s image it does not give us much – it initially appears as a field of greatly magnified monochrome film grain, which hides the delicate structure of a female face. A closer view reveals less, and interestingly, the further away you move the ‘sharper’ the image. Parke’s portrait demands more of the viewer to find meaning – it challenges, it questions, it’s not a specific person, unlike every other portrait in this award, but more the generic form. For me it also comments about the romance of film and ‘humanness’ in the digital age. At the beginning of this floortalk I suggested that much of portraiture can be derivative – but this image has no provenance in contemporary portraiture – it stands alone, perhaps signalling that there is room for new and exciting representations of the human visage yet to come…

[The floortalk concluded and attendees continued viewing other portraits in the show from their newfound critical ‘position’. The outcomes and exchanges resulting from my floortalk strategy was, for me, personally enlightening and rewarding. A number of participants came up after the talk to say how much they had enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity to discuss work and have their ideas, opinions and experiences shared in that way.

From their participation and responses today one could perhaps say that the author is dead – and many readers have been born …]

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Dr Doug Spowart    3 October 2013

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A PDF catalogue of the Olive Cotton Award is available here  2013 OCA catalogue for web_screen

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Barthes, R. (1977). Image Music Text. London, Fontana Press.


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Photographs of the floortalk © 2013 Victoria Cooper.  All other images are the copyright of the photographer.

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Creative Commons-by-nc-nd.eu

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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June 24 – Visiting the 2011 OLIVE COTTON

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Tamara Dean's First Prize Image "Damien Skipper"

The Tweed River Art Gallery @ Murwillumbah is once again hosting the Olive Cotton Award for Photographic Portraiture – The exhibition will be on show until July 31, 2011.

This year the Judge was Naomi Cass from CCP in Melbourne and as usual the selected works present a comprehensive review of contemporary Australian photo portraiture from the best photographers in the country as well as the latest crop of emerging image-makers. The portrait remains one of the most fascinating genres of photography – there is something about the face that connects with the viewer.

Some observations

In this year’s Olive Cotton Award for Photographic Portraiture there was something for everyone. This exhibition always provides a broad overview of contemporary photographic practice as 2D wall presented images.

The process and media by which the works were made were described by didactic panels placed around the gallery —everything from cyanotypes to gliclee printing and from Type C to inkjet. Those looking for historical processes found large format (whole plate?) ambrotypes paying tribute to the soft romantic feel of 19th century photography. Sizes of the works ranged from the larger than life images of the famous and infamous to the small personal and the everyday through which we can all find some empathy and connection.

In this mix there seemed to be a trend towards the selection of the reinvented holiday or family album snapshot—mostly in black and white. Some of these images showed the poser/s as acting out or ‘hamming up’ personal moments which when placed on the gallery walls transformed these images into arcane representations of everyday life. Others, whether staged or seen images, were illustrations of current political and cultural issues reframed by utilizing the informality and familiarity of the snap shot and then presented as austere gallery-crafted images for the consideration of thoughtful viewers.

For me, the most successful portraits are the ones that draw upon a deep understanding of photographic quality (tone, colour, detail, time etc.) and aesthetics. Alongside this there needs to be a flexible and experimental approach to style embedded in the psyche of the photographer that is combined with an empathy and curiosity for the subject. For me the portrait is developed through time spent by the photographer in collaboration with the subject and created in a moment of synergy and intensity that distils the portrait concept. The strength, depth and intensity of this collaboration, if handled skilfully, can visually transfer an afterimage onto the viewer’s imagination and memory that transcends the gallery experience.  For me all of these decisive factors came together in not only the winning image of Tamara Dean, Damien Skipper, but they were also very strong in Russell Shakespeare’s, Michael Zavros and Samantha Everton’s, Illusion.

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Victoria Cooper  25 June 2011

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TO ACCESS a list of the finalists and the winners visit:

http://www.tweed.nsw.gov.au/ArtGallery/ArtGalleryOliveCotton2011Exhibition.aspx

DOWNLOAD a copy of the catalogue for the 2011 Award here

http://www.tweed.nsw.gov.au/ArtGallery/ArtGalleryOliveCottonDetail.aspx?Doc=pdfs/2011_OCA_catalogue_emailable.pdf

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