When a show draws a huge crowd to the Town Hall on a rainy Friday night it is testimony to Sydney’s booming interest in photography. The occasion was the opening of Head On, the annual photo festival that has grown to colossal proportions over the past few years.
The influx of photographers and fans from around the world may help boost the numbers for The Photograph and Australia at Art Gallery of NSW, which is listed in the Head On program as one of 53 featured exhibitions. When I went back to the AGNSW for another look on Anzac Day I counted 26 visitors. The display and choice of works has failed to inspire audiences and – judging by the conversations I had at the Head On opening – left the photographic community cold.
The AGNSW show is massively overburdened with daguerreotypes while most of the Festival shows are compact and dynamic, relying on a tight selection of images. According to director, Moshe Rosenzveig, this year there will be 150 events and exhibitions spread over more than 90 public and private venues – not bad for a festival that only began in 2010, as an extension of the Head On Portrait Prize.
Open competitions remain central to Head On’s popularity. I helped judge the Landscape Prize this year and was staggered by the number of entries and the overall quality. Each section is judged ‘blind’, allowing unusual scope for amateurs to match it with the professionals.
NSW Parliament HouseThe finalists for the categories of Portrait, Landscape, Mobile, Student and Moving Image are divided between , the Museum of Sydney; the Depot II Gallery and Brenda May Gallery, both at Danks Street. For details of all the Festival exhibitions one may consult the website or pick up a free program at any participating venue. The greatest concentration of work is in the Lower Town Hall, with nine of the featured shows (until 10 May).
Head On owes its origins to the neglect of documentary photography, which has been pushed out of many mainstream art venues by the rise of digitally manipulated work. With the great postmodern discovery that the camera was capable of telling lies, photography rapidly became a medium for wholesale fiction and fantasy.
It has taken time for documentary photography to reassert itself, with projects such as Sebastiao Salgado’s Genesis touring museums worldwide. Head On has only gradually become receptive to a broader range of photographic styles. The Lower Town Hall display is notable for its variety. It ranges from images of breastfeeding mothers dressed as Renaissance Madonnas by French photographer, Georges Pacheco, to brutal black-and-whites of The New Culture of Violence in Latin America, by Spanish photographer, Sebastián Liste.
Pacheco’s work is a piece of textbook postmodernism. He sets out to deconstruct the traditions of Old Master painting, restoring a sensual dimension to images that protest their piety. At the same time he underlines the sacredness we invest in maternity. The most startling photo, used on the cover of the Head On program, features a pale-skinned Madonna suckling a black-skinned baby. Like Manet’s Olympia this woman stares out at us from the picture, half her torso laid bare. She is the antithesis of the meek, virginal Madonna depicted by the Renaissance masters.
The Liste photos are horrifying in their deadpan depiction of poverty and violence in the slums and prisons of Latin America. We see prisons in Venezuela where the inmates are also the warders, and – most striking of all – a children’s birthday party in the shell of a ruined factory that serves as a home. These pictures are in the best traditions of documentary photography, showing societies in alarming decline, along with the spirited response of those on the bottom of the heap.
A different take on the documentary genre comes from the photographers of VII Photo-Agency, in Smile – a selection from 300 images made by 19 group members. The only thing common to these pictures is the smile on the face of the subjects, whether it be Pope Benedict XVI or a naked girl festooned with tattoos. It’s reminiscent of the Family of Man show put together by Edward Steichen in 1955 in the way it emphasises those underlying things that unite us as human beings, yet the shared feature of a smile is less open to ideological and sentimental readings. There’s spontaneity and pleasure in each of these pictures.
One of the most talked-about Town Hall shows was Ramak Bamzar’s Iranian Wedding – a dazzling selection of images produced while working as a wedding photographer in Iran in 2005. Each picture is formally posed but utterly surreal in the way the brides (and mothers-in-law) disport themselves with extravagant make-up, or stand like silent ghosts draped head-to-toe in fabric. In opposition to the Smile show this is a graphic lesson in cultural differences, as we confront unfamiliar ideas of beauty and good taste.
There are a number of Festival shows that examine aspects of make-believe and reality. The two most eye-catching are Sandro Miller’s Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich; Homage, at the Black Eye Gallery (until 17 May); and Shunzan Fan’s Between Heaven and Earth, at the Stanley Street Gallery (until 16 May).
Miller’s show is a humorous homage to the iconic images of 20th century photography, using his friend, actor John Malkovich, as the model. Looking at these pictures is like leafing through a book of photography’s greatest hits, but with subtle, disturbing disjunctions. It is Malkovich’s familiar face that stares out at us when we might expect to see Che Guevara, Truman Capote, Marilyn Monroe or Salvador Dalí. It’s a romp, but one conducted with virtuosic skill.
Shunzan Fan is a young Chinese photographer who uses elaborate painted backdrops to portray ordinary people living out their dreams. The most bizarre is probably the oriental Oprah, complete with blackface. Most of the subjects look ecstatically happy, apart from a little girl in a pink dress posed in front of a fairy-tale castle. The masquerade fails to disguise her misery, as reality intrudes on the party. One thinks of generations of peasants photographed in front of backdrops of Tiananmen Square while never leaving their village.
In the oblique style so typical of contemporary Chinese art, Fan is quietly pointing out that in this age of prosperity most of China’s population find the gap between dreams and real life is only growing wider.
There is no escape from reality at the Conny Dietzschold Gallery, in a show called Timeframes, featuring work by German photographers, Thomas Kellner and Daniel Schumann (until 31 May). Kellner shreds the idea of conventional single-point perspective inherited from the Renaissance, with a series of photos of landmark buildings such as the Great Wall of China or the Reichstag, taken from contact sheets and combined into photo mosaics that lurch and swerve drunkenly. These pictures are not collages, but a genuinely new way of photographing places that have become tourist clichés, one that is much closer to the actual processes of sensory perception.
Schumann is a humanist who believes that a photograph can reveal fundamental truths about the way people think and live their lives. He is showing a selection of images from two series, one about same sex couples and parents in San Francisco; the other dealing with patients in a palliative care hospice in Germany. There is a powerful simplicity and directness in these photos, in which the subject is literally life and death. No rhetoric, no gimmicks.
Matters are not so clean-cut in Life From Time-Space, by South Korean photographer, Kyunghee Lee, at the Pine Street Creative Arts Centre (until 15 May). Lee’s photos are low-keyed and oblique, often giving the impression of being snapped from a moving vehicle. The artist wants to look at human life from the perspective of the universe, rather than adopt the classic idea that ‘man is the measure of all things’.
When the view is reversed we seem like small, fragile particles, hardly more notable than the ragged silhouettes of birds that seem to have been torn from the shadows of trees. Lee says she didn’t intend to take melancholy photos, but how can we not feel sad to be displaced from our centrality by the vast impersonal forces of the cosmos?
Head On 2015
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 9th May, 2015