Death and the photo are close relations, as every click of the camera records a moment that will never be repeated.
What we tend to admire in a photographer is the ability to transcend this inherent morbidity, to take the stuff of everyday life and shape it into something strange and marvellous.
No photographer could be more obsessed with death than Trent Parke, but neither is there a moment when his work succumbs to dull convention. In his exhibition, The Black Rose, at the Art Gallery of South Australia, Parke creates a private museum within the public museum. AGSA director, Nick Mitzevich, claims this show is not a survey or a retrospective, but a single work of art that has taken seven years from conception to realisation.
Although every room in The Black Rose contains striking, individual images – a beached whale with Parke’s young son playing in the background, a spider web glittering like a galaxy of stars – Parke’s work gathers impact from repetition. Dozens of small studies create the impression of a scrapbook or a visual diary. Parke is a story-teller, and the story is that of his own life captured as if in the fragments of a broken mirror.
This particular image actually appears in one of the photos. A framed portrait of the young Trent Parke has fallen to the floor. We look at his face through broken glass, while a dust pan and brush stand ready to sweep up the mess.
The portrait was presumably shot by Parke’s mother, Dianne, a keen amateur photographer who had her own dark room. The Black Rose begins with Dianne’s death from an asthma attack when Parke was 12 years old, his desperate dash for the doctor coming too late. This became the defining event of his childhood in Newcastle, a trauma that could not be discussed or even contemplated for years afterwards. He did, however, go into his mother’s dark room and teach himself how to develop pictures.
Today Parke sees the world in ways that most of us could never imagine. Like Bill Henson he deserves to be spoken of as an artist rather than simply a photographer. Now that everyone is snapping photos on smart phones and posting them on the web, the “photographer” label sounds more utilitarian than ever.
While Henson has always worked within the realm of the fine arts, Parke – who once aspired to be a professional cricketer – made his reputation as an award-winning newspaper sports photographer. It helped develop his eye and sense of anticipation. In a cricket match the climactic moment occurs in an instant, although covering a five-day test also requires patience.
Parke’s career took a new turn with the publication of his first book, Dream/Life (1999). Now a collector’s item, this publication brought him to the attention of the famous international photo agency, Magnum. Having passed a series of initiations he is now the only full Australian member of the Magnum group, the most élite club in photography.
Parke’s recent work could be called visionary or Symbolist, perhaps Gothic. I’ve met photographers who find his pictures too contrived or theatrical, and one can understand their discomfit. Parke’s taste for dramatic contrasts can make high noon in a country town look like midnight in Dracula’s castle. His preferred medium is black-and-white film, which imparts a look to his images it would be hard to reproduce digitally.
The Black Rose is an exercise in self-analysis, as Parke pours over his early years, trying to unearth memories of his mother and to understand his life in light of that loss. He keeps journals, which are collected into 14 volumes, combining words and pictures. He writes down his dreams; documents the minutiae of his family life, and the extensive road trips he undertakes with his wife, photographer, Narelle Autio, and their children.
It could be banal, but Parke can make even the simplest shots seem spectacular. The entrance to the show is a scene of birds in flight that wraps around the walls. It is an attempt to reproduce a dream sequence, with the birds as menacing as those in Hitchcock’s famous film. Each has been added to the image as a cut-out, underlining the theatricality of the presentation. There are also surreal oddities, such as a fish dangling from a tree branch.
This sets the scene for a show that reads like a dark fairy tale in which objects, people and animals are subject to startling transformations. The title comes from a plant cutting gifted to Parke by a nameless old man at a roadside motel who plays the role of the wizard. Parke felt attracted to the plant at first sight, although it bears little resemblance to an actual rose. Only later did he become aware of its symbolic implications, which he lists as: death, a long journey, a search for perfection, and black magic.
Those magical intimations are everywhere in this exhibition. The Obelisk in Newcastle is photographed as a pillar of bright light against a dark, stormy sky. A gleaming slippery dip appears no less otherworldy and monumental. A walk along an Adelaide beach alongside a rabbit becomes a nocturnal journey through an enchanted forest, with the rabbit as guardian spirit.
Later in the show, Parke recounts another nocturnal trek, through an isolated part of the outback, when he is almost bitten by a crocodile. From one room to the next the show moves between the suburbs of Newcastle and Adelaide, to remote stretches of bush and coastline. For the most part, the suburban images are even more disorienting than the ones taken in the bush.
Parke arranges small images in the form of Tarot cards, and experiments with predicting the future in dust swirls taken from his garden. The cards relate to his mother who owned a set, and allegedly foresaw her own death. The dust swirls are echoed by a series of photos taken on an Adelaide street corner in which Parke experimented with magnifying parts of an image and extending developing times until faces and figures dissolved into a swarm of particles.
Then there are the audio-visual experiments, such as a triple-sided enclosure called A squid dying, which features three wall-sized panels of flickering patterns, presumably the cells of a squid taken out of the water. It sounds macabre, but we get an ambient video complete with soothing music. Less pleasing is a black-and-white film of a pig roasting on a spit, created by combining a series of stills into a moving sequence. It’s a horror movie for vegetarians.
Although the images at first seem disjointed, as one moves from a room with black walls to one with white walls, then back to black, the threads of meaning keep gradually entwining. There is the new family home in Adelaide, and the ruins of a house knocked down by developers. We look for affinities between the ocean and the internal skin of a fish; or between a spider web, the ripples on a pond, and the cosmos. There is a relationship between an abandoned baby bird, a boy who has lost his mother, and a new child who stares out at us, innocent and fearless.
Birth, life, sex and death are played out across species. A little girl dances in a pink dress, a fox lurks in the bushes.
The withered corpse of a rat is echoed by the tiny form of a live rat standing on the roof of a house, and by Parke’s dream of being carried off by a giant rodent.
Parke leaves it to the viewer to explore the connections, which are potentially without limit. There is a kind of conclusion when Parke finds that a towering gum tree in the neighbours’ yard in Newcastle was preserved only through the intervention of his mother. He imagines this ‘Dianne Tree’ has been watching over him throughout all the vicissitudes of life. Beyond the deathly associations of so many of these photos it stands as a symbol of continuity; a living link with the parent he tried to forget, then struggled so hard to remember.
Socrates declared the unexamined life is not worth living. Parke has turned that examination into a complex, many-layered work of art in which the smallest details seem charged with cosmic foreboding.
Trent Parke: The Black Rose
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide
Until 10 May.
John McDonald flew to Adelaide courtesy of the Art Gallery of South Australia
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 25th April, 2015