Photography is Dead!
Long Live Photography

Museum of Contemporary Art,

July - November, 1996

Fiona Macdonald

Fiona Macdonald, GLADE I,
Silver gelatin print,
wood and polyurethane rubber,
145.0 x 172.0 cm

Fiona Macdonald

Fiona Macdonald, GLADE II,
Silver gelatin print,
wood and polyurethane rubber,
122.0 x 202.0 cm

  No, photography is not dead, not by a long shot. All its vital signs are pretty damn good since it mediates our culture more pervasively and effectively than any other visual technology. As curator Linda Michael points out, for artists photography is "more alive than ever . . . as basic as drawing, a source of images, a social index, a voyeuristic device, a means of quick record". Indeed, most of the artists represented in this exhibition ultimately rely on a very traditional use of photography to record an image which is not subsequently subject to manipulation of any kind.

Jane Eisenman

Jane Eisenman, Bonbonnčire, 1996

Artists like Fiona McDonald, Bill Henson and Lindy Lee play with the material of the photograph; hacking, weaving, overpainting. A handful, including Julie Rrap and Susan Fereday, use installation, while fewer still are actually engaged in what is offered as the principal rationale for this show. That is to document a period of defining change in the practice of photography given the rise of new technologies and the burgeoning possibilities for digital generation and manipulation of images.

Photography may be undergoing a period of transformation, yet aside from works by Jane Eisemann, Patricia Piccinini, Rosemary Laing and David Noonan, the digital generation is not overly represented here. This is not to say that the exhibition fails to somehow elicit the juncture between different imaging modes, be it evoking a nostalgia for a time when photography could still intrigue with amorphic images or seduce with its beauty, or through training our attention on the technology whereby these images are produced. By highlighting the abiding pervasiveness of photography in contemporary Australian artistic practice, Long Live Photography presents a compelling and remarkably coherent curatorial statement.

Patricia Piccinini

Patricia Piccinini, Sacrifice, digiprint, 1996

In the past, Jane Eisemann's images have drawn heavily on surrealist iconography and her take on Duchamp's Etant donne, bonbonnčire and Hans Bellmer's dolls is no exception. Eisemann has transposed her digitally manipulated image via pigment jet onto unstretched canvas to produce a soft-edged, almost painterly surface suggesting a romance distinctly lacking in Bellmer's sharp, shocking photographs. With new media Eisenmann has used a real model rather than anthropomorphic simultations to create her works. It is a model with the fully formed strength of a woman, thus inflecting her image with a power quite different to that of Bellmer's broken, infantile playthings. The image is perfectly symmetrical, betraying its process, but also evoking the sense that the female figure is diving into herself. The effect of Eisemann's manipulations is a curiously affirmative re-presentation of surrealist anxieties about feminine sexuality. The apparent ease and seamlessness of these computer-empowered reconfigurations is a wry comment on the powerlessness of a tormented surrealist imagination to tame the 'monstrous' female.

Rosemary Laing

Rosemary Laing, brownwork #3

Also foregrounding the female body, if not art history, are Patricia Piccinini's Sacrifice and Psycho Tourism. Both these digitised photographs belong to Piccinini's ongoing work, The Mutant Genome Project (TMPG), deranged cousin to the Human Genome Project, which takes the metaphor of genetic manipulation to its logical extremes. In Sacrifice, an impossibly 'perfect' (eugenically engineered?) woman sporting an ease with celebrity (it is after all Sophie Lee) and a smug little smile, looks onward with pleasure, totally oblivious to the monstrous computer-generated infant (Lifeform with Unevolved Mutant Properties or LUMP) in her arms. The 'child' is designed according to her specifications for maximum efficiency and minimum inconvenience and is not asserting its demands in the manner of its less than perfect human equivalent. It allows the 'mother' both total independence (perhaps to pursue a career in product endorsement) and 'maternal satisfaction'.

Robyn Stacey

Robyn Stacey, Fin de la Vie, 1995

Psycho Tourism is a more complex work featuring a vertiginous digitally produced Grand Canyon-style landscape against which Sophie Lee (her features flattened to humanoid impenetrability) stands holding the future (LUMP) in her hands. The dream of a virtual geography, the final subsumption of even the most sublime in nature by culture, isrealised here. This dream is echoed in the usurpation of the 'natural' function of motherhood by the computer. Piccinini's conflation of the strategies of medical research and consumer production, her emphasis on the central ground occupied by the female body in the struggle for social and economic dominance, together with the perfect fit between her form and her content, make for a strangely dispassionate, if at the same time amusing, glimpse of the future.
Fiona McDonald

Fiona McDonald, detail from School, 1996

Of the more traditional uses of photography, works by Merilyn Fairskye and Pat Brassington are particularly successful. Fairskye's black and white portraits of acquaintances, identified by first name, profession and nationality, are printed on large transparencies which cast wavering shadows on the wall immediately behind them. Their eyes closed, their faces overlain by an adumbrated duplicate, Fairskye's subjects evoke an other place, a place of private reverie and contemplation. After Image exemplifies photography's incapacity for definitive statements, of the elusive nature of portraiture given the ultimate inscrutability of individual subjectivity. Against these diaphanous works, the materiality of Brassington's images is stark indeed. Rising Damp is a delightful array of depictions of underwear and personal apparel at various stages of use, installed in a formal configuration. Far from eliciting the romantic allure of lingerie, these garments have been through the rough spin cycle more than once. They unabashedly betray their proximity to bodily secretions, to the material substance of life and not its airbrushed substitute. Pressed up to the lens these bloodstained pants and tattered, synthetic slips playfully comment on commercial photography's enduring burden to conjure up the sex appeal of the inorganic.

Long Live Photography's coverage of the spectrum of photographic technologies; from the deliberately 'unprofessional' use of disposable cameras and polaroids (Justene Williams and Destiny Deacon), to the well-executed print (Zahalka and Brassington), to the production of images using new media technologies (Piccinini and Laing), provides a useful frame for considering the range of intersecting practices in contemporary Australian photography. The exhibition offers a tightly curated and focussed alternative to its parent event, the Biennale of Sydney, and arguably illuminates the issues thrown up by the notion of Jurassic technologies far more effectively

Jacqueline Millner