Simon Cowling | Quiet Moments - Photography at the Fremantle Arts Centre

Quiet Moments - Photography at the Fremantle Arts Centre

June 18, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

The 'problem' facing photography today us just an exacerbation of the dilemma it has always faced. The proliferation of cameras in everyone's hands has resulted in a quantitative rather than a qualitative change.

Photography has been stuck being “about” subject matter. Painting, for example, has not been about its subject matter for centuries; it is “about” paint, surface, color, illusion, many things, but rarely subject matter.

When you have millions upon millions more people with cameras, taking portraits, landscapes, still lifes, then “serious” photographers’ work gets buried. The answer? Simple. Do what “art” has always done: transcend the chatter of the masses. In this case, look inward, look at the “meaning” of the photograph. Don’t try to take a more beautiful landscape; you’ll get lost in the noise." ~ Thorney Lieberman

Well, yes, Thorney, you do have a good point. But unfortunately the 'meaning' of the photograph has led many so-called art photographers to forget entirely about subject matter altogether. Which makes for very dull viewing in many cases. 

Fremantle Arts Centre currently has two exhibitions showing - the excellent Aftermath by John Gollings and Quiet Moments, a group show curated by Susan Hill. John Gollings is a legend in Australian photography circles, and his exhibition of aerial photography of the desolated landscapes left by the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria is a wonder. Beautifully printed large scale prints captivate, inform and make us painfully aware of the fury of nature. FAC is to be highly commended for showing photography like this, and it is rewarding to see a major gallery in Western Australia taking the medium seriously.

FAC EXHIBITION 0615-5FAC EXHIBITION 0615-5 Quiet Moments, on the other hand, is a bit of an uneven show, and some of the images on display are a good example of 'meaning' outweighing content. Unless the meaning of your work is interesting to others and has the technique and construction to hold one's attention, then the work tends to become self-absorbed, cogent only to the artist and his/her acolytes. No doubt some of the photographers in this show had some highbrow philosophy attached to their work, but without any didactics attached to the images it was not clear what we were being asked to look at - they certainly didn't succeed on a purely aesthetic basis, which seems for some to have become almost a badge of honour in recent years. No doubt the catalogue may have explained some works satisfactorily enough to justify their inclusion, but I was not enthused enough by the images to fork out the $7 to find out. Instead of (or as well as) a catalogue which had to be purchased, the FAC should have supplied the usual free A4 printed sheets that gave the viewer some informative background information.

​Of the photographers whose work I enjoyed were David Bate, whose Bungled Memory series of broken crockery were whimsical and reflective, and Estelle Hanania, whose Shady series were powerful and well-executed images evocative of black magic and witchcraft. Both these photographers had something interesting to say, and said it engagingly and with a sense that they knew their craft. Some of the other photographers used the deconstruction of photographic technique as a statement to emphasise the integrity of their vision as being beyond the need for aesthetics, supposedly lending gravitas to 'meaning' over actual subject matter. That only works when ideas are powerful, real and thought-provoking, which in this exhibition was not the case. We needed a little boy in the crowd to point out the king's nakedness. But perhaps I'm just being a grumpy old man. 


As an example, the work by Christophe Canato, Ad Vitam Aeternum (the title should have warned me) was a series of photographs covered by tissue paper that had to be lifted after donning cotton gloves, as if in the Library of Congress rare books section. Puh-leeze. I couldn't be bothered, although I was tempted to tear each covering off its picture. But perhaps that was what Mr Canato was hoping would happen. FAC EXHIBITION 0615-15FAC EXHIBITION 0615-15 And while we're on what else annoyed me about this show was the curator's deliberate placing of pictures in odd, almost random places, sometimes breaking up a single photographer's work into several locations. In one instance, three small images from a series by Susan Hill (I think - they were well separated from her other series What Does the Moon Eat ) were scattered, one above a door, one on the wall next to the door and one on a wall in an adjoining corridor. Why? I thought we'd grown out of that sort of art bullshit at the end of the seventies. Yes, I'm definitely being a grumpy old man.

Having got that lot off my spleen, I once again thank the FAC for devoting its entire space this month to photography, for mine is just one, mainly uninformed, opinion, and I hope many will go to see the exhibitions on display. For my part though, thank god for John Gollings.


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