Portrait of an Interior
Portrait of an Interior
Jessie Boylan | Dave Carswell | Ellen Dahl | Lisa Garland | Matthew Newton | Sarah Rhodes | Noah Thompson
Poimena Gallery, Launceston Grammar, Tasmania
July 22 – August 12 2021
Catalogue Essay: Portrait of an Interior
‘Mythology, imagination, its very soul has been sculpted and colored by its geographical circumstances’ –– David Weale, (1991) Islandness
On an island, there are edges, marked by coastline, by the regionality of spaces, and by deep economic and social precarity. How do these edges influence the landscape of our minds? An exhibition of photographs, Portrait of an Interior uses different forms of portraiture to explore what it means to inhabit lutruwita / Tasmania. Seven artists challenge Cynthia Freeland’s definition of the ‘portrait’. In her book, Portraits and Persons: A Philosophical Inquiry, Freeland states that the portrait must be: ‘(1) a recognizable physical body along with (2) an inner life (i.e. some sort of character and/ or psychological or mental states), and (3) the ability to pose or to present oneself to be depicted in a representation’ (Freeland, 2010, p74). The exhibition raises the question as to whether photography needs to be binary in its genres of portrait and landscape. Can landscape images describe and detect the spirit of the people who inhabit the land? Can a portrait of a person portray place? Whatever the definition of a ‘portrait’, the photographs in this exhibition give us a sense of what it means to live in lutruwita / Tasmania. Portrait of an Interior delivers a collection of individual stories that ripple and speak to the broader issue of environmental impact on the human, and human impact on the environment.
C. Wright Mills coined the term the ‘sociological imagination’ in 1959 to describe the theory that what is happening to one person is a symptom of something that is happening in society. Personal stories of moonbirding, schizophrenia and the thylacine are just as much portraits of place as they are portraits of individuals. Equally, each of the stories in Portrait of an Interior address conditions of life in the Anthropocene, our mental health, and thereby deepening our understanding of the world and its edges.
Fig 1. Dave Carswell, Leo Kelly’s Bedroom, 2020
Dave Carswell’s portraits are absent of a human figure but capture the spirit of his subjects. There are three lines of approach: Leo Kelly, Queenstown and Carswell’s journey to make sense of the place he spent his formative early childhood. Working in Queenstown has been Carswell’s way of understanding his familial history without turning the lens on his own story, ever mindful that the self is inescapable.
The late Leo Kelly, a recluse, lived in a ramshackle corrugated-iron house in Queenstown with a chapel and an observatory. Kelly was a religious man, artist, maker, and sufferer of schizophrenia. The image (fig 1) Leo Kelly’s Bedroom (2020) is sparse, almost clinical. Without knowing anything of Kelly’s condition, the photograph presents a frightening psychological space. It is a highly successful portrait. A portrait of an interior, a portrait of Kelly’s mind. Leo Kelly’s Bedroom forms an interesting pairing with Carswell’s landscape images of Queenstown showing the tortured hills, shrouded in fog. Taken together, they form a study of psychological geographies, and an appraisal of the influence exacted between people and place.
Fig 2. Jessie Boylan, The Smallest Measure, 2020
Artists Jessie Boylan and Ellen Dahl visualise their response to climate emergencies through the exploration of atmosphere, place and landscape. Boylan’s focus is the air pollution monitoring station and science program at Kennaook / Cape Grim, which is also an historical Aboriginal massacre site. Jointly managed by the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the air that arrives at Kennaook is some of the cleanest in the world, and, being free of recent human and terrestrial influence, it is considered ‘baseline’, giving us a greater insight into anthropogenic climate change. For Boylan, the site is a metaphor for global environmental conditions and comes to signify collective breathing. Boylan creates a meditative and embodied experience in the video by slowing the frame rate, connecting the rhythm of the viewer’s breath with the wind at Kennaook. The breath of the earth becomes our breath; we are sustained by the smallest measure.
Fig 3. Ellen Dahl, Field Notes from the Edge #2 / 41°28'30.8"S and Field Notes from the Edge #2 /#9+#10+#11+12 / 41°30'49.1"S, 2020
Dahl’s work is deeply poetic, using aesthetics to draw our attention to how the Anthropocene has altered the natural course of Earth’s evolutionary process, a portrait of the intersection between human time and geological time. Her photographs frame us at the precipice of the climate emergency. Growing up in the Arctic mainland of Norway and now living in Australia, Dahl is transfixed by what these landscapes at the periphery can tell us. She finds tension not only in her subject matter but also in her method. Employing the delicate process of making cyanotypes of Tasmania’s rock formations, Dahl tints the images with coal from the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard to represent the stain of human activity. The effect (which can been seen in figure 3) is incredibly beautiful, and intimidating, challenging us to comprehend what ordinarily we cannot see.
Capturing the inner life of a subject is fundamental to the success of a portrait. The artist’s relationship with the sitter is paramount. While making a portrait is a collaborative process, there is always a powerful element of control by the artist to visualise their concept. ‘Portraiture is not always a case of making your subject feel comfortable’, says Henry Carroll (2015, p65). Photographers work differently, of course. Richard Avedon and Diane Arbus, for example, actively built relationships with their subjects to capture their essence. Dutch artist, Rineke Dijkstra (b. 1959) is less concerned with the connection.
Richard Avedon (1923 – 2004) used a waist-level Rollieflex or view camera and flash in order to maintain eye contact with his subjects. Avedon would talk to his sitters while photographing them, sometimes guiding them into uncomfortable areas of discussion or asking them psychologically probing questions to evoke a reaction (Priestley, 2021, para 36). Diane Arbus (1923 – 1971) built intense relationships with the people she photographed, developing and encouraging a mutual fascination (DeCarlo, 2004). Fellow photographer, Joel Meyerowitz is quoted as saying in Patricia Bosworth’s 1984 unauthorized biography of Arbus: ‘She could hypnotize people, I swear. She would start talking to them and they would be as fascinated with her as she was with them.’ (Meyerowitz quoted in DeCarlo, 2004, para. 27) Photo sessions would last hours if not days and the same subjects would appear in her photographs over ten years.
Rineke Dijkstra’s Beach Portraits (1992 – 1996) capture transitional or awkward moments to bring tension to the frame. For this series, Dijkstra has her view camera and flash set up on the beach and does not spend much time talking to her subjects. They stand uneasily in front of the camera. As Carroll suggests in Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs of People (2015), Dijkstra has employed a subtle art of intimidation to reveal a vulnerability in her subjects (Carroll, 2015, p65). The scrutiny of her lens is barefaced. Rapport is denied. Yet the images flare with a high level of intimacy.
Fig 5. Noah Thompson, Regina, 2018
Noah Thompson brings his political science training to understand the social and environmental fabric of Tasmania. We see a photograph of his mother (fig 5) standing on the bank of a man-made lake in Tasmania’s Central Highlands. She watches her son intently, face heavy with concern. Her dress clinging to her body and her feet half-a-step back from the edge of the water which, like a cloud, has a silver lining. Does the hand to her lips question whether there is hope? The power of this image is not only in the composition – his mother dressed in green, standing like one of the trees drowned by the flooding of the lake – but in the emotion embodied by the figure. It is interesting to know that the other two portraits of Thompson’s in the show are friends of the family. There is an intimacy in these not as evident in the portraits of people he does not know who he has photographed for a balanced view of the issues for his book Huon (2018 – 2021).
A photograph is often more a self-portrait of the artist and less of a portrait of its intended subject. While a subject has some degree of agency as to how to present themselves for representation, the artist has ultimate control over how their subject is depicted. Graham Clarke suggests in his book The Photograph (1997), ‘the camera becomes an artificial eye which, through the creative 'lens' of the photographer, probes the world in an act of revelation (Clarke, 1997, p20). In other words, the I of the photographer becomes the eye of the camera. Each of the photographs in this exhibition are self-portraits of the seven artists who made them.
Fig 6. Matthew Newton, Moonbird Boy, 2009
Matthew Newton has dedicated his career to geopolitical activism through photography. He builds relationships with different environmental and cultural groups and spends years following their stories. Moonbird Boy (2009) is just one example of his alignment with different issues. The image (fig 6) shows a young palawa boy continuing the tradition of moon birding under the guidance of his community on Big Dog Island. The poetic image of the boy carrying a rod of mutton birds over his shoulders, almost as though the boy himself has wings, visualises how cultural traditions and identity are weighted and synonymous.
Like his forefather, Tasmanian landscape photographer Peter Dombrovskis (1945 -1996), Newton’s legacy will have a lasting impact on how Tasmania and the rest of the world see Tasmania’s environmental policy.
Often teaming up with poet Pete Hay, Newton bears witness to show us battlegrounds rarely accessible to the general public. In doing so he amplifies these stories, provoke reactions of care and empathy with the aim of fuelling a desire for change, for solidarity with those around him and a more socially aware and conscious outlook on life.
Fig 7. Lisa Garland, Phil, 2020
Lisa Garland lives inside the photographs she makes. This is her world. Garland lives on the North West Coast of Tasmania where she photographs her friends and the friends of her family, intensely drawn to the unique characters that embody the way of life of the area. This portrait (fig 7) of a man dressed in the Tasmanian Tigeresque hat and vest is not only a celebration of a unique individual. Phil is a provocation that the Tiger may still walk the West Coast of lutruwita / Tasmania. What ‘was’ once the world’s largest marsupial, growing up to 3 metres in length, is seen here as pelt. The absence of the thylacine is ever-present and ever felt on the island, its depiction used in cultural branding, in municipal council logos, represented by civic sculptures. As Martin Flanagan writes in The Age: “To grow up in Tasmania is to grow up with a powerful sense of absence in one of the world's most beautiful settings” (Flanagan, 2005, p11).
Fig 8. Sarah Rhodes, Under a Cloudy Sky, 2020
Freeland’s third component of a portrait is ‘the ability to pose or to present oneself to be depicted in a representation’ (Freeland, 2010, p74). Freeland suggests that only a human is conscious enough to present themselves for representation. I argue that the landscape can present itself as a collaborator. My work explores how people and place are intertwined through attunement. Italian philosopher, Tonino Griffero (2019) defines attunement as ‘our ability to be affected by our surroundings and affect them in turn' (Griffero and Tedeschini, 2019, p5). In figure 8, Under a Cloudy Sky (2020), the landscape dominates. It is a landscape image with a portrait within. The landscape as subject is attuned to the person as subject and vice versa. Imagine the island-like landform as a miniature version of our home, standing with foreboding behind her, and yet her back turns slightly towards it. Her hand is cropped midway accentuating an already an uncomfortable image. The land is deeply cracked reflecting a discontent in the sky. Is she turning away? From what? In shame or in fear? The two elements, people and place, are working together to communicate ideas for the camera. To quote Cézanne: ‘The landscape thinks itself in me, and I am its consciousness.’ (Merleau-Ponty, 1964, p67)
The work in Portrait of an Interior shines a light on the psyche of our island, lutruwita / Tasmania. It is evident through the differing approaches to portraiture that representing a human form is not essential for an image to be a portrait. A portrait describes a way of living. The inner life of the subject is revealed through the connection the photographer has with their subject, explaining why each artist elicits something different in the art-making process. Furthermore, landscape and human attuned, influence one another. These works provide insight into how we are emotionally tied to the landscape and how it reflects our selves. The biggest question? The extent to which being on an island holds influence over our psyche. Does the atmosphere of lutruwita /Tasmania, the boundaries marked by its coastline, and the regionality of our spaces make living on this island different from any other regional place? I think the sense of islandhood has a big role to play.
Carroll, H. (2015) Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs of People, Laurence King Publishing, London
Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph, New York, Oxford University Press.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. (1964) ‘Cézanne’s Doubt’ (1945), Sense and Non-Sense, Northwestern University Press, Evanston Illinois
Freeland, C. A. (2010). Portraits and persons: a philosophical inquiry, Oxford University Press, Oxford
Griffero, T.A.T., Marco (2019) Atmosphere and Aesthetics: A Plural Perspective, Palgrave Macmillan
Mills, C. W. (1959) The Sociological Imagination, Oxford University Press, New York
Fig 1. Carswell, D. (2020) Leo Kelly’s Bedroom
Fig 2. Fig 2. Boylan, J. (2020) The Smallest Measure
Fig 3. Dahl, E. (2020) Field Notes from the Edge #2 / 41°28'30.8"S and Field Notes from the Edge #2 /#9+#10+#11+12 / 41°30'49.1"S
Fig 4. Dijkstra, R. (1992) De Panne, Belgium, August 7 1992, Tate, image retrieved from: https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/cruel-tender
Fig 5. Thompson, N. (2018) Regina
Fig 6. Newton, M. (2009) Moonbird Boy
Fig 7. Garland, L. (2020) Phil
Fig 8. Rhodes, S. (2020) Under a Cloudy Sky