By Geoff Dyer
I was introduced to the work of Trent Parke (born in Australia in 1971, a member of Magnum since 2007) by a mutual friend, the photographer, Matt Stuart. He showed me two books by Parke, both self-published. The first was The Seventh Wave (2000), photographs of Australia’s beaches, by Parke and his partner – now wife – Narelle Autio. A more intimate and egalitarian collaboration is hard to imagine. Without the list at the end explaining which pictures are by whom it would be impossible to tell them apart. Much of the action takes place in or under the waves. You don’t look at this book. You open it and plunge in. Whoomp! Immediately, you’re immersed, submerged. They’re like pictures of being born, of people exploding into life beneath the sea, or bursting through the surface and into being. It’s as if evolution has been speeded up and compressed so that the origins of life on the planet turn, in a split-second, to the creation of an individual human life. In the same breath it’s mythic and candid – street photography from Atlantis! In one photograph we get a blurry echo of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel. Here it’s two hands almost touching underwater, one clutching a ball of burning light. In a related picture – included in the Minutes to Midnight series – we see the birth of the photographers’ own son, erupting from the water, dragging the umbilical cord like a lifesaver.
The surface of the sea is a film separating two worlds, that of water and that of air. Though absolute the distinction is perpetually on the brink of dissolving, melting away. People fly through the water as if suspended in a turbulent sky, or float through great clouds of aquatic light. That’s what water is for Parke and Autio – liquid light. Forms dissolve, blur, swim into and out of focus. Quick and silver, the water is a flash-flood of mercury. Part of the attraction of this undertaking, I’m guessing, is that the conventions of perspective and composition are not so much broken as bent out of shape, temporarily suspended. So completely has perspective been absorbed into our understanding of human perception that its abandonment suggests that we might be sharing a non-human or shark’s-eye-view. This lurking sense of danger is also a product of association. When a squid is under attack it emits clouds of ink – which is exactly what we get here: huge oil spills of dense, billowing black, while people dive and bomb through the surface and into the picture frame. They’re like human depth charges, or flash-bulbs exploding. As the shockwaves pass through the pictures it’s as if they’re in the process of being blasted apart – except it’s all pretty puny in comparison with the massive force of water, the rips and moon-tugged tides. Life on earth, in some of these pictures, looks like it could be ending as well as beginning.
My Parents, Richard, Newcastle NSW, 2003, from Minutes to Midnight
Untitled (Cat#14), 2001, from Dream/Life & Beyond
Narelle, six months pregnant with our son Jem, 2003, from Minutes to Midnight
The other book, Dream/Life, was actually published a year earlier. As with The Seventh Wave the impact is immediate and jolting. Wow! It’s only as you look at it over time that you sense that there is a degree of dues-paying going on. As with certain jazz albums original work is mixed up with a selection of standards – Parke’s own take on other photographers’ compositions. In The Seventh Wave there is what appears to be a version of Martin Munkaski’s 1929 photograph of silhouetted boys charging into Lake Tanganyika. This was the picture that had a profound effect on Henri Cartier-Bresson after he travelled to Africa in 1931: ‘that tremendous feeling for plasticity, for life itself, the black, the white, the spray!’ He might have been describing Parke’s picture. Was this a deliberate allusion and homage on Parke’s part? I don’t know. But photographers tend to be deeply aware of what has gone before. A picture of white hats, flowing down a street in Dream/Life, is surely a response to the call of Tina Modotti’s1926 picture, ‘Workers’ Parade’, of sombreros borne along by the tide of history.
The most obvious debt in Dream/Life is to Robert Frank. We don’t want to get bogged down in the anxiety of photographic influence, but it is possible that, as an artist, Parke became fully himself only after he had thoroughly assimilated the lessons of Frank’s vision. One of the animating procedures of modern art in all media is to absorb the work of a master and then take it back to – in this case, turn one’s lens on – one’s native land. This is not copying because the approach, the lens itself, is changed and recalibrated by what it depicts, and confronts. In Parke’s case the revelation was the transforming power of Australian light. The light is inescapable, tremendous. Technically, the strength of the light meant that some detail could remain illuminated while all else was plunged into a pandemonium of roiling smoke. Darkness visible! The brighter the day the darker it could be made to look.
Dream/Life comes to a premature or arbitrary close in that it signals the impatient ending of a phase, not the completion of a project. It establishes an approach, suggests parameters of style and subject that will characterise – but not limit – Parke’s future output. Later works will continue but intensify the Dream/Life vision so that, at its most extreme, Sydney becomes a kind of ghost city, in the process of being annihilated by light. A passer-by will be transformed into an accidental super-hero: Solar-man, a bleached absence of pure radiance! (Part of the fascination of this picture is of the photographer-as-magician kind: how did he do that? The difference between magic and photography is that the spell remains unbroken even when the technical explanation – which, in any case, I cannot recall – is forthcoming.) People on a beach will gaze towards the horizon as if at a nuclear test, source of a light so bright that even the sky becomes a vast shadow.
Photography is a generous, abundant medium and Parke is a voracious photographer. Keeping track of what he’s been up to since the publication of these two books can be a little difficult. He is amassing a vast quantity of pictures, working on multiple projects, which are still in the process of being arranged, edited and exhibited. In some of the large format colour photos of billboards and intersections in cities and suburbs it seems as if Jeff Wall has come out of a pub and, confronted by blocks of unyielding colour, become convinced that he has stumbled into an entire world predicated on his idea of artistically heightened reality. I mean, what is that guy doing outside the store with the Championship Bay Trophy sign? Is he the only competitor in the 100 metre street-crawl? Or is he the Australian incarnation of one of those Buddhists who make immense pilgrimages to Tibet, on foot, stopping every few yards to prostrate themselves and offer homage – in this case to the liquid god Castlemaine. It’s also an emblematic image in that it reveals, in densely concentrated form, a quality shared by much of this colour work: the feeling of a larger emptiness that defines and lies beyond the picture frame. It’s as if every Australian city were a franchise of The Truman Show – except it’s not reality that lies beyond the flimsy construct of the city, it’s a nothingness that can never be kept entirely at bay; developers’ plans to expand into this emptiness simply present it with new corners to infiltrate.
Then there are the Christmas pictures, provisionally collected under the title Trent Parke’s Family Album. This is like a slasher movie in stills – in which the murder weapon turns out to be an inflatable toy. Or, to put it the other way around, a fun-for-all-the-family comedy in which something sinister – a slaughtered mouse beneath the stairs – always lurks. Looking at these pictures you wonder if `Silent Night, Holy Night’ might actually be a murder ballad in disguise.
Great Grandma, 2007 from The Christmas Tree Bucket
Skeleton in the kitchen, 2007, from The Christmas Tree Bucket
Parke’s most ambitious project of the last few years has been Minutes to Midnight, exhibited in several museums but not yet published as a book. It is the record of a two-year, 60,000 mile road trip around Australia that Parke and Autio began in 2003. (Once again a precedent set by Frank – the mid-1950s trip that led to The Americans – springs to mind.) The result is what Parke calls ‘a psychological portrait’ of Australia in the midst of the worst drought in the country’s history – and of the fires that resulted from that drought – and, less tangibly, of the sense of threat that came in the wake of the Bali bombings in which many Australians lost their lives.
Settlement in Australia is centrifugal. Settlement clings to the rim of the island-continent. As a result the interior possesses a perpetual and primal allure. An expedition by the Prussian explorer Ludwig Leichhardt (who disappeared in the Australian desert in 1848) provided the inspiration for Patrick White’s 1957 novel, Voss, about a doomed attempt to cross the continent. ‘Every man has a genius,’ says Voss at one point. ‘Though it is not always discoverable. Least of all when choked by the trivialities of daily existence. But in this disturbing country, so far as I have become acquainted with it already, it is possible more easily to discard the inessential and to attempt the infinite. You will be burnt up most likely… but you will realise that genius.’ Voss, here, is the mouthpiece for White’s sense of his own heroic artistic endeavours – but he might also be commenting on Parke’s photographic odyssey.
A simple comparison brings out the scale and clarity of Parke’s undertaking. When the Goncourt Brothers travelled from Paris to sunny Rome for a few weeks in 1867 they quickly became ‘nostalgic for grey.’ Of his own trip, Parke has said that no single moment made as deep an impression on him as the protracted experience of not seeing a cloud for three months. ‘It felt,’ he said, ‘like we had slid from the face of the earth and ended up in some future world.’ This, then, was a journey not to a heart of darkness but to the heart of light. And whereas Voss fails to cross the continent or to find any sign of the inland sea mythically imagined to lie at the core of any arid country Parke offers documentary proof that it exists: in the form of a small water tank in the middle of the outback. Someone is diving into the water as if, in some scorched future, this is all that remains of the untamed seas of The Seventh Wave.
With their starkness and intense expressivity some of the photographs in Minutes to Midnight are reminiscent of work by Michael Ackerman. Like Ackerman, Parke is interested in the emotional or psychological contours of a scene or event. In his recent work Ackerman has pushed further, into the realm of what he terms ‘fiction”. The specifics of where he ends up make no difference. Not nearly so solipsistic, Parke is profoundly attached – in his working life – to one place and one place only: Australia. And whereas, for Ackerman, the intensity and distortion in the pictures is less a response to where he finds himself than a default setting, Parke, in the bush, discovered a place where the technical extremes that his work tends towards were demanded by the subject matter. It is as if, in the outback, there is nowhere for life to hide; it is always and constantly exposed, raw. Storms, when they come, are of an intensity that is devastating, biblical.
Self-portrait, Menindee Outback NSW, 2003, from Minutes to Midnight
Untitled # 29, 1999 – 2000 from The Seventh Wave
My Son Jem is born, Sydney Royal North Shore Hospital NSW, 2003 from Minutes to Midnight
Untitled (Cat#6), 2001, from Dream/Life & Beyond
In the American west contemporary photographers often tread consciously in the wake of illustrious predecessors such as Timothy O’Sullivan who accompanied the great surveys that set out to map the country. In Australia the early expeditions were undocumented by photographers. What was discovered, in the absence of the picturesque, the spectacular or distinctive, was a daunting extent of emptiness. As a result, these expeditions were largely invisible affairs. Parke, of course, is by no means the first to make good this lack. But his method is one that shares an unlikely affinity with the kind of experience recorded in the journals of those early explorers. The lack of conventional ‘sights’ or landmarks meant that these journals lacked obvious narrative direction. So, asks the writer Paul Carter in his book Living in a New Country, ‘What is it that gives the discontinuous aggregation of details its narrative direction?’ The answer – but note, first, the concise characterisation of the typical photographic journey à la Frank contained by that question – is that the true subject of these explorer writings is ‘historical space – spatiality as historical experience.’ Or, to put it in terms borrowed from the fictional explorer, Voss, infinity as glimpsed at a particular moment in time or history.
At this point it is worth re-emphasising that Parke is a member of Magnum. In some ways the opportunities for photojournalism no longer exist in the way that they did for Robert Capa, W. Eugene Smith or Larry Burrows in the various heydays of Life and Time magazines. While it is tempting to lament the decline of photojournalism of the sort traditionally associated with Magnum the recruitment of people like Parke, Martin Parr and Alec Soth has been crucial in preventing it from becoming a sort a kind of heritage agency whose members can be relied on to stamp stories with the photographic equivalent of a heraldic seal. Perhaps the most noticeable recent development in photojournalism – a development coupled with the decline of Life-like magazines and the subsequent increase in opportunities for the presentation and sale of photography as art – is for more intensely and varied subjective responses to events and places. Needless to say, this complicates but does not undermine the documentary imperative to bear witness, to report back on what one saw at a particular time, in a certain place.
The reportage in Minutes to Midnight is of a highly personal and elemental kind: events, people and places as they are chanced upon and as they appear, not in the face of a looming deadline, but in the perma-glare of the outback. The moment caught in the shot of Paradise and the wreckage strewn around it is devoid of the kind of split-second urgency that characterises Capa’s famous D-Day photographs. What we get, in this shattered Paradise, is the depiction of a state in which what might be expected to be a matter of urgent attention has become a permanent condition of existence, one marked by the complete erosion of any notion of urgency. Like many of Parke’s photographs it is beyond news. It looks as if it could have been taken the day after tomorrow, in the aftermath of history.
(Brought to ASX by Geoff Dyer and Stills Gallery. © Geoff Dyer, 2008. All rights reserved.)
ASX CHANNEL: Trent Parke
All images © copyright Trent Parke and all text Geoff Dyer