Sunday, November 13, 2011

the translation of photography

LAST YEAR I was lucky enough to attend a Jewish wedding of two close friends in Alice Springs. We danced on the red dirt while it was raining and until we ran out of breath. The bride hitched up her dress, knotting it at the hem, and swapped her Vivienne Westwood heels for cowboy boots. We were terrorised by oversized moths dive-bombing us in the marquee beneath the lights, while the groom’s family were making speeches. Nature was an active player at the wedding. We were visitors, acclimatising.

Before the wedding, a group of us drove countless kilometres to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. After we’d set ourselves up at our Yulara campsite, I went for a walk. There were surprisingly few people around on the path I took, which lead to the top of a lookout. It was peaceful and vast at its peak, as I stood disarmed, looking out across the red undulations and sparsely populated land. I took a photograph.

The desert I saw was nothing like I thought it would be. The desert around me wasn’t at all empty, as the term ‘deserted’ has come to mean; it was full – not just with animals and plant life – it was thick with a resonance and intensity that conjured a wonder unlike anything else. I had forgotten this picture until I looked through my images recently, and was struck by the likeness the scene had to a Fred Williams painting. I have always admired Fred Williams’ work. His dabbed impressions move me inexplicably.

A few months later these same friends moved north to Darwin, and I paid a visit. One weekend we took in the sunset at Mindil Beach. A popular spot for market shopping and sunset viewing, the beach becomes crowded as day ends, and people settle in along the sand. Corks are popped on champagne and beer bottles get kitted out with stubby holders. I wondered what could be special about sunset here. What I witnessed was a glowing orb dipping gradually, almost ceremonial in the way it captured the audience’s attention, and falling to the water beneath it.

When I look at this picture, what is striking to me is how much it resembles the Aboriginal flag. The colours of red and black are reversed, of course – and the black is water and red is sky – but the sun itself is what holds the image together, resounding, powerful and assertive, burning at the centre of the elements.

Sitting on the beach, it didn’t strike me this way at all. Looking out across the earth from Yulara, I didn’t immediately think of Fred Williams. Something particular happened when the image was translated by photography. It took these images for me to be able to see the environment in this particular way. Fred Williams and Harold Thomas saw this first, unaided by the camera, and gave these images to us, populating the Australian imagination.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

behind the lines

On a recent trip to New York City, I found myself straddling the line between tourist and local. I was staying in a rented apartment on leafy 8th Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I made my own coffee in the morning and ate bagels for breakfast. I went for a jog around Prospect Park. I took out the trash. I was a visitor to the city, circumnavigating its periphery via the many obvious tourist sites – the Rockefeller Centre, Central Park, MoMa and the Guggenheim – and yet at times I felt I had been let into its centre, that I was connected to the city. I remember striding confidently up the 2nd-Ave subway steps from the F train one morning to recognise a feeling of being at home. This came partly from the style of my accommodation, and from having friends in the city, who did an expert job of showing me around, and taking me into the city’s interior: that is, behind the lines of the tourist eye. We took in a movie at BAM on a Wednesday night. We ate Venezuelan in the East Village and rolled on to an unmarked bar accessible only through phone bookings. We went to a gig in our neighbourhood where a man sat with a lampshade on his lap and offered advice to the band. The band was dressed as sea life from Moby Dick. The pianist was a whale. I developed a good tipping relationship with my local cafĂ©, built up a friendly banter, and drank soy lattes as if I were in Melbourne. Of course, when we went out and caught up with other Australian expats, the talk of visas and escaping the winter for a summer Xmas downunder was a reminder of the line between expat and local in the city that never sleeps.

Here are two shots, from the Brooklyn Bridge, and from the Museum of Art & Design through its vertical striped windows looking out on West 58th Street at the yellow taxis streaming beneath us. In these moments I was viewing the city from the outside, or perhaps from the inside out, positioned behind the lines, and peering keenly to see what I could find.