Picture Yourself exhibition opening speech

Dave Wong and Gerry Orkin: PhotoAccess opening speech 17 Nov 2022 by Carolyn Young

Here’s a link to all the images shown in the exhibition.

I too would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, Traditional Custodians of the land on which we gather today, and pay my respects to their Elders past and present. I extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples here today.

I would like to offer my insights on both shows together, and individually.

On the surface, these are two very different shows. Colour vs Black and White. Film photography vs digital photography. Different scales and different intent. And perhaps most importantly, they invoke very different feelings.

However, when you look closely, there are formalistic and conceptual overlaps.

Both series are about Canberra and arise from the artist’s personal, experiential, place based approach to their photography practice. This is demonstrated through taking the studio to the ‘field’, and repeatedly visiting the same location. Dave and Gerry’s photographs respond to real world encounters, and each endeavour to learn about the world through their photography practice.

And both Dave and Gerry reference time: For Dave, the works in the show are the result of photographing over 10 years. For Gerry, the year 1985.

Firstly, to Dave Wong’s exhibition, ‘Woodlands, Forest, Life’

Dave’s exhibition of 31 works and three poems presents a story of passion, loss, fear and differing cultural values. The subject matter are woodlands and forests. His field sites are places familiar to Canberrans – Black Mountain, Bruce Ridge, Ginninderry. What we may not be familiar with, is how endangered these woodlands are. With a background in ecology, Dave adeptly combines his ecological gaze with his sensitivities as an artist to raise this alarm.

The exhibition begins with the human scale - landscape photos with the traditional foreground, middle and background. However, the trees lean away from the viewer. Are they afraid for themselves or are they beckoning you into the forest? The scale then quickly switches, as Dave switches out his wide angle lens for the macro. We imagine Dave lying on his belly with his camera guiding us to often missed wonders of Black Mountain. The animal and plant portraits fill their frame and let us know they are full of astonishment. He then makes field trips to new estates, where eucalypt woodlands and forests are being taken, broken, bit by bit. These photos show lone eucalypts behind barriers and fake place makers for what has been lost. With his daughter in tow, we are reminded of our inter-generational obligations. His portraits of people also remind us that woodlands and forests are not a wilderness to be locked away, but need human custodians.

In his essay “Terrible Prospects”, art historian Geoffrey Batchen discusses Peter Dombrovskis’ photograph “Rock Island Bend” used during the save the Franklin River campaign in 1983. Batchen discusses this photo in terms of the sublime, pleasure mixed with pain. Dave’s exhibition also works towards this duality. The pleasure is provided by the beauty of Dave’s photograph’s of the plants and animals within the woodlands, and all that signifies them. But it is a pleasure that is sharpened by their potential loss.

For Gerry Orkin’s exhibition, “Picture Yourself” we need to switch emotional gears.

Gerry set up a studio in Commonwealth Park for the “Sunday in the Park” festivals during the summer of 1985, and the images make you smile.

People wandering past this make-shift studio were invited to take a photo of themselves and consider the question, “who are you?” Gerry explains that he wanted to move away from traditional documentary photography and leave the image making and story-telling to the subjects themselves. Over this summer, Gerry amassed about 380 images.

How does a photographer work through such a volume? Gerry has approached the editing like a social scientist might, looking for common themes and grouping images into categories – families, street performers, couples, kids, parade groups - sometimes in diptychs, sometimes in grids of four. The repeated composition, the black and white square format, and the matching of tone and shadowing across the images unite the exhibition beautifully. The result is an aesthetic audit of the Canberra community; one that reveals the variety within the predominantly white and middle class people. The photographs also provide an environmental portrait, where the uncropped outer edges and shadows reveal the Bush Capital.

You get the sense that this photography experience - taking a self-portrait in a public place - was novel to the ‘sitters’ in 1985. You imagine the ‘sitters’ grappling with the multi-tasking – holding the cable release, standing in the correct spot, wondering what to do with the stuff in their hands – put it down somewhere or hold it?? And yet, faced with this novelty and the decisions, the sitters look calm and confident - they stand up straight and look directly down the lens. Gerry also reflects on this confidence as something he felt when living in Canberra.

The person holding the cable release holds the power over the decisive moment. The remaining people in the photograph often appear slightly caught out. This paradox gives the photographs a mix of the vernacular, such as the family photo at Christmas, and the formal portrait. The make-shift studio plays a crucial role in enabling the intimate and the formal. The summer light is softened by the three walls of white canvas sheets, perhaps providing a physical and mental transition as each person stepped onto the white floor and into the space.

It has been a pleasure to look deeply at the photographs in each of these exhibitions. I encourage you to come back to Photoaccess and do the same. You will find a treasure from Black Mountain, and perhaps a picture of yourself. Thank you for listening.