Suburban Edge

Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney 5 March - 18 April 2004


The subtext for this fine gritty exhibition is 'beyond the stereotype&'  and it is certainly true that there are no images here of Home World's McMansions planted in carefully manicured gardens and bland streets. This is a walk on the wild side, where urban grunge meets the underclass.

It could be argued that Alasdair Foster's selection of artists is presenting yet another stereotype. This is the Australian Centre for Photography, Paddington, exhibiting an elite view of what can be described as the myth of the Wild Westie. But Foster is too careful a curator to simply present insiders staring out. His photographers are supposed to be presenting their worlds; their own immediate experiences through the eye of the camera.

The camera is, of course, no longer alone as the catcher of images in light. It is now aided and abetted by its constant companion, the computer, and sometimes joined by the camcorder as art is further redefined. But what lies behind all these works, with their varying degrees of technical virtuosity, is the sense that the makers, as well as the subjects, are outsiders at the very edge of suburbia's comfort zone.

Probably the most technically conventional series comes from Shabnam Hameed and Madeleine Hetherton whose Home Run, presents the life of the drivers of long-haul trucks. Shabnam Hameed's background is as a documentary film-maker, but in the context of art, she is better known as the solitary figure posing with her dog at Sydney Park in Anne Zalhalka's series Welcome to Sydney.
The gritty black and white realism of Hameed and Hetherington's images is worlds removed from the elegant stylization of Zahalka. However, the portrait does reveal Hameed's idiosyncratic vision and the determination that led to her exploration of the world of truckies and the life of the road.

The celebration of labour, from the perspective of a participant, is seen in Glenn Lockitch's Taxi! series, which hangs opposite Hetheron and Hameed's work. These are images of the passengers, people of the night, seen from the perspective of the driver. But they are also a celebration of the symbiotic relationship between the photographer and subject, driver and passenger. The presentation of these little gems, printed as a panorama on a monotone image of a street directory, acts as an echo for the photographer's argument that the interaction with his passengers is what makes the driving bearable for the taxi driver. The passengers are sometimes also outsiders, joining with the driver in a community against the mainstream.

James Mellon's small monochrome distressed gelatin prints are as objects as rough as their subject matter  Perth's tattooing and piercing community. This is his world, and he uses both the camera and the printing labelling of the photographs to draw the viewer into a place where the culture of alienation breeds camaraderie, and pain is mixed with pleasure. Only an insider could gain the trust necessary to access such intimacy. The success of Mellon's work depends on his status as an insider, but although Lee-Anne Richards's series, The First Time, is set in her home town of Geelong, it depends on an almost clinical distance. It is this distance, the sense of returning as an observer to analyse the consequences of past events that both give the works their power, but also make them outsiders in this exhibition of an insider's perspective of the outer.

The First Tme shows the anthropologist taking a clinical look at the culture of her past, but she has already moved on and left this place. The images are deliberately deadpan in composition. The subjects stand alone, or sometimes with a child, each holding a sheet of paper in which they have written a snappy one-liner about their first sexual experience. There is a sense of clinical intrusion, of the photographer as inquisitor. It might be cute to have a child hold a placard asking: 'Is this about sex?' It might even be cathartic for the photographer to use the catalogue to tell us, the viewers, that she first experienced sex with her high-school sex-education teacher. But I have serious ethical concerns, especially about the image that reads: 'I was raped at the age of 4 by my uncle'. It comes back to cultural difference. The photographer and the viewers at the ACP belong to a culture so far removed from the underclass of Geelong that they might as well be on different planets. I'm sure the subjects gave their consent to the photographs being taken, but could they possibly envisage their fate? These works give me the same uncomfortable feeling as those 19th century images of Aboriginal people in white men's poses. I find this series all the more problematic because they are fascinating images, almost like a realist take on Tracey Moffatt.

There is no such problem with Shaun Gladwell's celebration of dirt-biking on Sydney's semi-rural fringe. This is a rougher and tougher Gladwell than the elegant skateboarding man who has so entranced viewers with his recent work. There is the lush green of the grass, which almost seems to quote the more familiar surf. Then, the thrill of the ride, and the masculine bonding that comes with extreme physicality. The context for this also includes the domestic architecture of the distant suburbs  the sense that buildings remain half-built and that no space is so precious that it can be kept from young men on bikes.

www.acp.au.com/suburban

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