The Maternal Line: Justine Varga

Installation image from the exhibition Justine Varga: 'Photogenic Drawing', Australian Centre for Photography, 2017. © ACP Anthony Waite

 Justine Varga’s photograph Maternal Line won this year’s Olive Cotton Award for Photographic Portraiture. The biannual prize is named after one of Australia’s most widely recognised modernist photographers, and to date six of its nine recipients have been women. This is not to suggest that the prize necessarily sets out to support or promote the work of women photographers, but in name and achievement the Olive Cotton Award is doing precisely that. Cotton would have been pleased with this: during the 1930s, she actively encouraged women to take up photography, advocated for photography’s capacity to account for their viewpoints and experiences, and argued that women were as capable of good photography as men.[1]

As this year’s judge, I was drawn to what I saw as a feminist response to the proposition of a feminist response to the proposition of a “photographic portrait” in Maternal Line. The image was produced without a camera, its marks made by the artist’s grandmother directly inscribing the piece of film with pen and saliva, drawing on two of the pictorial devices (inscription and body fluids) which have informed much of Varga’s recent work. As I have written elsewhere, there is not much about Varga’s practice that should be contentious.[2] Her concern with the materiality and performative potential of photography is now commonplace. But I remain interested in what I saw as the gendered nature of the response to Varga’s photograph.

Justine Varga 'Maternal Line' 2017
Justine Varga, Maternal Line, 2017 c type photograph, from the series Photogenic Drawing. Courtesy the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery, Adelaide

Much of what was written about Maternal Line turned around what people saw as its infantilisation. Critical commentary became preoccupied with the scribbles, saliva and embodied process that comprised the work. The most obvious indicators of the picture’s feminism—its references to pre-symbolic spaces of maternal love and intimacy—became the triggers for outrage and hostility. What quickly became evident through the events of the Olive Cotton Award is how feminism (often couched  as a “methodology” or “philosophical underpinning”) could be held to get in the way of “good photography.”[3] This interview provides an opportunity for the artist to consider some of the critical questions that were raised about her practice, its politics, and the genealogies that support it.

Shaune Lakin__I have put words in your mouth a number of times now. Do you see your work as “feminist photography,” or as photography informed by feminism?

Justine Varga__I wouldn’t say you have put words into my mouth, but you have recognised a feminist element in my photography that is there to be found. In answer to your question: I can’t really separate the two. What I produce is a complex autobiographical object that encompasses the feminist, because that’s what I am. Also, I am very aware of the images I’m supposed to be making and I set out to subvert the conventions usually associated with those images. In general, I try to make people think as they look; I try to make my photography pensive.

I am interested in the question of genealogies—whether textual, art historical, political. How do you understand a genealogy for your practice, and to what extent does your work trace or engage with its genealogical protagonists?

I am looking at many things within my work. This means it would be difficult to draw a direct genealogical line through, let’s say, a history of art. But that’s exactly the point. My work is designed to complicate the act of looking at and experiencing an art object; I don’t tend to think or work teleologically. As an Australian I am very proud to belong to a tradition of strong female photographic artists.

There are forbearers to the following list I’m about to make, but I am thinking of a particular moment in the 1970s and 1980s when artists such as Carol Jerrems, Sue Ford, Anne Ferran, Jacky Redgate, Fiona Hall and Tracey Moffatt, among others, began working or came to prominence. These women continue to produce important work, or their work lives on, and their example has made my own career possible. I have also had a close relationship with painters, in particular with my aunt Ildiko Kovacs, who offered me the model for a life in art from an early age.

How does this particular genealogy figure in your work? 

Being heavily indebted to these women doesn’t mean that I emulate their work (that you can see their features within mine); that is not how a genealogy necessarily figures. Rather, these are some of the artists who gave me permission to make the work that I do. The work these women have made means that I was able to begin my time as an artist knowing the absolute value and worth of my labour (all of my formal photography teachers were also women). Along with them, my presence will hopefully make the pathway that much easier (however incremental that improvement may be) for the next generation of women.

You have written that your work sets out to decentre or “displace” the privileged position of the photographer: “My photography is an act of displacement by which I can be two places at once—behind and in front of the camera—in the centre as well as at the edge. I am everywhere and nowhere at all.”[4] Can you talk about how you see your work (in terms of methods and outputs) disrupting the kinds of relationships conventionally employed through photography?

Maternal Line is an example of this kind of displacement. It is a portrait, but not simply a likeness of a single person, more an evocation of a relationship between people, between a photographer and her subject. It is also a portrait of my relationship with my grandmother, of our collaboration and the exchange between us. So, two people are represented in the photograph that has resulted, and perhaps even more. For, when you think about it, maternal lines intersect with paternal lines: what do they comprise of but the bodies of men and women coming together?

When we look at photographs of a woman, we tend to make a judgment of her exterior. By making Maternal Line a portrait in which a female subject traces herself with pen and saliva onto a photographic surface, I produced a work that defies such scrutiny. In this case, my grandmother was not the passive object of my photography but a participant in its making.

The public response to the Olive Cotton Award demonstrates that photography continues to be reduced to technological observation. The print is positioned as a reproduction; it does not constitute the work.[5] This seems especially odd, given how our immersion in the digital has made the entire process so visible, while the analogue represents a continuous form of physical inscription.[6]

I place as much value on the printing process as on the exposure of my negatives. This means that I spend a considerable amount of time on both aspects of my work. For example, when printing my most recent series Photogenic Drawing, I went through over 240 metres of paper. This is one measure of the many hours that are spent in the darkroom, comprising a series of procedures, many of which are repetitive and require a certain endurance. My photography is touched, torn, tested, transformed, rejected, reprinted, found wanting and destroyed, by myself and my printer Sandra Barnard, many times over before being declared whole and ready for public display.

Justine Varga Ripe
Justine Varga, Ripe, 2016 C-type photograph. Courtesy the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery, Adelaide

In your reflection on Maternal Line, you seem to characterise a significant part of the intention of the work as preservationist.[7] You write of your grandmother’s memory and death and that the work will stand as a testament to her character and to your relationship with her. 

I welcome various readings of my work (there is not only one ontology, or motivation). I have a fascination with an open-ended notion of what a photograph can retain, rather than a desire to hold on to a single moment of time (or a single image of the body of a loved one). My primary concern while making photographs is not necessarily to remember (even though a version of remembering happens), but rather to search out photography’s own capacities to record and memorialise. The motivation that led to creating Maternal Line was to ask: what is the transaction (between photographer, subject, object and viewer) that takes place when a photographic portrait is made? 

So the work is actively resistant to metaphor or allegory. Your use of body fluids (phlegm, mucous, tears, sweat, saliva) should announce your work’s antipathy to allusion. 

Allegory and metaphor encompass vast territories. People often read the titling of my work as evocative (pointing to something outside the work). But my titles always point to the method of making or the narrative that my photography embodies; in a sense, the titles describe what they are, rather than functioning as an allegory. Their perfunctoriness also points to their allegorical possibilities (and that is deliberate also). My photography is multifaceted in that way; like my titles, they are not simple things, or one‑liners. 

In spite of everything that has happened to the photographic image, we remain preoccupied with its rhetorical positioning. Many who were critical of the claims to portraiture in Maternal Line argued that it only started to enter into the discursive space of portraiture once you read the title and the artist’s statement. 

There is always text attached to an image; it is absolutely unavoidable. Maternal Line is a portrait with or without a caption. The problem is that people aren’t used to looking at a portrait of this kind. I was very intrigued that some headlines claimed that it was a blank photograph (when clearly it is not). Language, in the form of online commentary and hack journalism, told viewers to see nothing if it wasn’t a face, and so they couldn’t see what was plainly before them. You could argue that language shielded the viewer from realising that the object in front of them was a portrait. Whatever I had to say about Maternal Line was not separate from the work itself. The words did not come before, or after; they are part of the work.

As Irigaray has stated, “the architectronics of the text, or texts, confounds the linearity of an outline, the teleology of discourse, within which there is no possible place for the ‘feminine,’ except the traditional place of the repressed, the censured.”[8]

Everything that I wrote was already there when I asked my grandmother to participate in her inscription. There is always already a scribble before I begin each and every photograph. Within my work I am interested in navigating the photographic at its margins. I am curious to find where it overlaps with other mediums. In part, you can trace this back to my time at the National Art School, with drawing being at the centre of the programme, but I think this also has to do with something of the sceptic within me. For as long as I can remember I have always questioned authority and conventions, and I apply this scepticism to the way I approach artmaking. So, I ask myself, why not think of photography as plastic, painting, performance, an idea, or a question? And then I do, if only to satisfy my own curiosity as to what might happen.

Justine Varga Photogenic Drawing 2017
Justine Varga installing Photogenic Drawing at the Australian Centre for Photography, 2017. © ACP Anthony Waite


  1. ^ “The lady behind the lens: Young Sydney artist discusses a hobby for women,” Sydney Morning Herald, 29 March 1938, women’s supplement, p. 13__
  2. ^  Shaune Lakin, “Why I chose the ‘spit and scribble’ photograph: Olive Cotton judge on the global furore,” The Guardian, 2 August 2017:
  3. ^ See, for example, Stephen Sewell, quoted in Andrew Taylor, “Scratch and win draws negative reaction,” Sydney Morning Herald, 25 July 2017, pp. 1-2
  4. ^ Justine Varga, “The bodies above,” Loose Associations (2:2), London: The Photographers’ Gallery, 2015, p.36
  5. ^ For example, “The act of reproducing a work, in whatever form, does not in itself constitute its creation.” North Sullivan, in “Fallout over portrait win calls copyright into question” by Andrew Taylor, Sydney Morning Herald, 28 July 2017, p. 9
  6. ^ See Margaret Iverson, “Analogue: on Zoe Leonard and Tacita Dean,” Critical Inquiry, no. 38 (Summer 2012) pp. 796-818__
  7. ^ Justine Varga, “Maternal Line,” Photomonitor, September 2017:
  8. ^ Luce Irigaray, “The power of discourse and the subordination of the feminine,” 1975; reprinted in The Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985, p. 68. 

Shaune Lakin is Senior Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Australia.

Justine Varga won the Olive Cotton Award for Photographic Portraiture in 2017.