Carl Warner

Matter without meaning; sense
Michael Burke Gallery, Brisbane; Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne; Doggett Street Studio, Brisbane; Carines Regional Gallery, Cairns

"…no matter how beautiful, striking, or picturesque, the single photograph is not the critical unit of photographic achievement.” l

Brisbane based photographer Carl Warner would be expected to agree. In recent exhibitions, Warner has shown serial, rather than singular, photographic images. Depicting the same types of subject or different views of the same subject, the artist uses repetition, and sometimes the means of presentation (a grid or narrowly spaced row), to encourage the viewer's assessment and comparison of images. Warner's interest in these typologies, in grouping together like-images, relates to the work he admires, the serial industrial works by Bernd and Hilla Becher and August Sander's portraits.2 Like elements of a language, each image depends on the others. 3 This aspect of Warner's work is perhaps most successful in matter without meaning, an exhibition held early this year at Michael Burke Gallery, Brisbane.

matter without meaning consisted of a series of black and white photographs showing the floor of a burnt and abandoned factory in the Brisbane suburb of Rocklea. Created over an eight year period, the works suggested the random evolution of the site. Surface tones were varied, as a result of heavy metal and iron toners-a presence within the actual printmaking process of poisonous industrial materials.

For matter without meaning, Warner strictly controlled his interaction with the subject. The elements layering the floor surface-mud, concrete, timber, dirt, glass and stains-were never interfered with, re-arranged nor composed. Warner used the same camera and lens, always focused down upon the factory floor and always from the same distance. The evidence on the floor was documented as it presented itself, (yet choices were necessarily made about which areas to photograph). As Henri Bergson writes: "What you have to explain, then, is not how perception arises, but how it is limited, since it should be the image of the whole, and is in fact reduced to the image of that which interests you."4 Bergon's writings from Matter and Memory interested Warner during the work's development, and this statement in particular, describes, for him, a critical aspect of photographic image making.

Alongside these photographic and philosophical concerns, the exhibition provided evidence of Warner's sustained interest in industry, in particular, the changes effected by the end of the industrial era. A photographic response to industry has conventionally called for the heroic, formally composed image. As the medium of the industrial age, photography provided the means when industry sought to have its image recorded. David Moore, for example, has made photographs for Exxon, CRA, BHP, CSR, and Utah Coai.5 Several years ago, Moore was commissioned to document Sydney's historic Eveleigh railway yards, destined to become a "high-technology park". In an interview about the project, Moore talks about seeking the "essence of things", finding the "kernel of rightness" in his photography.6 Warner's approach has not been to capture "rightness" in any one photograph, but to record a "plurality of moments".7 By the time Warner read about Moore's Eveleigh project, he had produced an installation of imagery drawn from the Ipswich railways. (Just as Eveleigh had become a symbol of the passing industrial era, in Ipswich too, the importance of the railways was declining.)

Warner's response to the subject matter is clearly distinct from modernist conventions of industrial photography. In overwhatwecreatewehavenocontrol, Warner exhibited three large panels of gridded images, each panel consisting of seventy-two small photographs-details of the machinery, the architecture and the plant-life of the railways. Complementing the installation was a poem, referring to how society's creations assume an autonomous power, beyond our control. a In matter without meaning, the uncontrollable "evolution of change" is present again.9 "The photographs map the patterns of change within the site, their meaningless changes occurring due to random chance. It is an investigation of nature. A different nature. The nature of all."10 Warner's most recent work adds to these explorations, dealing more directly with nature, again using the serial image and referring further to Henri Bergson.

sense is a series of large black and white photographs, over-exposed and toned in selenium. Details of rainforest plants fill the picture frame, but are obscured to varying degrees by darkness. All plants, like photography, depend on light. Warner's dark images, apparently starved of light and evocative of the dank depths of the rainforest floor, are produced by over-exposing the image to light.

All of the images are abstracted from the original objects, plants, which via photosynthesis, are the living embodiments of light. Through the production of extremely dark images I am, in this project, working to reverse the traditional role of light as used in twentieth century photography by, virtually, withholding it.11

Warner's preferred image from sense is one of the darkest and most difficult to read. As Clare Williamson explains in her excellent and thorough catalogue essay:

By removing (at least, the impression of) light, Warner stresses the dependence of photography on matter, on an existence or reality which must be before the photograph can be. The reduction of detail to a minimum creates images which trigger different responses from individual viewers, who must now decipher the image with the aid of memory and association…12

Williamson refers, also, to Bergson:

To obtain this conversion from the virtual to the actual, it would be necessary, not to throw more light on the object, but, on the contrary, to obscure some of its aspects, to diminish it by the greater part of itself, so that the remainder, instead of being encased in its surroundings as thing, should detach itself from them as a picture.13

Compared to Warner's earlier works, these are more object-like. They are large images, cleanly mounted-black squares protruding from the walls. As with the earlier works, the artist strictly controlled the program, using the same camera, the same lens and again, working at a consistent distance from his subject-this time, about the same distance from which the viewer might look at the final image. These constraints become ways of controlling the imagemaking process, controls that some contemporary photographers find in the studio.14 Warner says this process is also about getting away from the conventions of grand nature photographs. His works bear no reference to the perfection of botanical records, nor to sublime, majestic rainforest imagery.

Warner began working on sense soon after his exhibition at the Ipswich Regional Gallery (1992). Prompted by Umberto Eco's statement "The light was poor, as it should be, for it is better to sense than see", he considered working further on the darkness achieved with some of the railway images.15 That opportunity came with a trip to Hawaii, where Warner experienced the darkness of the rainforest floor. (Warner compares the darkness to that of the photographic darkroom, where he spends much of his time as an employee of the University of Queensland's photographic unit.) The works tor sense were shot in Hawaii and near Cairns, in North Queensland. In both places, Warner found cultivated rainforests offering tourists a sate, simulated experience of Nature. He has described the works as "symbols of a desire to regiment nature", all the while recognizing "that this nature, along with anything else created by society, will develop a life of its own, out of the control of its maker".16

sense was exhibited earlier this year at the Centre for Contemporary Photography in Melbourne, and at Doggett Street Studio, Brisbane. it's most recent showing (13 October-12 November, 1995) has been at the Cairns Regional Gallery. In the context of North Queensland, Warner's approach presents a dramatic alternative to the glossy tropical imagery of the tourist product. Where the viewer is asked to sense, rather than see, the images' communicative powers are far greater than in seemingly more descriptive, complete pictures. Interestingly, in sense, the individual photograph has arguably become less reliant on other images within the series. Some, even an image of a diseased leaf, carry a sense of monumentality, perhaps unintentionally. Within the rainforest sites, nature seems to have challenged even the image-maker's control strategies.

notes: 
  1. Leroy Searle quoted in Typologies Nine Contemporary Photographers. ex. cat. Newport Harbor Art Museum. California. 1991: 12
  2. Works by the Bechers and Sander are discussed by Marc Fredus in his introduction to Typologies: ibid
  3. Fredus refers to work which “is only fully effective when viewed as a suite of images” and the Bechers refer to serial images as a “grammar to understand and compare different structure”. In Typologies ibid: 10, 15
  4. Henn Bergson Matter and Memory, (translated by N. M Paul and W. S. Palmer), Zone Books, New York, 1991: 40
  5. Geraldine O’Brien “Beating the bulldozers to capture a forgotten era”, Sydney Morning Herald, 8/12/1993
  6. Ibid
  7. Bergson, opcit: 34
  8. Overwhatwecreatewehavenocontrol, showed at Ipswich Regional Gallery, November 2-29, 1992, and was reviewed by Clare Williamson, in Photofile, 38: 4. She also refers to this aspect of the work in her essay for sense, ex cat 1995
  9. Interview with the artist, 1995; Warner uses this phrase to describe his interest in nature as an agent of change, rather than as solely the natural world.
  10. Carl Warner, Artist Statement for matter without meaning, 1995
  11. Carl Warner, Artist Statement, June 1993, quoted in Clare Williamson, sense, op.cit
  12. Williamson, sense, ibid
  13. Bergson, as quoted in Williamson, sense ibid Warner has himself highlighted this statement in extracts from Bergson, op.cit 36
  14. Helen Ennis, “Contemporary Photographic Practices”, in G. Newton, Shades of Light, Collins and the Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1988: 156: Ennis refers to how contemporary photographers create their own controlled “photographic reality in the studio”.
  15. Warner quoted Eco in an interview with Powell. The statement comes from Foucault’s Pendulum, Picador, London, 1990: 223
  16. Williamson, sense, op.cit.