Anne Ferran

Longer than life
Anne Ferran
Bellas Gallery, Brisbane

Since the mid-eighties, when Anne Ferran commenced her career as a photographer, her work has focused consistently upon the symbolic and historical presence of women. Her series 'Carnal Knowledge' (1984) and the 'Scenes on the Death of Nature' which followed two years later, established her intention of retrieving the past, metaphorically, to prompt alternative readings and representations of the female. These subtle, transgressive bodies of work intentionally evaded any fixed feminist reading of sexuality and the female body and of issues pertaining to women. The first group of these gelatin silver prints were intimate portraits, reminiscent of the work of Julia Margaret Cameron, the nineteenth century photographer who composed her models partly in emulation of pre-raphaelite paintings. In Ferran's portraits, youthful female beauty was camouflaged by a weathered surface of stone veiling the faces- 'frozen' as a vestige of the past. The problematic signs of femininity, here, became distanced from the gaze and allowed us to reconsider the domain of carnal knowledge and desire, without privileging masculine experience.

The second group, 'Scenes', recalled neo-classical sculptural reliefs and also the genre of Victorian theatrical tableaux. However, importantly, Ferran's appropriations denied any narrative content we might have expected. Her project concerning the feminine has always closely challenged conventional photographic codes. In the 'Scenes', compositions of sensuously draped figures in languid states of repose were not depictions of a mythological event or of a fantasy world. Cropped and discontinuous in their sequential arrangement, they were of anonymous figures, linked by folds of cloth and bodily gesture. The weight and grace of the body was emphasised in these images which stringently followed aesthetic rules of constraint and composure. "No extreme of pain or pleasure is allowed to disfigure the calm demeanour, the ideal beauty of the classical object", Ferran wrote of them, a statement which could equally hold true for her new series of photographic works collectively titled 'Longer than Life'.

Shown in Brisbane, the series of five interconnected sequences of images extends Ferran's project of the mideighties to include a consideration of the colonial beginnings of New South Wales. From fragmented portraits and frieze-like tableaux in black and white, the artist has turned to Type C colour prints and to images using the photogram process. In this recent imagery, a direct reference to the body is avoided. Through its specific reference to nineteenth century Australia the work has an immediate link to 'Secure the Shadow', a collaborative exhibition of works by the artist and by Anne Brennan (Greenway Gallery, Hyde Park Barracks Museum, Sydney, 1995). Here both Ferran and Brennan sought to take the role of archivist, interacting with the museum and its collection, establishing links with a past to which they were culturally close. Brennan's artist books of appropriated text and Ferran's sequences of photographs reflected upon often forgotten histories of women. The colleagues retrieved evidence in accumulated rubbish imbedded between floorboards, or hoarded by rats for their nests, of lives previously deemed unworthy of attention. 'Secure the Shadow' presented the findings not as archaeological relics but as eloquent objects. Humble and anonymous fragments of cloth was treated with the aesthetic respect usually accorded something more publicly significant. Ferran's large Type C photographs in the Barracks included a length of photographic paper with shapes modelled on clothing (a simple bonnet, bodice, skirt and apron) and extracts from the Matron's register. The exhibition became a subtle interrogation of the approaches to history that compete within such a museum.

Ferran's work since the Barracks' project has included photographing the interiors of colonial buildings in and around Sydney where women once lived and worked. She has concentrated, in particular, on a former female orphanage built in 1813 at Rydalmere, and on Rouse Hill House which is of the same vintage. Both are empty now and unspoilt by over zealous conservators. This weathered architecture became the arena for disporting groups of bonnets or caps which symbolise the original inhabitants. Both Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes observed the condition of photographs as memento mori. Barthes did so in his Camera Lucida (1981), stating that "Photography is a kind of primitive theatre, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead". Such sources are as relevant in an understanding of Ferran's work as is her more familiar critique of feminism.

In 'Longer than Life', simple head apparel, modelled on early nineteenth century caps, stands in place of individual faces and bodies. The soft pleated forms are set in procession on benches, some of the wood covered with a rough tarpaulin. Each cap on its black support has a subtly different texture or patterning, as though denoting an individual sensibility. Shadows replace an expected human identity. They turn as a group to the viewer, or turn away; in some instances the groups face each other as if in silent communication. Featureless and mute, the plain bonnets indicate a humble place in the social order, that of serving maid, seamstress or laundress. The formal considerations of Ferran 's earlier photographs are paralleled in these parades of fabric forms, underscored by the symmetry of the architectural detail with which they are set in relationship. 'Longer than Life' implies personal and institutional narratives without disclosing details. The histories Ferran suggests are not those of wealthy individuals or of members of a servant class made famous through notorious acts (as with the subject of Margaret Atwood's novel Alias Grace). Rather, they allude to other histories or imaginings which become most persuasive through the six silver gelatin photograms in the exhibition. Disembodied, the caps are in this respect white numinous shapes on a black ground, resisting any allusion to mortal life