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Roland Barthes describes a distinct change that takes place when he knows he is being photographed: ‘Now, once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of “posing”, I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image’.1 In his recent exhibition at Monash Gallery of Art, ‘Pictured’, Matthew Sleeth explores this process of photographic transformation. For each of the twelve large colour photographs in ‘Pictured’, Sleeth has photographed people either taking photographs or being photographed. Vernacular photographies are the focus of the exhibition, but they are examined with a twist. By photographing the photographic events, rather than showing us the resultant photographs, Sleeth shifts our attention to the ways in which our experiences and memories are shaped in our relations to vernacular photographies.
To Sleeth, vernacular photographies mirror our social and personal priorities. As amateur photographs are generally taken to celebrate a person or an event, they work to catalogue our values and desires. Whether it is in the way that we pose for family snapshots (remaking ourselves as a familial ideal for the camera), or construct selective narratives in family and travel albums, our photographs speak to how we would like to see ourselves and how we wish to be perceived by others.
‘Pictured’ highlights how the act of taking photographs also has become a kind of shared ritual. In Untitled #32 [Kawaguchiko], 2005, a group of people gathers in the cold by Lake Kawaguchi, Japan, in search of the perfect photograph. Lake Kawaguchi is a favourite spot for amateur photographers who come together to take in the beauty of Mount Fuji through their cameras—approaching the ‘scene’ as a picture that can be captured and retained. Our readiness to identify with many of the photographs in this exhibition underscores another form of collective investment in photographic rituals. The young women in Untitled #33 [Tokyo], 2006, recreate the essential theme-park photograph that graces so many of our holiday albums, as they pose with their arms around one of the seven dwarfs. Nostalgia readily accompanies this kind of identification, and acts as a reminder of the deeply subjective character of vernacular photographies in contrast to the objectivity that is often fetishised in documentary practice.
A potent sense of voyeurism pervades many of the photographs in this exhibition. Most of the people in ‘Pictured’ seem unaware of Sleeth’s camera. Like eavesdropping on a conversation, Sleeth takes in a fragment of an often personal exchange between another photographer and their subject while remaining outside of that exchange himself. This sense of voyeurism is particularly evident in Untitled #23 [Rosebud], 2004, where Sleeth points his camera through the mesh of a screen house tent on a family Christmas holiday in Rosebud. The camera takes in a glimpse of the celebrations over the shoulder of a young girl who is moving into the tent with her Christmas lunch. Two kids pose cheekily for Dad’s camera while the rest enjoy their meal amongst the decorations and the empty red and gold shells of Christmas crackers. A degree of voyeurism is perhaps an inevitable by-product of Sleeth’s conceptual frame for this exhibition—adding another (albeit thorny) dimension to his studies of these personal photographic moments.
‘Pictured’ also cleverly examines the impact that different photographic technologies have had on our relationships with our environments and each other. With the rise of digital cameras and camera phones, we no longer have to be so selective about the moments in our lives that we record and share. Japan’s strong camera culture is one of the focuses of the exhibition where we see just how successfully new photographic technologies have been incorporated into everyday social exchanges. In Untitled #29 [Tokyo], 2005, two teenage girls take each other’s photograph as they sit in a restaurant window, giggling with their brightly coloured camera phones in hand. The other diners in the restaurant window are absorbed in their own worlds and seem oblivious to the girls’ game. It is pertinent that although the girls are the only people in the photograph who are interacting with each other, their interaction occurs largely through their camera phones. Along with the other photographs in Sleeth’s exhibition, Untitled #29 [Tokyo], 2005, explores with both wit and insight some of the many ways that our realities are becoming increasingly photographic.
1. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida. Trans Richard Howard, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 1981, p.10.