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Unlike realist painting, photography is not as beset with the question of ‘que peindre?’—‘what should I paint?’, ‘what should I represent?’. This is a paradox that is perhaps rooted in the very rapidity and ease of photographic representation. With the invention of the Kodak instamatic camera in 1880, the amateur was able to photograph anything in sight. Photography had quickly been formalised within the conventions established by landscape and portraiture painting. It had also become an integral tool in social gatherings and in travel, where the act of representing became a ceremonial way of registering the event, an act that was inclined to subsume the resulting image. Despite or because of this, photographic specialists were increasingly concerned with how photography made its presence felt, in both high and low forms. And as photography became normative within society, with the invention of colour, and with a growing minority of photographers calling themselves artists, photography also became conscious of what it could not achieve. Unlike painting, photography could, ostensibly at least, achieve anything in the realm of image-making. This is its weakness. Whereas painting’s shortcoming is built into the language of gesture itself, and this is turned into a virtue, photography is hampered by its own superficial perfection. Its verisimilitude is prone to engender either boredom or distrust.
Debra Phillips’s practice has long been concerned with the ways in which culture is embodied within photographic representation. Embodiment is an important term here, for Phillips’s work has constantly sought to transcend the simplistic notion of a medium acting under the service of subjective intent. Rather, Phillips’s work understands photography according to a complex fabric of both exposure and repression: while in the service of archiving and memorisation, photography simultaneously evades some facts and elides alternative truths. Yet through the quantity of images we see, we become inured to our own ignorance of what has been omitted. Photography has made the past available to the present and thus created a false present in which the past, the absent past, that has not been vouchsafed in images, is only the faintest echo if anything at all. Photography’s considerable strength lies in its absorptive power which conceals gaps and de-emphasises bias. Phillips’s work is an attempt to use photography to see beyond the screen of photography, to give us access to a different kind of imaginative experience and into a different perception of time. It is a passage that resists visual coercion in favour of suggestion. Phillips’s photographic images are rather like surrogates for a visual experience that is more psychological than evidential.
Backwash (2008) was a large-scale series of seven connected photographs consisting of close-ups of scrubby forest punctuated left of centre by one ghostly image of an interior. In its recourse to abstracted images, the inscrutability of this suite is palpable. In light of what I have just discussed, the wall of trees is comparable to the wall of photographic visual excess cloaking a deeper, more mysterious visual experience. The abstract density of the foliage against the cavernous emptiness of the building underscores a particular tendency in Phillips’s images toward a dialectic of occluded landscapes and vacant interiors. Instinctively, Phillips inverts the conventional expectation of photography of architectural interiors, which is to inhabit them with people to show lived activity, and she does the same with landscapes, which are otherwise the repositories of open space. As with her photographs of New Parliament House under construction, Phillips prefers the before and after intervals of the photographic image; prolepsis and aftermath.
The thick screens of foliage were taken near the small village of Bavelincourt, near Amiens, and form part of Phillips’s ongoing interest in the battle theatres of World War One, in particular the Somme, a name which, like Auschwitz, has connotations that extend well beyond its physical placement toward an experience of unspeakable turpitude and horror. Exhibited first in the dubiously titled exhibition ‘Optimism’ at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art, they were made around the time that the bodies of Australian troops were found at the Somme and disinterred. The Great War marked a climax of bloody carnage in the region since at least the time of the Dukes of Burgundy. Just as the Somme is the name for the contested borderland between the Frankish and Germanic states, it is used by Phillips as a liminal region for representation, photographic or otherwise. For Phillips it is the quintessential place in which history reigns through atmosphere. It is imbued with a heavy and stimulating air commensurate to the aura that Walter Benjamin famously said that photography both divested from images (by making them more available) and helped to cultivate (by making them enter into many fields of discourse). Backwash is not a representative, pictorial image per se. The scrub, trees and branches are like stand-ins for an invisible presence, thick with sadness and reproach; the silvery interior of a building under construction is a symbol of vainglory and sadness. In most photographs everything is given, whereas in Backwash, that given is very much elsewhere.
The threshold of photographic representation was explored in a very different way, freed of pathos, in the other major suite in this show, Blow (2009). More abstracted than the last, they depict white fractured circle-like shapes against a jet-black ground. Although they resemble the photograms of Man Ray and Christian Schad, in which objects were laid straight onto the photographic paper, physicalising the process and obviating the lens, these are simply high contrast prints. The bulbs are commercial lampshades that have been fractured. The broken form signifies the point at which something ceases to be itself and is converted into countless particles of grain or pixels on a page. Photography might here be considered as an imperceptible explosion, a reintegration of atoms and ions into a different configuration of matter.
Photography is complicit, but is by no means the sole agent in the condition of perennial contemporaneity. Photography’s complicity in contemporary phantasmagoria is to make the past, as Walter Benjamin observed long ago, into an hypothesis, a dream deprived of its critical impetus. This is only accelerated by digital photography’s rapid absorption into mainstream practices; still and moving image are becoming blurred; images can be remediated in diverse ways to penetrate into so many personal spaces as to make them imperceptible from our own bodies. After all, the camera/telephone is now the most common prosthesis. But the Zeno’s paradox of photography is in generating as much absence as presence: the more that is delivered to us visually, just as much is left out. But most of us tend to forget this forgetting that is everywhere in our daily lives. Phillips’s work occupies the spaces before the visual prosthesis enters our sphere of reference, before we recognise the image, and the indefinable resonances that exist in spaces that cannot be seen by harnessing light alone.