up close

carol jerrems with larry clark, nan goldin and william yang
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne
31 July - 31 October 2010

The 1970s was a fertile time for US and Australian photography. An increasing sense of political disillusionment arising from the Vietnam War, burgeoning social movements and the emergence of a new counter culture all demanded a fresh approach to art and life. In Australia a younger generation of students graduated from newly established tertiary courses in photography, dissatisfied with modernist attempts to distil complexity into an essence and seeking to address broader experiences that exceeded the camera’s frame. Hitting the streets and looking to their immediate environments, they used their cameras as a tool to share their experiences and promote social change.

The role played by the celebrated Australian photographer, Carol Jerrems, within this climate is the focus of Natalie King’s exhibition at Heide Museum of Modern Art, Up Close. Jerrems’s practice is contextualised with the work of the American photographers, Nan Goldin and Larry Clark, and the Australian, William Yang.

As the first survey of Jerrems’s work to be held in twenty years, Up Close provides a valuable opportunity to see many rarely seen photographs. Iconic images including Jerrems’s Vale Street (1975) are represented, along with the hauntingly detached images that Jerrems made during her protracted stay in hospital for treatment of the rare liver disease that ultimately took her life in 1980, a few weeks before her thirty-first birthday. Less well-known work from Jerrems’s student days at Prahran College of Advanced Education offers insight into the development of her introspective and self-aware practice. Archival material from the Jerrems family provides a fuller picture of Jerrems’s life, but throughout the exhibition she remains an enigmatic figure, quiet, watchful and remote.

Although Jerrems, Clark, Goldin and Yang are brought together in this exhibition by a shared interest in marginalised groups and their own social milieus, far more compelling are the differences in their approaches, in particular their varied ways of negotiating the physical and psychological space between the photographer and subject. The most powerful qualities of Jerrems’s work arise out of the psychological tensions that surface when different worlds collide. In Mark’s Game of Rape Game and Mark Lean: Rape Game (1975), the unequal power relationship and sexual tension between Jerrems, then a young middle class teacher at Heidelberg Tech, and her cocky yet under privileged sixteen year old student electrify the photograph. The strength of these photographs comes not from Jerrems’s role as an insider in the group, but from her ‘otherness’—desired by the boy who dares Jerrems to draw a straw and take part in his ‘game’.

Whereas Jerrems remained a sensitive onlooker, close but seemingly one step removed from her subjects, Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1981–1996) offers a more intimate portrait of the photographer and her immediate social circle. For photography fans who may only be familiar with the smaller selection of Goldin’s series published in book form in 1986, it is a treat to see this substantial presentation of almost seven hundred slides and accompanying soundtrack in a format based on Goldin’s Mudd Club slide shows from the early 1980s. The rituals of going out, getting off and winding down, expectations of love and the realities that can slap us in the face and leave us bruised and broken are all played out with tenderness and affection.

Goldin’s gritty and honest account of life on New York’s Lower East Side in the late 1970s and early 1980s is often compared to Larry Clark’s portfolios, Tulsa and Teenage Lust, which also feature in Up Close. However, unlike Goldin, Clark’s approach is cold and distanced, and functions to heighten the sense of alienation of the gun-toting, drug-taking outsiders in his pictures. Like Danny Lyon and Garry Winogrand, Clark is celebrated for breaking with the heroic tradition of American documentary photography and paving the way for photographers like Goldin. Clark was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and sought to undermine the complacency of middle class America by confronting it with the stark, grubby reality of his Tulsa as a town of drugs, sex and guns. Although Clark’s photographs may lay claim to a certain authenticity because he lived, slept and shot amphetamines with the people he photographed, his clinical aesthetic creates an atmosphere that borders on sleazy and highlights that being an insider does not necessarily make a photographer immune from accusations of exploitation.

William Yang’s portraits of aspects of Sydney’s inner city gay scene could not be more different from Clark’s portfolios. Yang’s black and white photographs of his friends and lovers, such as Joe (1979) and M*** (1981), are so lovingly framed that the camera appears to caress the skin. The text that he later applies to these photographs, following the contours of his lovers’ bodies, mediates our reading of the photographs and brings his own experiences as a photographer and gay man to the fore.

The success of Up Close is that it works on two levels as both a compelling document of often marginalised subcultures of the 1970s and ’80s, and a comment on the complex and ever-changing language of subjectivity in photography.