There's a Time in There, and a Place as Well

There are people with names, and stories to tell...

Memories of my life finger painting and watching Playschool are mostly restricted to photo albums. Now, school photo day has come and gone and, once again, I’m left wondering what purpose these collections of stiff smiles and straight backs serve. There is no individual identity captured in the pairs of eyes trying not to blink at the flash. Commercial portraiture, in its pursuit of visual appeal and stylised perfection, leaves no room for the individuality of the subject. The primary technique of a commercial photographer is to take something that is, in nature, heterogeneous, and force it into conformity. Ideally, the school would let us take our own class photos, in our own world. Since we are denied the right to such explorations, we instead find ourselves grasping for other forums that will capture what we have to say. 

The popularity and accessibility of user-friendly camera applications means that anyone can be a photographer. Snapchat is an application that offers users the opportunity to take a ‘snap’ and send it to friends, and even other random users around the globe. These images are fleeting, present on a small screen for no more than ten seconds, then they’re gone forever. Their ephemeral nature does not, however, reduce their merit in terms of contemporary portraiture: art is art, no matter how transient. 

The sheer number of images being collected and sent through the app is constantly contributing to an ever-changing cloud that encompasses the individual ideologies of every user globally. Snapchat’s creators say the philosophy of the app is to enable ‘sharing authentic moments with friends’, but the authenticity of such photographs is actually quite hazy. When the subject is given control over the photograph, there is always the temptation to present their best self—or their better self. 

The transient nature of Snapchat, however, also lends itself to contextual authenticity, as it encourages users to be a little less reserved. Crossed eyes and fish lips; the photos offer an insight into the ideologies of today’s society found only in the moments in which the photos were captured. Even now, when photography has become a part of life, a self-portrait, or ‘selfie’, is not about the person in the photo, but rather captures how the here and now appears to different people. Though the individual may get lost in this sea of subjective interpretation, when considered collectively they still contribute to global and historical understanding.

But candid portraiture was not always just the poison of teenage girls attempting to broadcast their lives for societal approval. Contemporary portraiture is not destined for the artificial representations of the triviality of life. The artist must engage with their subject and setting; must meld into the landscape of their subject. Arguably, to more accurately explore a sense of time, place, and ideology within a photograph, the artist must already be a part of that same time and place. This is exactly what gives Nan Goldin’s photographic collections the sense of authenticity that is difficult to perceive within a generic class photo. 

Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is a candid insight into the sex-driven and drug-fuelled haze of Boston, and later the sexuality of New York City. At first glance the photographs seem to be an intimate peek into the lives of several of Goldin’s close friends, however nothing is really revealed about them individually. The group of people featured in the collection are representative of the life of the community as a whole, but Goldin’s personal involvement prevents her photos from becoming tainted by idealisation. 

These images are not the ‘cry for acceptance’ that one might expect, but rather Goldin’s way of exposing the helplessness of the human condition in its raw form. The life in the LGBT community of 1970’s America was dangerous, and often self-destructive. Her photographs capture the times after the glitz and glamour, a behind the scenes if you will. Now, even though a lot of the individuals captured within her work have died, Goldin’s portraits are a record of times gone by, and ideologies once held. They are snaps from another time, shared with millions rather than friends. 

However, not every aspect of an ideology can be captured in a snapshot of a time and place. Sometimes a message requires symbolism, and interpretation, in order to ensure our understanding. In my class photo, our uniforms represent unity, our straight backs pride, and our smiles happiness, but they leave me feeling that forced homogeneity has voided the authenticity of the photo. My thirst for self-expression made Christian Thompson’s contemporary portraits all the more engaging when I encountered them at the ‘My Country, I Still Call Australia Home’ exhibition at QAGOMA, Brisbane. His Black Gum works hang ominously on a black wall, offering a simple contradiction: the beauty of nature against the negative connotations that in the past have been forced upon his people, leaving a black mark on indigenous communities. Thompson’s work lends a necessary voice to indigenous youth, as a reminder that not every indigenous teen conforms to the widely perceived stereotype. 

A black hoodie represents the bleaker side of being an indigenous Australian in today’s society. The subject’s individual identity, like the subjects of Goldin’s work, becomes irrelevant. Rex Butler suggested that this dramatic costuming is ‘a form of drag that Thompson is engaged in’1; Thompson’s work is not as detached from Goldin’s as I initially assumed. His—or her—face and name are cast off; their body reduced to a mere vessel that encompasses the personality and story of thousands. I was overwhelmed, not by a bouquet, but a conglomeration of native gumnut blossoms that obscured the face of the subject and commanded my attention. The exhibition, and Thompson’s background as a Bidjara man, lend context to the photographs, although their element of social commentary is still clear. 

I know that my class photo is not going to be hung in the Guggenheim, but it is still important. Christian Thompson’s work offers a snapshot of growing up as an Indigenous Australian teenager; Nan Goldin’s work offers another perspective on the sexuality of the 1970s; my class photo provides a look through a window. Not the round window, or the square, or the arch, or the diamond; but rather a window into a time and a place where drag takes the form of a school uniform and a stiff smile. 

 

Nan Goldin, Nan and Brian in Bed, NYC, 1983. Silver dye bleach print, 50.8 x 61cm. © Nan Goldin. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York. 

Christian Thompson, Bidjara/Kunja people, Black Gum 3 (from ‘Australian Graffiti’ series), 2008. Type C photograph, 100 x 100cm. Purchased 2008. The Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery.

notes: 

1. Rex Butler, ‘Australian Graffiti’, catalogue for exhibition by Christian Thompson, Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, 4 March – 5 April, 2008. See http://espace.library.uq.edu.au/view/UQ:131724