‘How far can camera work go toward making manifest the invisible? How much can the camera bring to others of my own experiences of light and darkness, Christ or Lucifer?’
- Minor White in Octave of Prayer, 1972.
Photography is about choice. Choosing to record, stage, manipulate and exhibit an image. As a viewer it is important to ask these questions. It is no longer considered to be the only function of the photographer to record. The viewer can either accept the image as an interesting image or explore the subject and consequently the ‘meanings’ which ensue. Individuals ‘see’ the same object or scenario in totally different ways. Why have the artists chosen to take the images that they have, in the manner in which they do and presented them in such a way for the exhibition?
Photography could be considered to be a reaction to the world which has developed, as something distinct from a record of a given moment, person or event. The person behind the machine, the camera and the emulsion, is a vital part of the machine. That individual decides what to record and what to leave out. Important details surrounding the image we see may be totally ignored, or only suggested.
In this exhibition there are a number of approaches taken by the artists represented. Some are photo opportunists and some are stage designers who attempt to control almost every element the viewer will see.
Part of this control is related to the context in which the photograph is seen, in this exhibition.
Determining what symbolist photography is another key to the interpretation of the works in this exhibition. The curatorial construct provides the link between what is seen and how it can be interpreted. Tim Renner, curator for the exhibition, examined ‘symbolist’ from the perspective of personal, enigmatic and mysterious, that which provides ‘a window to the soul’.
This definition is appropriated from 19th century painting practice, in such a way that works in this exhibition might be described as neo-classical or romantic and/or expressionist. The 19th century traditions were historically related to the development of the camera and of experimental photography.
The photograph represents the historical in a constantly re-evaluating moment, for example with Patrick Reynolds’ work where the image has surreal qualities and the window pushes back at us, the viewer. Art historian Allan Smith attempted to define the notion of ‘symbolist’ related to photography as ‘the careful cultivation of a hypersensitive interiority understood in terms of what Redon called the ‘secret and mysterious laws of the emotions and the heart’ and those ‘mysterious centres of thought’ (ANZ 61:81).
Looking at the works in this exhibition it becomes clear that the personal, the intangible, esoteric, and the mystical are fertile ground for artists to work.
Other artists represented include Ole Toft, Mark Smith, Jennifer French, Patrick Reynolds, Haru Sameshima, Gavin Hipkins, Deborah Smith, Laurence Aberhart, Darren Glass, Jennifer Gillam, Robert Black, Mary Mcpherson, Jane Zusters and Leonie Johnson. In addition to the exhibition there is a display of cameras dating from 1902 to 1980.
→ Symbolism through the lens, New Zealand Herald, 28-06-1995
→ Symbolist Photography, 1995, exhibition card