Charles Hewitt Gallery, 22nd July- 9th August 2010.
The first impression is of the frames; in silver, black, gold and bone, they are both exquisitely ornate and somewhat overbearing. However the photographs are unnerving in their intensity and they soon draw the viewer in.
Tamara Dean’s recent exhibition, This Too Shall Pass, is in some ways a natural transition. Dean has worked as a photojournalist at the Sydney Morning Herald for nearly a decade and joined the independent photo agency Oculi soon after it was established in 2000. Her documentary work has long been characterised by a palpable intimacy made possible due to a strong rapport with her subjects.
In recent years Dean has travelled beyond pure reportage, fluidly incorporating the genres of classical portraiture and landscape. For her series Ritualism and Divine Rites Dean imagined scenes rich in symbolism and archetype, referencing sources as diverse as the Heidelberg School and the Pre-Raphaelites.
The fourteen images from This Too Shall Pass continue Dean’s exploration of spirituality through staged photographs. Shot mainly in decaying urban locations, Sydney morphs into a world where nature threatens to claw back control. The ephemeral nature of the locations echo one of documentary photography’s central concerns- to record our visual history before it disappears. Indeed Dean contends that most of these locations have now been transformed, hence the melancholy title borrowed from a well-worn proverb.
Although Dean includes some male models, it is the girls and young women who dominate. As in her documentary practice these women are Dean’s friends, family and acquaintances; strong women, they navigate their place in an ambiguous world. While Dean uses period costume, there are deliberate slippages. In The Evocationtwo women in gypsy dress crouch on rocks in the foreground as a full moon rises. The otherworldly atmosphere is interrupted by a subject’s tattoo peeking through her crimson shawl. These women are simultaneously exotic, yet human.
In This Too Shall Pass it is always dusk; blues and greens dominate with fleeting touches of complimentary yellows and reds. Dean’s use of low-key lighting is luminous and adept, with echoes of Bill Henson’s complex chiaroscuro. In Kath, a girl on the verge of womanhood stands in profile within a shadowy room as light falls from behind, modelling the folds of her simple cream dress. Her face is transformed into a silhouette, reminiscent of a delicate cameo brooch.
These formal portraits are in danger of jarring against the looser, exterior scenes, yet the consistent visual style holds them together.
Although stylised, Dean’s images are freer and more dynamic than her contemporaries, such as Samantha Everton. While Everton uses complex studio lighting and seamless photomontage techniques to create staged tableaux, Dean’s work remains indebted to her photojournalistic origins, with a use of subject movement and textured film grain.
As for the frames, a gallery staff member counters that Dean sees her practice as belonging to a continuum of art history and the framing further alludes to this tradition. It is intriguing to imagine where on this continuum Dean will voyage to next.
Pure pigment print on archival cotton rag
85 x 66cm