Mystique permeates Deep Water, National Gallery of Victoria’s small yet imperious photography exhibition, wafting through the gallery like a vapourised presence. With just 38 pieces (drawn from the Gallery’s own collection), the presentation seems to grip visitors with a silent and intense power.
Deep Water spotlights a coterie of cameramen and (a couple of) women from the 1800s to the turn of this century who had recorded their encounters with fresh water traversing the land and with salt water at sea. They articulated water’s promise of life and leisure but also of power and mystery — a power as destructive as it is life-sustaining; a mystery as beautiful as it is dangerous.
Bookended by images that are dominated by the natural environment in staggering proportions, Susan van Wyk’s solemn exhibition locks in a mood of human diminution. One feels inconsequential in Francis Bedford’s Pass of Llanberis: apart from the breathtaking scale of mountains on either side, the insidious power of running water that cuts a valley though the most treacherous of terrains is what amazes and astounds.
Similarly, A turreted berg by Frank Hurley does not only dwarf anyone who confronts it but fascinates them with the remarkable Antarctic phenomenon in which fresh water meets with the salty sea. This picture does justice to Hurley’s entrancement with icebergs; with literary flair, he aptly described them as “shimmering walls … rising like castles of jade”.
A turreted berg 1913
Within the sacred walls of this gallery, where even footfalls sound blasphemous, Van Wyk carefully explores people’s complex relationship with water. She juxtaposes Max Dupain’s At Newport with Narelle Autio’s Untitled. The former is a celebration of water as a source of entertainment and pleasure but the latter, whilst also delighting in water’s propensity to thrill, caught from a ‘shark’s-eye-view’, is far more foreboding. Subtly, the curator invites the viewer to contemplate man’s unseen vulnerability at the height of their supposed invincibility.
At Newport 1952
Nevertheless, the photograph that perhaps speaks most vividly of water’s destructive potential is Hurley’s Setting out for South Georgia, 750 miles away. It features Ernest Shackleton and his company of men launching a small boat from Elephant Island to the Antarctic Ocean after spending months marooned on ice sheets when they lost their ship. We know that the bid for South Georgia was to be their last chance at survival. And here, the dangers they’ll face are utterly implied by the boundless horizon, the intimation of perilous obstacles and unpredictability of the ocean force.
Then, as if to rehabilitate deep water’s reputation, Van Wyk chooses English photographer Peter Henry Emerson’s Rowing home the schoof-stuff to represent its life-sustaining character. A solitary man rows on a peaceful lake; its surface is as calm as mirroring glass. With his boat overflowing with harvest, the man looks to the distance lush with still more vegetation and still more life.
Arguably, the one photograph that at once captures water as an enigma of beauty and of menace has to be Ian Lobb’s Seaweed and ocean in 1979. A bounty of kelp flourishes from the water bed, its wet glittering leaves bursting through the watery surface with febrile vibrance. While what more lies beneath the diaphanous waters intrigue and lure, the ocean depth and (to use Donald Rumsfeld’s famous phrase) the unknown unknowns remain dangerously elusive, abstract and mystical.
Until 11 September 2011