I stand in NGV’s photography exhibition gallery, facing a whole wall studded with 20 pictures from Bill Henson’s Untitled 1980-1982 series. Forget silhouettes of girlish nudes, over which the Melbourne artist incurred public wrath some three years ago. Here, crowds in Melbourne from 30 years past appear to be waiting — for what, it is not clear. One can only speculate they are probably waiting to cross the road, waiting for the bus, the train, perhaps the tram. Mostly unaware of Henson’s lens, they seem absorbed in themselves. Many are sullen, morose. There is anguish, weariness, even resignation.
As much as such photography may be precious in art and in science, for poetry and for anthropology, it raises the spectre of victimising those observed, using them in a project without their knowledge or consent, subjecting them to the camera’s mechanised, if manipulated, gaze.
Looking at Looking: The Photographic Gaze, NGV’s evocative exhibition, explores (amongst other things) the power of photographers to rob control from the observed and to invest it in the observer, and equally their capacity to wrest command from the viewer, ploughing it back into the subject, but also the photographers’ ability to deprive both the subject and the viewer of objective opinion by advancing the narrative themselves.
The exhibition spotlights a selection of works from national and international photographers, who invite us to view the world through the looking eyes of their cameras. We find ourselves hurtling from the sombre streets of Melbourne in the 1980s to the ‘living-room’ Vietnam War of the 1970s, sweeping from bleeding Iraq and dusty Afghanistan to the cultural milieu of peacetime Germany, before finally being confronted with visually stunning conundrums that are as beguiling as they are deep.
Through a sequence of grainy photographs snapped directly from television sets telecasting then-live newsreels of the Vietnam War, John Immig had effectively pressed on the ‘pause’ button to illustrate what was (and is) captured by the media assailing us each day. Witness a European newsreader safely ensconced from the gruelling war she is reporting on, a shadowy soldier seeking cover in the lee of a scrubby bush, figures of dead bodies sprawling naked on the blackened fields, and the battered bitter face of an indignant Vietcong defender. Silencing the aural rhetoric, stamping out the expedient polemic, Immig succeeds brilliantly in focusing us on the savage realities of wars.
If Immig’s still footage had paled in audience reach to the live television coverage in the 1970s, the pictures taken by Ashley Gilbert in Iraq when he was embedded with the US military as a journalist with The New York Times in 2004 must have done better. Here is a wounded Iraqi man caught in sharp focus in the background, framed ominously by the faded out profile image of a US soldier in the foreground. While the Iraqi is writhing in his own pool of blood, the soldier looks calmly on, across the street that is carelessly littered with other detritus of globalisation.
Nevertheless, by juxtaposing these salutary works with a placid piece by photography artists Charles Green and Lyndall Brown, the exhibition has perhaps augmented the moral dilemma of such globalisation. Afghan traders with soldiers, market, Taran Kowt Base, Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan 2007 shows a cluster of native traders circling round an object obscured from the camera’s view in the presence of a coalition soldier. Relevant text informs us about their fascination with a female soldier’s attempt to try on a man’s cap.
If the exhibition title: Looking at Looking conjures a mirroring quality, none offers more buttress than Thomas Struth’s Pergamon Museum IV, Berlin 2001. In a staged photograph where subjects are told specifically where to stand and how to pose, viewers find themselves looking at subjects looking at relief figures which they emulate. And because the photograph is an installation in its own right, a camera in the NGV gallery could well be looking at viewers looking at Struth’s work of art in which its viewers are looking at other works of art — a vortex of concentricity.
If Struth’s Pergamon depicts the inevitability of the present ever-dissolving into the past, Anne Ferran’s picture from Scenes on the death of nature, 1986 pulls the past back into the present to make her point. Here the artist’s daughter and friends are clad in ancient garments and directed to pose in arrangements that bear a striking resemblance to Classical sculptures. In deliberately not eschewing artifice — the loose thread and visible stitching on the girls’ clothing — Ferran tells of the death of nature, the estrangement of present art from its former glories.
Just as one begins to realise the vulnerability, if exploitation, of the subjects in these pictures under the manipulative photographic gaze, Chi Peng’s Consubstantiality 2004 wrestles their power back. Viewers are confounded by the picture of a man whose reflection seems to have the body of a woman, and another of a woman whose reflection shows the chest of a man. With grim, haunting looks, the subjects tell of how despite their dual sexualities, they are in fact consubstantial — or, one of the same.
Chi Peng, Consubstantiality 2004
Andrew Brooks’ I split your gaze 1997 too reclaims power to the subject. Faced with an enlarged image of an Aboriginal man that has been split with the left half placed unnaturally on the right and right on left, viewers find their eyes rushing from side to side in their natural inclination to seek reconciliation — something this exhibition has exquisitely achieved in its rotating viewer-photographer-and-subject sovereignty.