Magnum photographer Trent Parke has spent his career turning his camera on his native Australia. Parke, who’s presentational preference is to create hand made photo books has published a number of very engaging works of art in this form.
Minutes to Midnight was the first of his books that I encountered and I have to say I was drawn not only to the edgy evocative images on each of its pages but also his approach to art practice and indeed the philosophy that underpins his work as an artist.
Minutes to Midnight is the product of a road trip across Australia and is an eclectic mix of gritty black and white images that shines a light on the emotional state of Australia during a time of national and global change.
Made in 2003 , the images of rural and urban scenes capture people and place in shadows and light and all the works in the book say something about how Australians were facing the impact of issues such as 9/11, the Bali bombings and the huge bush fires and drought in the the country at the time There is a sense of the uneasy about the work, not least because there is a simile narrative in some very disparate images locations. It’s worth noting that the work was in part created in response to a newspaper article suggesting that 60% of Australians believed the country had lost it’s innocence.
There are a wide range of pictures in the book, from scenes of people living in challenging circumstances in remote outback communities to scenes of commuters in the cities of the vast country. Parke creates a strong and coherent narrative of ‘unsettlement’ about a country of contrasts and one that is not without challenge and tragedy. His use of black and white grainy film is in my view very evocative and even in some of the harsher images there is an intrinsic sense of beauty .
Parke was awarded the W. Eugene Smith Award for humanistic photography for this body of work. To my eye Parke is a master in using light creatively to capture an instant in time that says more than just the elements contained within the frame.
Parke himself suggests that a single image can contain a narrative and although he creates strong themes (using recurring motifs such as; young children holding babies, rural and urban landscapes presented in a very high contrast manner, dead animals, scnes with a single figure bathed in light) in individual images, there is a strong and coherent narrative of unsettlement, change and uncertainty that runs through this work.
A particular draw for me to his work is that he uses film and controls all aspects of the production of his black and white work. He takes many shots and repeatedly visits the the same locations to achieve the image he wants, the image he has visualised based upon some discovery or some moment of inspiration when reviewing his developed negatives.
The image below typifies his approach. On just one negative he saw the effect of the lights and shadows naturally projected onto passing vehicles. The silhouettes of people on the street at a particular time of day create a haunting and almost unreal set of shadows and light. He returened again and again to the same location at the same time for several months to finally capture the image that he imagined. He is a object less on patience, application and perseverance!
Parkes background is interesting and has elements of profound sadness about it. Although as the video listed in the references below demonstrates he has an incredibly positive outlook on life and making images is central to his life.
At the age of 13 while at home with his mother, she had a fatal asthma attack and died. There was nothing the young Parke could do and this had a profound impact on his future. His mother had a small darkroom and she made and sold images to local newspapers. Following her death he picked up her camera and began to make pictures. He eventually worked as a photographer for a newspaper whilst also playing cricket professionally. Eventually he had to choose between the two career paths and selected photography. He then went o to be a sports photographers for one of the Australian national newspapers. His experience and skill as a sport photographer I believe can be seen in some of his work. Choosing not to travel beyond his own country he has taken an immersive approach to recording his country in his own way.
Learning Points from Trent Parke’s work
- Persistence and perseverance, he keeps returning to themes and ideas until he gets them right, this is by far the biggest lesson that i take from his work.
- Contrast in the narrative, he uses a wide range of themes from landscape, to group shots to protests to tell the story of a people and a land, i thought buyer were real parole ( although their work is quite different) to the philosophy and motivation behind is work and that of Alex Soth.
- Film still has a place and a role to play, pardon the pun!!
Parke, Trent (2013) Minutes to Midnight, Steidl
Interview with Trent Parke by David Hanlon found at: https://vimeo.com/106406707 (Accessed May 2015)
In Public Interview -Trent Parke found at: http://www.in-public.com/TrentParke (Accessed May 2015)