by Tom Williams.
A friend of mine went to Rome recently and found himself moved to tears looking at some Boticelli paintings. I know how he felt: I once found myself in a room a few steps away from a photograph that was already embedded in my memory – so familiar it felt like a part of my own psyche. I had to edge towards it gingerly like a sort of pilgrim, afraid I might choke up and embarrass myself. My young son thought I was being a weirdo: it was just a strange photo of a boy holding a hand grenade.
The picture was made by a stranger but it was as if she were a friend. She might have said, “Here, I want to show you this. It’s important.”
George Orwell described a similar feeling when he first read Henry Miller (like Diane Arbus, a roving American adventurer): “He knows all about me,” he felt. “He wrote this specially for me.” The work went to the heart of how he saw the world, of who he was. There was familiarity and also revelation.
There are trillions of photographs; they’ve recorded almost every inch of the planet (some many times over). Mechanisms for producing images have triumphed. They’ve proven fittest. Last time I went on holiday I bought a new bottle of sunblock: it came with a free camera. (A throw-away marketing tool, I scoffed at it at first but soon tore off the wrapper and began snapping submarine scenery). The ubiquity of images can seem an embarrassment of riches – and at worst a relentless means of manipulation and salesmanship – but some people reveal the world through photography in ways we could never predict. They tell new stories and convey their deepest understanding and wildest imagination through pictures. They encounter life through their work, and they teach us.
Welcome to this very first issue of timemachine, titled ‘Home’. Home is an awkward word because it can mean so many things: A place. A country. A group of people. A starting point; where you might sleep tonight. All of the series included here involve a degree of closeness to who or what is photographed. In some cases this closeness or understanding formed over a period of time while the work was being created; in others, familiarity and intimacy brought the images into being.
The retrospective by Zoe Strauss is selected from a project to which she dedicated ten years of her life, photographing her own vast home, the USA. She turns her camera on her compatriots and their lands as you might a brother or a sister: with recognition, love, boldness – and no particular desire to flatter. Her subjects are strangers but comrades, not necessarily united by anything but a flag, and Zoe’s embracing of them. The work has become a kind of State of the Union, expressed intuitively, and from street level. Mary Beth Meehan, likewise, brings us photographs from her own turf, her hometown Brockton Massachusetts, the former ‘Shoe City’ that continues to undergo a period of profound change. Meehan shares the vision of an insider: a companion to those she photographs in the sense that she shares their roots and to an extent, their future. In one caption, a school employee is quoted: “Brockton is portrayed as a tough, cruel city. But the children of our city have done wonderful things”. This month (September 2011), her images will fill the city on twelve foot banners – adorning a place that some feared may be in terminal decline.
Rob Hornstra is also engaged in an intensive long-term project, documenting the area around Sochi in the Russian Federation, where the Winter Olympics will be held in 2014. What his direct, lyrical pictures highlight are people and their relationships – and their birthplace – what Hornstra describes as ‘a world full of different realities’. A complex and evolving region, rather than a venue. Similarly, Sohrab Hura paints a vivid and tender picture of Pati village in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. You may feel as we did after experiencing the work: that you had really spent time with a community, and comprehended something of its life and struggles.
German born Katrin Koenning, in her series Near, shares what she calls the centre stage of her life, ‘the complexity of family love’. Documentarians only rarely focus on their own lives, although there is a long tradition: Jacques Henri Lartigue, Nan Goldin, Sally Mann; some Australian contemporaries such as Max Pam, Sandy Edwards, William Yang and Trent Parke. Autobiographical work involves its own kind of intimacy and power, as well as the strength to invite others to look.
Graham Miller’s Waiting for the Miracle has the mood of autobiography, but what we see are fictional characters and imagined relationships – although paradoxically some of his closest friends and family appear in the narrative.
Ingvar Kenne and Louis Porter are also adoptive Australians, and their observations have the startling and revelatory impact that fresh eyes can deliver. Here, Kenne leads us through the abandon, passion and chaos experienced in a myriad of karaoke bars (those cocoons where guilty pleasures are celebrated with the frankest devotion). Louis Porter shares incisive colour observations made in his new surroundings, an ongoing series called Unknown Land. Porter is one of those rare shooters whose use of flash seems to unearth crucial secrets, and whose camera translates drab conventions into the bizarre contrivances that might otherwise escape notice because they appear ‘normal’.
We hope you enjoy the first instalment of timemachine. All feedback is welcome we and encourage submissions for upcoming editions, both photographic and written.
The theme for issue two is Spectacle.