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Introduction: Tracey Moffatt

Originally published 1995 (details below)

It has been said that artists sound bad when it comes to trying to articulate what their work is—that they should shut up and just make the work and then let the theorist do the rave. I strongly support this view.

Once a filmmaker friend in Sydney wrote an essay for a magazine that described the meaning behind an esoteric film she had made. After her brilliant essay was published nobody ever attempted to write about her film again. They were all too intimidated to tackle it. As a result her film did not get much publicity.

In a sense her work had died. She had breathed life out of it. She had taken the mystery and glamour away from her work. There was no longer room for people to go off on tangents and apply their own meaning.

I prefer to talk around rather than about my work. Since graduating from Queensland College of Art in 1982 I have worked steadily as a photographer and filmmaker both as an artist and in a professional sense. I have worked as a photographer for magazines and directed television documentaries and music videos.

Why I have been drawn to photography and film has to do with my laziness. At art school I remember enrolling in the film studies course as a way of avoiding real work.

Having proved lousy in life drawing and painting classes and never handing in those essays on art theory, the thought of spending two years slouched in a darkened theatrette watching the history of cinema roll by was a very attractive prospect.

The irony was that those two years studying world cinema fuelled my inbred manic excitement for images and drama.

Images: colour, light, surface, composition, design; subject matter being secondary.

Thinking back it was never just those two years which inspired me to pry myself off the couch and into the studio where I have made most my images. It had to do with a whole 1960s childhood and 1970s adolescence spent glued to the television or with my nose in a book. I took in everything from schlock to the sophisticated: from black and white Jerry Lewis movies, Skippy and The Benny Hill Show to late night adult theme films like those of English director John Schlesinger (I prided myself that I understood the homosexual element in Sunday Bloody Sunday at age fourteen); to a love of brilliant BBC period dramas such as Upstairs Downstairs and When the Boat Comes In and a worship of the greatest sitcom to ever grace the television screen—The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

In the Australian working class suburb in which I grew up I was merely accessing what was available: the best of British, American and Australian television. There were never outings to the Theatre or Musicals. Nor amongst my large extended white foster family was there talk around the house of high culture in any form, Black Australian or White Australian. Nor talk of politics.

For this lack of talk I am eternally grateful. If you are attracted to these things then you are going to discover them for yourself. Also when it is left up to you, you can be more selective about what you take in—.it's far more exciting.

In my family all sporting events were avidly followed: tennis, cricket, boxing, football (Rugby League), World Championship Wrestling and the Roller Derby. Violence in all these sports was applauded and considered entertaining.

I still love violence in sport—those thrilling moments when game rules are thrown to the wind and all hell breaks loose. Also, I'm addicted to the Olympic Games. When an athlete from an obscure poor country wins gold and then he or she does a victory lap, nothing can compare with this spectacle of real-life drama.

Cinema outings were rare. The first film I saw in a cinema was Mary Poppins at age five. I remember the outing vividly. To this day I still believe Mary Poppins to be a cinematic masterpiece. Those 1960s big budget Disney technicolor works of art remain a yardstick on which I judge almost all films, and possibly all other art.

My choice of reading matter was and continues to be eclectic. Then it ranged from the English Classics (anything by Charles Dickens and the Brontes) to Phantom and Archie comics, as well as cheap detective novels and lurid Mandingo books.

I discovered Feminism by mistake. One night while babysitting in a middle-class house I dragged out and read a copy of Germaine Greer's Female Eunuch because I was intrigued by its cover—I thought it was going to be a dirty book. I was fifteen.

These days I enjoy the ranting wit of American feminist writer Camille Paglia (Sexual Personae) or savour the serene in Gaston Bacheland's The Poetics of Space. I never miss an issue of Vanity Fair and grab my nephew's latest copy of Rap Masters before he can read it.

In all of this popular and non-popular culture overload I continue to scan for images. I'm always hungry for an image. All over the world I find myself drawn to bookshops. Even in art museums I prefer to visit the bookshop first. I want to see the artwork in reproduction before I see the real thing on the wall.

I can stand in a bookshop and easily scan an art magazine or book in five seconds flat—computer-like, taking in, discarding, or storing for later use, for later (so people tell me) 'appropriation'.

Finally to photography. I have nothing to say about it except as an art form it stands alone and works in its own arena. In making my own photographs I admit to being technically dumb. I can barely use a camera. This has never bothered me.

I think I know about light and colour and surface and composition but I prefer to direct it rather than do it. When I create something new I work in a fever pitch of excitement. My hands shake. I need someone around to move props and click the camera button for me.

My lack of ability to calm myself down in some ways explains my very uncool suburban self-portrait on this book's cover (like the photos you see in frames on supermarket shelves). An artist friend once said to me, 'It doesn't matter what you end up becoming or how much you reinvent yourself, the fact is your suburb never leaves your system.' Such a profound Australian comment to make I think.

Film producers are telling me to leave photography alone and that if I want to 'get anywhere' I have to concentrate on my big commercial film script I have been writing. In my heart I know they are right. Film requires complete dedication. But I am a slave to photography as well; after a while I pine for it.

There is nothing quite like the power of the frozen negative image. In a way it is sexy. You can stare at it for as long as you like and as well you can think about it as you climb into bed. You can ignore it for a while but then you can always crawl back to it later. It is always cheap and readily available—the best kind of thing.

 


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