Carol Jerrems presentation
Australian Centre for Photography, 10 September 2004
I’d like to talk briefly about the enduring appeal of work such as Carol’s to successive generations of audiences, and how it sits within the context of contemporary art.
I had an experience several years ago with an exhibition entitled Sharpies, featuring teenage snapshots re-presented as an exhibition, as well as working with John Pilger and the Barbican on an exhibition of photographs produced for John’s journalism around the world since the 1960s. Both exhibitions were extremely popular with audiences, and both raised questions about how certain forms of photography fitted into the program of a contemporary art museum.
Sharpies appealed on a number of levels, and I think a number of these coincide with the appeal of Carol’s work. Both seem to represent an Australia that is within memory for many people but is somehow lost, portraying counter- or sub-cultures that immediately precede the vast increase in globalised communications and consequently globalised culture.
The sharpies have been described as the last uniquely Australian subculture, arising from working-class suburbs and revolving around cars, girls, fighting and dressing-up, with activities and entertainment self-generated rather than being passively received. As an archive or record of a particular time and place, at a moment when instamatic cameras became more readily available, even to kids, these images therefore have a historical interest. Over and above this, they highlighted the paradoxical nature of photography: both the performativity of even the most vernacular images, where subjects offer themselves up with poses and props for the camera’s gaze; and the perceived ‘authenticity’ of the snapshot.
While seemingly raw and unadultered, particularly at a time when digital imaging has infiltrated so much contemporary photography, these images indicate the essential fiction of any photography. Yet by using as their subjects an immediate social milieu, there is also an intimacy and understanding between photographer and sitter, revealing a mutual warmth and respect that is immediately apparent and deeply appealing.
The Pilger exhibition had different emphases, being clearly documentary yet usually of subjects unknown to the photographer. Like Jerrems’ work, however, they are based on an ethical impulse, and indicate the importance of photography in disseminating information and effecting social change. This function of photography has become increasingly influential in much contemporary art practice.
Harking back to 1960s conceptual practices of mapping and archiving the world, particularly sites and activities previously marginalised or overlooked, much contemporary documentary photography strives toward the avant-garde collapse of art and life. Here lies another seeming paradox: as large exhibitions such as biennales become more ‘global’, their desire for a kind of localised authenticity seems to increase.
Documentary photography and video enables those from ‘outside’ the centre to bring news from elsewhere, a tendency highlighted in the 2002 Documenta exhibition, which contained substantial bodies of photo and video documentary from Asia, Africa and Latin America. While Jerrems’ photographs were not of ‘exotic’ subjects, they were intensely local, people from her own social circle, and while very much of their time, are effortlessly contemporary.
It is becoming increasingly accepted that contemporary art contains all forms of visual production within its parameters. Contextualising photojournalism, or documentary photography within a contemporary art museum, rather than in a newspaper, book or photography gallery, allows for certain discourses to operate, and certain levels to be activated within and around the image. This could be anything from the formal qualities of the photograph, its relationship to other forms of visual culture, its multivalent narrative properties, its historical importance, its contesting of the real. These can all be brought into play beyond the level of content.
Work such as Carol Jerrems’ therefore sits comfortably within such an environment as it plays with the paradoxical nature of photography and its relationship to the real. While we crave authenticity, we also desire poetry, and complex work such as Carol’s proves that these are not mutually exclusive endeavours.
(Russell Storer is presently Senior Curator, National Gallery Singapore