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On Our Collections

Elaine Campaner

Lake 2017 (from the exhibition series, Petri Dish)

Gael Newton AM, May 2024



I have a broad-church approach when it comes to photograpy. I am at ease with and love to view good classic, contemporary, manipulated and staged works from all eras. Sometimes having such broad interests can ruffle feathers.

For instance, despite some opposition at the time from certain quarters in Sydney in 1981, I mounted an early show called Re-Constructed Vision at the Art Gallery of New South Wales looking at everything but straight reportage. (see link below)

Among my many photographic interests, I remain very partial to contemporary ‘table top’ photography. This genre of work was popular within the photographic salons during the period 1900–1960s where a scene was staged using small scale objects and figurines to enact stories of some kind. Too many of those works were fairly ordinary and had corny captions. Thankfully there is now an active group of contemporary ‘table top’ photographs whose works are creative, engaging and often political.

The appeal for artists then and now is that you can stay home and construct your own versions of world. For the most part when looking at these staged photographs, we happily suspend disbelief just as you do when enjoying good theatre. Quite often the photographer does not have to create perfect believable scenes or costumes. We get the clue and fill in the rest. When they are well done, their aesthetics and use of photography remain strong along with any overt or subtle messages.

We have just re-hung most of our collection works in our new home in Melbourne. One beautiful photograph that takes a prominent position is a large colour work called Lake 2017 by the late Elaine Campaner (1969–2020). This work was part of an exhibition series she called Petri Dish (see link below for more)

Her death in 2020 remains a tragic loss to her family, friends and to the rest of us who enjoyed and admired her way of seeing the world and its complexities. Her quiet but powerful sense of humour was precious. Elaine lived with husband and children in Springwood in the New South Wales Blue Mountains. Her training was at Sydney College of the Arts graduating in 1999 with honours – her preference for staging scenes was already established.

I had followed Elaine’s work since her rather disturbing images of small dead mice in domestic settings were included in Peter Fay’s Home Sweet Home exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia in 2003. Other works of the time called The New Testament as understood by small children had Mattel Ken dolls dressed as Biblical figures enacting religious scenes. Another remains even more enigmatic; a toy sparrow is hung by a thread over a broken fragment against a grand vista it is only the faint clouds in the sky saying ‘sorry’ that gives a clue.

Elaine went onto to make ever larger and more elaborate tableaux with extraordinary skill orchestrating domestic objects both decorative and utilitarian, as well as tourist souvenirs standing in for the actual places. Another theme was epochs from Australian history.

She used materials at hand including bits of packaging and Styrofoam plastic inserts that doubled as landscape elements. Often the pieces chosen are a bit old fashioned and kitschy – but always fun. Many others were household objects. I suspect that their use in Elaine’s work may have made for interesting domestic situations wheny others could not find stuff, such as the coffee pot, because it had been recruited for her table top work of the day.

Her ‘plays’ were extensive, ranging from the social critique of events, places or beliefs to the more overt such as political referencing boat people including harrowing images of drowning refugees. In another, coffee cups become a barrier wall keeping others out of white Australia.

Other images riffed on Australia Day and Indigenous Australians and even rednecks with guns posing outside the White House in Washington. She had a lot of fun representing people at tourist landmarks; for example, where sightseers with cars relate to each other while ignoring the meaning of the site or when they are looking at the souvenirs while being oblivious to the real beauty of views beyond.

Environmental issues and dehumanising technology are a frequent motif. A pair of salt and pepper shakers that become nuclear and fossil fuel towers appear in several works. Have a good look through the Petrie Dish series link below and you will see what fun she had with such ordinary objects.

In 2019 Elaine produced a set of images on radiation for breast cancer. There are many women who will have identified with what Elaine was portraying with her use of tiny female figures alone in the cave of modern CT scanning and cancer radiography.
The label from her gallerist, Gallery 9 Sydney, says a lot about her use of materials– with one work Radiation (Oncology) lisitng the components 'telephone, blu-tac, polystyrene, ice- cream maker, computer parts, pill-packet, keyboard circuit- mat, seashells, safety gloves, green felt-tipped marker'.

By no means do I understand all the refences and I berate myself for not taking more notes during the conversations we had. We actually never got to meet face to face – a big regret.

Our own idyllic looking photograph Lake of 2017 now hanging on our wall is one of Campaner’s most elaborate and intricate assemblages. At first it is a tranquil scene under a dark grey sky. Exquisitely assembled two gleaming towers (white salt and pepper shakers) are reflected in a mirror-lake. A distant desert landscape of draped material is in the background and bits of electronics create buildings on what appears as an island in the lake.

All is quiet. It is very much like a scene of Delft in Dutch art. It is a beautiful and aesthetically engaging scene. The deception works wonderfully. It allows room to register how illusory such a man-made landscape is and slowly the political and environmental issues hit you in the face. Despite the hard-hitting message, the beauty of the piece remains.

An earlier work from 2006 Untitled (Classified #1) with three shakers as towers belching white smoke suggests the contrast of how so much of contemporary technology promised a future away from being dependant on nature. And we all can now see how well that’s going!

Another marvellous image Precipe 2017 has an alpine landscape with white dental plaster casts of mouths with teeth and a tiny couple on the edge. It seems that everything around her was always auditioning for a role in her own creation stories. She had a remarkable vision.

Elaine Campaner was productive and recognised as an artist over her two decades of professional practice with exhibitions and acquisitions. Campaner’s artifice is clearly skilful but the art is subtle and meant for mediation. Her messages register subliminally.

I thank Elaine for being the person she was and for making Lake 2017 – we love it – and suggest that this one may not be donated and may stay with us till the end.


Elaine’s work in still available through her estate (her husband) and Gallery 9 has a show in June 2024.

In her own words:
I locate my work within the practice of painting and read my images in the genres of history painting, landscape and portraiture. I photograph in a low-tech painterly way. This includes making gestures and creating illusion and spatial depth. An object may be placed as a loose brushstroke or a mark, an impression of something else. I use the material stuff of life as literal or conceptual signifiers.

The uncertainty of what you are looking at literally and representationally enables visual and conceptual complexity.
My work is made by photographing transient dioramas of loosely arranged found objects. I am interested in the visual illusion and conceptual complexity that can result when found objects are placed together or happen together by chance.
‘Lake’ reimages a certain type of environmental image, using everyday objects from my domestic life that assert themselves as something else as I come across them.

I enjoy the pleasurable tension between the credulity of the illusion and the transparency of one thing standing in for another, as a means of creating recognition and visual pleasure.


Australia Day 2 (nullius) 2011.jpg


The 2024 exhibition at Gallery 9, Sydney

Some of her exhibition work

Petri Dish exhibition 2017

Re-constructed Vision, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1981

The Museum of Australian Photography

Works held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales

Elaine Campaner 1969 – 2020, In memory of Elaine and her wonderful photographic artworks. Gael Newton June 2022

more of Gael Newton's Essays and Articles


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