Shadowland – Trent Parke, the sole Australian in the Magnum Photos collective, shines a light on hidden aspects of his vast country

Shadowland – Trent Parke, the sole Australian in the Magnum Photos collective, shines a light on hidden aspects of his vast country

The magic of Trent Parke’s photography rests in an uncanny ability to transmute the sunniest day into nighttime. His lens acts as a portal into the world of dreams and, just as often, nightmares. As the Australian photographer hones in on sources of light, the surrounding space falls into foreboding shadows since, as Parke remarks, “light turns the ordinary into the magical”. In his gelatin silver prints, the extreme contrasts of light and shadow metamorphose his images into surreal landscapes. Parke is more of a conceptual artist than a photojournalist.

The haunting beauty of his monochrome photographic series has brought him international acclaim. Minutes to Midnight, for instance, resulted from a two-year trek across the remotest parts of Australia, a country we think of as awash with the light of a searing sun. He documented an Australia – savage and exotic, but at the same time hypnotic – unrecognisable even to most Australians. Parke’s work does not adhere to tenets of documentary realism, even though many of his works capture a raw side of daily life, but rather aspire to an aesthetic code blurring reality and fiction.

Born in 1972, in Newcastle, New South Wales, Parke began taking pictures at the age of twelve after his mother died suddenly from an asthma attack. Her death triggered an emotional crisis in the young Parke. The photographer has confessed that the years preceding his mother’s death became a place of impenetrable darkness for him. In photography, Parke found a way to recollect those missing years through a kind of aesthetic reflection. He searches for his past through the lens of his camera, hoping to find memories among his pictures. This longing for a lost past was encapsulated by Parke’s haunting image of a boy standing in the rain, silently observing a lonely city street.

Do you still see Australia as a phantasmagorical place?
I have always had a vivid imagination, and a curiosity about everything around me, especially my own country. When I was a boy I used to sit in the dark on our backyard deck, listening to Midnight Oil, conjuring up images to the lyrics of their uniquely Australian music. When I travelled the country from 2003 to 2005 with my partner Narelle Autio, I found that the Australian Outback did live up to the mystery and images I had created in my head all those years ago. The Outback is without a doubt a dark place, in spite of and in contrast to the glaringly bright aura. And in my opinion wherever there is darkness there is mystery.

Shadowland Trent Parke

How did growing up in a vast country influence you as a photographer?
At some point during the Minutes to Midnight trip we travelled in the Outback for several months without seeing a single cloud. From a psychological point of view, even though we were bathed in bright sunshine, that period felt more ominous than any thunderous black Outback storm we encountered. It was as if we had fallen from the face of the earth. From a technical point of view, the straight horizon line also forced me to work in different ways. On that trip I photographed as much as possible at night, which in the end fit the mood of the work I was trying to develop.

Do you consider your approach more conceptual than documentary?
I like to think of them in equal terms. It’s never about the single image when I photograph. It is always with the bigger picture I am working towards and that usually means the book and installation. Imagination is the key. Sequencing is of the utmost importance and I am always looking for the signs to lead me to the next piece of the puzzle.

Has your work become more personal in recent years?
For the past four years I have been working on my most personal project to date, called The Black Rose. It is autobiographical in a sense and deals with the past, the present, and the future. But as with all my work, it still has strong cultural ties to the Australian way of life and is also as much about a place as any of my previous projects. Growing up the way I did, I still see myself as a fairly average Australian and usually the major things that are affecting me are the same things affecting a lot of other Australians. As a result it has always been important that I put myself into my work.

You have talked about forgetting the years before your mother’s death. Does the same oblivion still reside in your memory?
It’s the question I have explored in depth in The Black Rose. Memory is at the heart of almost all my photographs in some way or another. As you mention, the photographs in my family albums had become my memory of the time before my mother’s death. Being the only one with her on the night, it was an event that changed my life for ever. What was left was a house full of boys. With two younger brothers and dad having to work pretty much full time to provide for us, it quickly became business as usual.

Nothing to see here; move along. I had dropped a black curtain after that night and refused to acknowledge there was anything behind it for the past 25 years of my life. It was not a place in my mind I ever wanted to go, or ever thought I would. I am fascinated with the subconscious and why I search out or react to photographing certain things. Generally I have come to realise that most of the time it’s because of some previous experience or influences growing up.

The Black Rose became an attempt to rediscover some of those lost memories, but has now become much more than that. It has opened up a whole new way of working for me. Maybe it was something I have been working towards my whole life. I have no interest in doing the same thing over and over again. I finish a project and I move on to something else, technically and emotionally. Once I have discovered the secret or exhausted all options, the magic is gone. It’s an extension of how I live my life, the constant need to continue to explore and inquire about all things.

Why are shadows central to your images?
You can’t have one without the other. Where there are negatives there are always positives.

You also captured the profound effects of 9/11 on Australia in Minutes to Midnight.
Minutes to Midnight was about the emotional state of the nation and the perceived change in Australian society after the effects of terrorism. For years after 9/11, the constant threats of imminent attacks were played up by John Howard’s government and the media to the point of frenzy. Before 9/11, I had taken a photograph of a glowing building in the Sydney cityscape from my rented apartment on Sydney Harbour. The picture was about light striking an object and nothing more. After 9/11 and the image was shown around, I realised that history of an event had radically changed the meaning of the photograph.

From the Glass Archive – Issue Five – Dreams

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