Context is everything
I first encountered this photograph by Wayne Barrar, and the others in the series ‘An Immortal Double’, on exhibition in The Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt, in the late 1990s. I was familiar with the photographer’s landscape work to date, but this was something different. The series sprang from his background in science. I also recall thinking (as mentioned last week) how photographers tend to create formal structure every time they frame and compose a photograph. They can’t help it.
This particular print of the photograph is just passing through Photospace Gallery, and it is soon destined for another home. It was a pleasure to meet the image again.
A lot has happened in the intervening decades, especially in the world of genetics. Soon after the photo was taken, Dolly the Cloned Sheep made world news. Since then, the human genome has been mapped, and awareness of genetic engineering has become widespread and opinions on it polarised.
Back to context. If this image was encountered in a biology textbook, it would be purely to provide information – perhaps in a section on how to prepare a small fish or other specimen for recording its DNA (guessing here). It’s not that photographers shooting illustrations for textbooks don’t take a lot of care over their work – I’m certain that they do – but photographers shooting for an exhibition take a different kind of care. In this case, Barrar would have previsualised the image as a toned silver-gelatin print of a certain size (small and intimate, like Grant Douglas’s work - see The Friday Photo #1) and tonality, and as part of a series of photographs on a theme. The image is considered by the photographer with regard to what he would like to say with it and, to a degree at least, how it may be read by gallery viewers. OK, it's a photo of part of a small fish in a glass tube, but what is it really about? This little fellow (the partial fish) may be trying to tell us something.
Despite the contrast in scale of the subject matter, I can’t help making a comparison with Ansel Adams’ photographs – you know, the Half Dome at Yosemite and all that. Adams was deeply concerned about the environment and what harm mankind was in the process of doing to it. So, now, is Wayne Barrar. Much of his photography speaks via the macro environment; but here he shows us the micro. Humans are buggerising around with that, too. Perhaps the work done while looking through microscopes will have as great or a greater effect on the fate of Earth than that done from behind the controls of a bulldozer.
From this photo, we can't really tell where the photographer sits; is he complicit with, or opposed to genetic engineering? Or both, or ambivalent? Does it even matter? And of course, the above is only one possible thread of meaning and interpretation, one stream of thought triggered briefly in one viewer. There are many possibilities. Bring your own.
The photograph is illustrated on p105 of the book ‘Shifting Nature – Photographs by Wayne Barrar', University of Otago Press, 2001.