Originally published on PhotographyMatters.com, September 2009
Unconscious Minds: a collaborative photographic exhibition by Massey University graduates. St James Theatre, Wellington until October 1st.
This evening I attended the opening of this exhibition at the St James Theatre first floor gallery. I quite often feel underdressed at social events, but not usually at student exhibition openings. This one was the exception. The students were scrubbed up; the guys mostly wore jackets and ties and the girls seemed to be running an unofficial high heel competition. I walked around saying, “In my day we had our student exhibitions in a paper bag in the middle of the road…” The whole thing was impressive, but, importantly, the work was strong, well presented and well themed.
The main theme, as outlined in the catalogue essay by Carly Sanders, is surrealism. She discusses photography’s relationship to and involvement with the surrealist movement in art with mention of the experimental and boundary-pushing work of Man Ray. The exhibition title Unconscious Minds nicely brings Freud into the theme, and many of the included photographic works evoke dreamscapes.
The fifteen photographers have successfully created either digitally altered photographs or made clever use of ‘straight’ film-based photography to explore the exhibition’s themes. I only had a cursory look at each work at the opening so I’m not going to attempt to analyse individual photographs, but I can say that this exhibition is well worth attending. You’ll have to be quick though, as it only runs until 1st October.
The first thing I did on arriving home was to pull out Susan Sontag’s ‘On Photography’ and find the essay on photography’s relationship with surrealism, ‘Solitary Objects.’ It is her conjecture that the photographers who were most closely associated with the surrealist movement, those who deliberately made ‘surrealist’ photographs, were in fact farthest from the mark, because photography is inherently a surrealist medium: all photographs are surrealist objects.
“Surrealist manipulation or theatricalization of the real is unnecessary, if not actually redundant. Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise, in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision. The less doctored, the less patently crafted, the more naïve—the more authoritative the photograph was likely to be.”
Drag Sontag out and have a read. If you’re a photographer and you don’t own a copy, well that’s like being a Christian and not owning a Bible. Get thee to a bookshop! (Arty Bee’s used bookis a stone’s throw from the St James.)
Anyway, although I agree with Sontag, I feel that this more deliberate exploration of the theme of surrealism and the unconscious, employing contemporary photographic practise, is legitimate and makes for an engaging exhibition. It would be of little value to exhibit (say) random family snapshots and claim them as surrealist objects (although my favourite work, Shaun Matthews’s ‘Circumstantial Happenstance’ comes close to this approach, being a set of four gridded panels made of thousands of almost random ’shoot from the hip’ photographs, or snapshots.)
Also impressive is the way the course tutor and all the student photographers cooperated to curate and organise this exhibition. The significant array of sponsorship obtained provided the budget to raise the exhibition to a professional level and make it something all those involved are hopefully proud to be part of.
by james | 25 September, 2009
Photography Matters II