The Ballarat International Foto Biennale 2011

Under the energetic direction of Jeff Moorfoot Ballarat’s festival of photography continues to grow in stature and diversity. Alison Stieven-Taylor reports from this year’s event.

Copyright Tony Whincup



"Diversity” was the aim of this year’s Ballarat International Foto Biennale (BIFB) says festival director Jeff Moorfoot whose passion for the medium has seen the festival “grow exponentially” since its first appearance in the nearby Victorian township of Daylesford in 2005. Outgrowing its original home not just in size, but also conceptually, BIFB moved to Ballarat in 2009 at the behest of the local council who clearly saw the event as a major draw card for the city.

BIFB 2011 featured more than 100 exhibitions, 21 of them in the core program and the remainder forming the fringe. Seven venues in central Ballarat housed the core works of which 12 exhibits were by international artists. Fringe exhibitions were dotted throughout the city and Ballarat’s surrounds.

A quick geography lesson. Ballarat is one of the largest regional centres in Victoria, about 90 minutes from Melbourne heading west. It’s not the prettiest of drives, the sprawl of suburbia and its ‘McMansions’ mar the landscape, but once in Ballarat the town’s heritage buildings and historical significance – it was at the heart of Victoria’s gold mining boom – restore the equilibrium. The weather gods smile on the biennale’s opening weekend and Ballarat – which is known for its chilly climate – is doused in sunshine, making my job of running from one venue to another to catch as many shows and interview as many photographers as possible in 36 hours, a lot more enjoyable.

On Saturday morning it seems Melbourne has come to Ballarat. I stop to chat with acquaintances that I’m more likely to see in the cafes of St Kilda or at galleries around the city. It’s heartening that BIFB has coerced the Melbourne crowd down the highway, a clear indication the program has hit the mark. Although there are always photographs that beg the question – ‘How the hell did that get up?’

When I arrive at the Mining Exchange for my interview with Jeff Moorfoot he is tearing about “like a cut snake” – everyone wants a piece of him. There’s the projector that isn’t working, the artist who has no lighting, and the evening’s public soiree to deal with. And there’s the ABC TV crew who are here to film for the program Art Nation. As a concession to appearing on national TV, Jeff has donned a dark suit jacket over his once beige work trousers and heavy boots. His long salt-and-pepper hair is pulled back into a ponytail.

We sit in the foyer of the BIFB office above the cavernous hall of the Mining Exchange (one of the core program venues) while volunteers bustle past, some stopping to pat Jeff on the back and utter words of support. The camaraderie is obvious amongst the close-knit team many of whom have given hundreds of hours of their time to BIFB.

Copyright Maggie Diaz

Historical Venues

The Mining Exchange is a challenging ‘gallery’ space as there’s a lot of natural light that is difficult to direct, as well as dark alcoves that span its length on either side. For the duration of the month-long festival this space will house various core exhibits.

I air the thought that when I view a photograph I like to stand back, but when the alcove spaces are crowded it’s difficult to gain perspective. “We are using historical venues that aren’t gallery spaces and we have to work with that as best we can,” Jeff explains. “We’ve built infrastructure, lights, and panels. This is the first festival where we’ve had everything lit. It might not be gallery lighting, but it’s better than what we had. Of course, now we have to store everything…” he trails off momentarily consumed with that thought.

This year’s core program certainly is a mixed bag. There are internationally renowned photographers, including Australians John Gollings and Jack Picone alongside newcomers like 86 year-old New York-born Maggie Diaz whose body of work spans continents and decades. Maggie has only recently begun exhibiting. Melbourne’s John Gollings’ black and white Bushfire Aerials documents the aftermath of Black Saturday (in February 2009) and is a sobering reminder of the ferocity of Mother Nature. Also part of the festival is Gollings’ and Ivan Rijavec’s interactive 3D exhibit, Now And When: Australian Urbanism. Originally created for the Venice Architecture Biennale, this exhibit juxtaposes the contemporary world with futuristic views of the modern city.

Jack Picone’s Nuba exhibition is a move away from his conflict photojournalism work. The images follow the rituals of the people of the Nuba Mountains in Sudan and carry Picone’s signature – his photographs capture the individual in a way that becomes very personal. Viewing the photographs evokes a sense of reverence in being allowed to enter this intimate space.

Copyright Maggie Diaz