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
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
Behind The Photographs
Now in her 80s, Maggie Diaz has lost none of the feistiness that saw her break into the boys-only club that was Melbourne’s commercial photography market in the 1960s. A New Yorker who started her photography career in Chicago in the 1950s before migrating to Australia, Maggie used her experience from the jazz clubs of Chicago to shoot portraits of artists, actors and musicians in Melbourne.
But to pigeonhole Maggie as a photographer of celebrity would be to focus on only a small part of her oeuvre. One Way Ticket gives the viewer a glimpse into the life of two cities – Chicago and Melbourne – that were literally and allegorically, worlds apart.
As well as talking with Maggie and her curator Gwendolen De Lacy, I speak with Japanese/American photographer Osamu James Nagakawa and New Zealander, Tony Whincup. All three are exhibiting for the first time at BIFB.
Copyright Osamu James Nagakawa
In contrast to the gritty realness of Maggie’s work is the award-winning Banta collection by Osamu James Nagakawa. James’s work depicts the “suicide cliffs of the second World War” in Okinawa – in Japanese known as banta – and the exhibition has toured New York, Japan, New Zealand and now Australia. James started working on the series in 2005 and, after numerous visits to Okinawa, he had enough material to put together the final 21 pieces. Each image is the result of “multiple photographs being stitched together in Photoshop”, explains James. “I wanted to make a hyper-real image. So I took different focal points of each section and put them together so that everything is in focus”. These images are definitely not landscapes states James who has presented his photographs in an elongated format that is reminiscent of the visual language of Japanese scroll art. “I work in different modes of work and am driven by content. With this series I didn’t know I wanted to do these suicide cliffs until I stood in front them. I thought this was the most effective way to convey my message.”
This is the first Australian exhibition by New Zealander Tony Whincup who is a visual arts educator with a history in anthropology. We discuss the difficulty of existing as an artist and he says being part of academia “…encourages me to take photographs and put them out there”. As we walk through his exhibition Playgrounds on show at the Trades Hall, Tony reveals, “Nearly all my work is about self-definition and self-recognition. My photography explores how we find out who we are, and how we say who we are”. We laugh at his professorial tone. The concept behind Playgrounds, he says, is to convey the idea that “…to be part of any one of these scenes – whether it’s swimming, or wall climbing, or the gymnasium – we have to know the rules and the symbolic system of the game”.
Copyright Tony Whinchup
Raising Photography’s Profile
Another show I am interested in is Frances Mocnik’s photo essay, The Night That Follows Day which is about the death industry – the morgues, funeral parlours, cross, and coffin builders, and the hearses. Frances’s images are powerful in their own right, but what puts me off immediately is the lengthy explanation written below each photograph within the frame.
Surely one of the most intriguing aspects of photography is that you don’t need words. Our propensity, as a society, to explain everything in great detail denies viewers the opportunity to make up their own mind.
I ask Jeff how he arrived at the core program on which he makes the final decision. “Bums on seats,” he says matter-of-factly, explaining that having a mix of styles and imagery gives the festival a broad appeal. He’s not interested in elitism.
“I want to raise the profile of photography in Australia, to have it more accepted and on equal footing with the other visual arts.”
He continues, “Photography is the art form of the masses isn’t it? Everyone is a photographer so it doesn’t have that same mystique as painting or sculpture and I think that’s even more so now with the onset of digital.
“For me, I am interested in the aesthetic and in pictures that have something to say rather than ‘this is a technically excellent photograph’. My background’s as a commercial photographer so I look at the technical, but I am more interested in what’s behind it and that’s what I look for when I am looking at shows for the core program. It’s not just about a bunch of really interesting pictures. If you go back into the artist’s body of work and see work that spans 40 years, like Jan Saudek’s, there’s a consistency in what he does.”
The inclusion in the core program of Czech Saudek’s Dolce Vita has caused some tense moments for Jeff. Earlier, a woman had complained about the suggestive nature of a Saudek image used in promotional material. The offending image, Black Sheep & White Crow depicts a pre-pubescent girl and her mother.
After fielding calls from the Office of the Child Safety Commissioner, and one of BIFB’s sponsors, Tourism Victoria, Jeff decided to withdraw the image which the woman had claimed promoted child prostitution.
“It’s not my position as festival director to… be an arbiter of public morals or the morals of photographers,” says Jeff. Still, to keep the peace and to protect the future of BIFB, the image was removed.
It would be ludicrous for the future of the festival to be at risk because one woman didn’t like one image. But if that’s the outcome then, while the moral panic artists are at it, let’s clear all the art galleries of images of nudity, murder, death, prostitution et al. Art is a reflection of life. It’s a shame that those who often complain about such things clearly don’t have one… a life, that is.
Copyright Maggie Diaz
Furthering BIFB’s position on the international photography calendar Jeff explains, “The festival is now a member of the Festival de la Luz [Festival of Light], a grouping of international photography festivals”.
It is through this channel he believes Australian photographers will gain exposure and be given the chance to exhibit at other international festivals. And BIFB is also a member of the newly formed Asia Pacific Photo Forum, which currently includes BIFB, Foto Freo (Fremantle), Head On (Sydney), the Queensland Festival of Photography, Auckland, Pingyao (China) and Angkor (Cambodia).
“We are looking to build our own network, to cross promote and exchange ideas because that’s what it is about, and that’s how we will build this international community.” As I wind up the interview, I ask Jeff if he’s happy with this year’s event. His face splits into a smile and his eyes twinkle as he remembers what all the hard work has been about.
“It is a buzz to see it come together. You talk to anyone and they’ll tell you, you have to be crazy to do something like this. But you know I had this idea and I did it.”
And then reality hits him. He adds, “I hope people walk away from the Festival thinking it was worth the trip up the highway and wasn’t a waste of petrol”.