Rowan Conroy opened Claire Williams’ exhibition STRANGER at Cox Gallery in Canberra on Thursday 9 March 2017. Rowan has kindly permitted us to share his words with our Focus readers:
(Image: Claire Williams, Untitled (detail), Ilford FP4+ 4X5 negative, scanned and printed, 2016, 147.0 x 111.8cm)
Photography is now so large, so pervasive, so multifarious as to be almost invisible. The web and our smart phones offer a constant stream of photographic distraction. Apps such as Instagram are wonderful, but rarely does the screen offer us a chance for reflection or quiet and considered looking.
What I see as the great strength of Claire William’s prints is their scale, matched with an acute knowledge of fine printing. This allows for contemplation, for inspection, for an encounter in three dimensions.
The continued role of the photographic print, and even the book in physical form is a concern of our age, but I think you’ll agree with me that looking at static prints such as these, that have been so subtly and carefully produced, does in fact enable an encounter that is a refreshing difference to the flicker of the screen.
These large prints enable an interaction with us as viewers, that is closer to the way we navigate an architectural space. There is an uncanniness to our encounter with facial features and skin texture when writ this large.
Claire was brave in her honours year to pursue a more experimental and unpredictable way of making, a clear departure from her earlier and very proficient portraiture practice.
The Sabattier effect that we can see in these images was embraced by Surrealists such as Man Ray in the early 20th Century, they too relished the reversal of shadow tones and the uncanny effect it has particularly on familiar objects and faces. One can achieve a solarised or Sabattier effect in a number of ways. But Claire has done this in an unconventional way – using very long development times, over twenty four hours in some cases, to allow the developer to chemically fog the film. Claire also presents the large format 4×5 inch negatives alongside the prints, allowing us to inspect their unique imperfections and metallic sheen.
The idea of the encounter with a stranger via photography is pertinent here. As observed by many art historians and theorists our encounter with photographic portraits is often tinged with a sense of distance if not sadness. Susan Sontag once characterised all photographs as Melancholy objects, as they portray the dead as living and those that are still living with the portent that their image will outlive them. Portraits in family photo albums show us a likeness to oneself or a family member but we are always aware that is a mere shadow of a former self. In this sense it is possible to view photographs of oneself as if one were looking at another, at a stranger. This out of body experience may well have been experienced by Claire’s own subjects when they encounter themselves in this exhibition.
Claire’s use of the Sabattier effect, further removes our familiarity with these people’s facial features, making them stranger than ordinary portraits.
I think what this does is point to the fallacy that photographic portraits are representative of personality, it reveals how thin the photographic surface is and how the reality it so faithfully depicts can be subverted and manipulated.
I would like to congratulate Claire on this wonderful exhibition and thank Lisa DeSantis – Cox Gallery Manager for her help. I’d also like to express the deep gratitude of the ANU School of Art and Design for the continued and long standing support Cox Architecture has offered to us through the Emerging Artists Support Scheme. It’s a generous and valuable opportunity for our students as they proceed into the world outside of art school.
(Image: Claire Williams, Untitled, Ilford FP4+ 4X5 negative, scanned and printed, 2016, 147.0 x 111.8cm)
Rowan Conroy is a professional visual artist and lecturers in Photography and Media Arts at the Australian National University School of Art and Design (ANU SOA&D). He holds a PhD and first class Honours from Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney. He is also a PhotoAccess board member.
Claire Williams’ exhibition STRANGER continues in the Cox Gallery until 14 April 2017. Cox Architecture, 1/19 Eastlake Parade, Kingston, Canberra.
Claire Williams is currently participating in a 12-month residency at PhotoAccess, through the ANU SOA&D Emerging Artists Support Scheme PhotoAccess residency program. Her PhotoAccess residency will culminate in a solo exhibition of new work in the PhotoAccess Huw Davies Gallery in December 2017.