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Reviews/Photography/Visual Art

Photos capture this extraordinary moment in time

7 October 2021

In spite of leaning towards tradition in some respects, the IRIS Award 2021 makes for a compelling survey of contemporary photography in Australia and beyond, Craig McKeogh finds.

  • Reading time • 6 minutesVisual Art
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IRIS Award 2021, various artists ·
Perth Centre for Photography ·

For a survey of contemporary portrait photography, the IRIS Award 2021 features a surprisingly high proportion of what might be seen as traditional images – that is, a photograph of a subject’s face addressing the camera more or less directly.

That’s not a criticism, simply an observation that sometimes there is no need to go beyond a simple form of expression to effectively convey an idea or impression.

And in this collection of finalists for the IRIS Award, a Perth-based internationally open biennial prize acknowledging outstanding contemporary portraiture, there are many powerful images with a straightforward composition of a single posed subject. Traditional on a superficial level, maybe, but in most of these cases there is much more to be gleaned from the image than just a face. The concept of “contemporary” emerges in the story behind the photo.

A black and white photo of a  young woman sits amidst some iron bars. In the background we can see logs. On her arms are plastic tubes that say "climate emergency" and "always was always will be". She looks directly at the camera, her expression calm and serious.
Aaron Claringbold, ‘Andjela locked-on 2’, 2020, Inkjet print, 60 x 50 cm

Aaron Claringbold’s Andjela locked-on, for instance – one of the standout images in the collection – at first glance presents as a regulation black and white portrait of a serene yet serious young woman. But as we take in more detail, we comprehend the setting. The soft, misty background is a forest clearing with glimpses of felled logs strewn around. The woman has both arms encased in a mechanism locked to machinery in a way that will disrupt logging operations. The words “climate emergency” and “always was, always will be” appear on opposite sides of the locking tube. That’s a lot of story in one beautifully lit and composed image.

Su Cassiano (Fake fur and real scars) and Simon Bernhardt (Portrait of Mackenzie Benato) each offer striking images of young men who carry unseen burdens on their slight frames. With their torsos bared and more than a hint of vulnerability in their eyes, they convey a troubled past and an uncertain present.

Leith Alexander’s Gold Chain, Soft Curls (pictured top) also features a young man, but in a more active, positive mode. He might be a contemporary of the previous two but he is a picture of energy and industry and we catch him at work in a shearing shed, his steady hand and gaze fixed on his work suggesting a more assured outlook.

Others, such as Ellen Marie Saethre-McGuirk and Kate Atkinson, depict the untapped potential of children, their faces brimming with purpose in spite of all the uncertainty around them. None more so than Steve Wise’s Boy, which offers a quietly defiant young First Nations man who seems to possess all the poise and serenity lacking in so many others in a time of upheaval.

A colour photo of a young First Nations man. He is wearing a white button down shirt and black pants, and posed for the portrait.
Steve Wise, ‘Boy’, 2021, Ilford CottonRag, inkjetprint, 120 x 80 cm

The COVID-19 pandemic is unavoidable in 2021 and it is inevitable that it will emerge here as a theme, either directly or indirectly.

In the absence of his regular subjects, Karl Halliday turned the camera on himself in a makeshift studio in his shed, producing a charmingly old-fashioned style image, Portrait of the artist as a young man, his beard and bare feet mirroring the back-to-basics approach many of us took into the initial novelty of lockdown.

Another theme that is inextricably tied to the COVID period is absence – people absent from the picture and presumably from our lives. This is most effectively captured in overall IRIS Prize winner Madeline Bishop, whose diptych Neil and Vasantha presents contrasting images of the same room – a sparse but formally arranged setting. In one photo we see two people embracing on the floor; in the other larger frame, the same scene is empty but for a large vase and pot plant, the polished floorboards all the more stark for the absence of a human element. It’s thought-provoking and a little unsettling.

Whether traditional or more experimental in style, the IRIS Award 2021 finalists offer a comprehensive look at contemporary photography in Australia and beyond, and anyone with an interest in the medium will find something to appreciate.

Like no other art form, photography can capture and show us who we are at any moment in time. This diverse range of conceptually strong works reflects this extraordinary moment with all the humour, mundanity, challenges and uncertainty that have come with it.

The IRIS Award 2021 continues until 16 October 2021.

Pictured top: Leith Alexander, ‘Gold Chain, Soft Curls’, 2020, Hahnemühle FineArt, 58 x 83 cm.

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Author —
Craig McKeough

Craig McKeough is a writer and visual artist, with a lifetime’s experience in journalism, covering everything from the arts to horse racing, politics and agriculture. Craig has always been drawn to the swing; an egalitarian, grounding piece of equipment where you can go as high and wild as you want, but you’ll always return to where you started.

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