I continued my practising my photography and gardening, until, in 1982 the New Zealand Government decided to build the hydro dam at Clyde and flood my favourite river the Clutha. I became highly motivated and was spurred into action on a creative level as I had never been before with a project titled the Last Rivers Song, which consisted of five huge photomurals of the elemental forces of the river gold toned with gold extracted from the river. I carried the surfing experience into the work with the camera often positioned on a long boom over the wild rapids that would be lost to the rising waters of the dam. There was also a series of smaller photo panels that became part of the exhibition. Since this time, ecological issues have remained at the centre of my work.
From 1976 I was exposed to a huge number of books on fine arts. At that time, I had a job making slides for an art school and saw the work of artists like Man Ray, Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Beuys, Richard Long, Christo, Andy Goldsworthy etc. For me it was interesting how their images related to photography. Often photographers see their work as unconnected to the larger world of visual arts.
Over a few decades, my work kept chipping at the fragile edges of traditional photography.
Drawing from Nature, was a combination of photographs drawings. Here a photograph was mounted on a much larger sheet of paper, and I extended the rocks or foliage in the photograph with pen and ink drawings. There were two dialogues – one between the concept of the photograph and drawing, and the other between culture and nature.
Codes of Survival came from an arts expedition to the Subantarctic Islands. These island are wildlife reserves and very pristine places, yet around the coastline all manner of debris is washed up. The resulting prints consisted of a photograph taken on the island in the center surrounded by a boarder of intricate photograms.
Adze to Coda, followed on from this with more combination photograph photogram experiments. The series looked at the relationship of tools and the land and encompassed stone tools to the binary tools we use today. The images for both Adze to Coda and Codes of Survival had the photograph and the photogram printed on a single sheet of photographic paper. They were difficult works to make - often one aspect would be very good while the other let the work down. Exposing for both a good photograph and an interesting photogram often proved elusive.
Evidence from the Religion of Technology), was a series of large colour photograms – the longest work was 22m long, and consisted of three life size figures – a male, a female and a skeleton linked though their outstretched arms by a extensive series of horizontal prints where the dominant colours changed from red, purple to green and back again.
Aporian Emulsions) was an exploration with alternative processes where I painted the emulsion on to create motifs, etc, and then produced photogram images on the sensitised areas. I was researching alchemy and also the history of photography and using emulsions like the Cyanotype and Van Dyke Brown that dated back to the 1840s.
This continual exploring broke the boundaries down, created fractures and fissures in the surface of the traditional emulsion. Light emerged through the gaps as the single unifying factor. During the same period, my interest in plants also continued, I kept developing a large organic vegetable plot, an orchard and an expanding collection of Bromeliad plants.
In 1996 when I began a Master of Fine Art Degree at RMIT in Melbourne, there was a collision that fused both my gardening and photography; my work took a different direction. I came to the realization that my two passions, photography and growing plants both depended on the action of light. Although it had taken about 20 years for me to get there, I later found the Greeks Archimedes and Aristotle made mention of both the camera and photosynthesis. From this intersection came the concept of using plants as living emulsions and growing images into the biotic tissue in a series titled Photo-syn- thesis. I cut lots of alchemic symbols from a special tape and placed them on the leaves of the Bromeliads, the process was similar to a basic photogram where the light is blocked from reaching the sensitive emulsion.
Because I had to expose the plants to the sun for about 4 months to create the photosynthetic images I decided to install the plants in various situations and document the installations. Bromeliads are epiphytes and for me symbolize sustainability, something I feel we need to acknowledge as a species and move towards. So I installed them in locations like coal burning plant rooms, elevators, etc. In works like enLIGHTen, I began suspending Bromeliads in galleries and using infrared activated projectors to project light through them and create shadows on huge tissue paper screens. It was like inhabiting a huge camera, I was playing with light where the only real photograph became a means of documenting the work.
When we use the word photography, the accepted approach is representational photography where a camera and lens are used to photograph the world we perceive as reality. The photograph becomes a surrogate of the real experience. But the marks that make up the subject in any photograph are not reality; they are tonal abstractions that range from dark to light, that reference the actions of light as objects we recognize. The word “photo” relates to the Greek word for light – “graphy” relates to a form of graphics or drawing. What I do is draw with light, its pure “photo-graphy”.
After working on the photosynthetic images on the leaves of Bromeliads, I imagined myself thousands of miles out in space looking at the earth - suddenly the planet became a continually evolving photographic emulsion, an abstract image. It was the result of looking at Nasa’s images - what we see from Google Earth and or astral tripping.
“The largest photosensitive emulsion we know of is the planet earth. As vegetation grows, dies back, changes colour with the seasons, the “photographic image” that is our planet alters. Increasingly human intervention plays a larger role in transforming the image of the globe we inhabit.” 2006
Photosynthesis, as we know it, only comes about through what I call an immaculate exposure. It’s the same as working in the darkroom, or even taking images with a digital camera. Too much exposure and the print is too over exposed and dark – too little and it’s too light and under exposed. Crucial circumstances allow plants to grow on the planet. The earth’s distance from the sun, the atmosphere, heat, light moisture etc. If we alter these factors in a drastic manner, we affect the exposure, the image of the planet becomes either too over or under exposed – we run the risk of an image that’s a reject. However, if circumstances arise where the photo-image of the planet fails, so do humans. Science now confirms we are affecting the levels of electro-magnetic radiation ( light and other radiation) falling on the planet from the sun- we are defacing the beautiful living light sensitive emulsion that is the earth – the image that is our planet.
If we are to solve the ecological dilemma that now confronts us, light, plants, photosynthesis and the giant photosensitive emulsion that is the foliage of our planet will play a huge role.
I like the idea that light feeds us, it sustains us indirectly through the food we eat and also the subjects we seek as photographers – light is a spiritual inspiration. In work like @ the speed of Light, I kept poking into the cracks where the light shone out – kept exploring the margins with plants and self developing photograms. A series of plants were strung up in the gallery and light was projected through them creating enlarged shadows on a large grid of photographic paper. Gradually an image materialized. The images took 2 weeks to self develop through only the action of light in the gallery, and then at the closing I took the prints down and processed them as a performance.
But my exploration into the margins of photo media has never meant abandoning the things that went before, I still enjoy taking traditional photographic images, straight photographs can still have a huge elemental power, a meaningful relevance. All this work has just enlarged my visual vocabulary; no aspect is discarded. Sometimes the simplest things work the best. Recently I was taking a moonlight workshop at Lake Mungo in the Australian desert and by coincidence it was on a full moon. I was really excited with the images I took where I painted the dunes and formations with torch light in combination with the moonlight.
In 2007, I was invited to do an ephemeral sculpture by the Nillumbik Shire Council and was given the green house at Montsalvat near Melbourne to work in. The organizers felt I would fill it with plants, but quite the opposite; I was looking for a way to darken the space. I found 1000 sheets of carbon paper for $2 in a recycle shop. It all clicked – greenhouse gasses, carbon and so I covered the walls and ceiling with the carbon paper, and then drew a line of trees (which are the key part of the global carbon trading schemes) by pricking thousands of pinholes in the surface. Carbon Obscura had a fog generator which was activated as the audience stepped into the space, added another reference: we are all responsible for out own gas emissions. But it also brought the rays of light to life in such a seductive kinetic manner that it enchanted the audience and the message became a secondary factor. The installation with the light penetrating the space allowed me to take a fascinating series of photographs that stand alone.
For me the process of making the pinhole work is enlightening, and gives me a greater understanding of light the camera etc. When there is only one hole it works like a pinhole camera. As more holes are created the projections merge and the dominant reference to the pinhole is the diameter of the sun. It’s these bright projections that create the steaming rays through the fog; each ray is a projection of the sun. Later in 2007 I did a similar work, Chambre Noire, at L'Arbre de Vie / Chateau de Blacons, France where the space was larger and the pinhole drawings covered the ceiling as well, which was even more spectacular.
When I began making the first pinholes in the Chateau de Blacons work, I used a digital camera to do some portraits with the pinhole projection of the château onto a large screen and people standing beside it. Then as I made more pinholes there were more and more chateaus until the images blended together. However when the sun was shining, each pinhole projected an image of the sun. If there were trees and leaves over the sun you could see the shadows, when the wind blew they moved in unison. One 7 year old described it as thousands of violin strings made of light. Kids are so perceptive.
Projects like, enLIGHTen, @ the speed of Light, Carbon Obscura, Chambre Noire, have developed as a means of bringing the viewer and the elemental power and beauty of light together, without the mediating presence of cameras, darkrooms, chemistry and photo paper. They are a photo-experience.