Head On 2016May 6, 2016
Sydney loves grand, all-encompassing events, and Head On has become one of the most eagerly awaited festivals in the cultural calendar. This year’s show is distributed among 60 public and private venues spread throughout the city, the suburbs, and other parts of the state. Twenty major international photographers will be participating in talks and workshops as guests of the festival.
Anybody who went along to successive opening nights last week at the Town Hall and the new Central Park exhibition space would have been struck by the size of the crowds and the enthusiasm with which the work was received. It’s not hard to understand why, as photography permeates every part of contemporary life. We have all become photographers because of the mobile phone. Even the most untalented amateur will fluke the occasional good picture.
Head On is part of a worldwide network of photography festivals, becoming one of the more desirable invitations for those artists who are ‘on the circuit’. It is, then, a little surprising that after seven years of surging popularity the event runs on a shoestring, funded by contributions from a range of corporate and private donors, and staffed by volunteers.
It’s part of a familiar pattern whereby state and federal arts funding is withheld from events that seem to be popular, and given to things that have no chance of success. Sculpture By the Sea is another example of a truly popular show that had to wait 14 years for any government assistance, even though it draws audiences in the hundreds of thousands, and generates millions of dollars for the local economy.
It’s a sign of a cultural welfare mentality when government funding bodies treat the arts as a poor, marginal activity deserving of pity and charity, while penalising those entrepreneurs who have achieved a result and need to step up to the next level. Every business wants to grow, and arts festivals are no different. There are also limits as to how self-sacrificing one can be, in terms of time and money, for the sake of a pet project.
Moshe Rosenzveig and his colleagues started Head On out of a desire to create a forum for photography in Sydney, when existing public institutions did so little. It’s telling that in the long list of this year’s participating venues there is no entry for the Art Gallery of NSW or the Museum of Contemporary Art. Although the AGNSW is currently holding a photography show called Imprint (until 18 May), it chose not to be associated with Head On. Why not? Sheer snobbery?
The art world has a well-worn contempt for anything that is seen as populist, but Head On has embraced the broadest possible audience with a series of open competitions in the fields of Portrait, Landscape, Mobile and Student. There is also an anonymous exhibition called Add On, at Central Park, which includes small pictures by professional photographers and a range of ‘celebrity’ invitees. I’ve contributed a picture too, although I’m neither photographer nor celebrity.
There is so much to be seen in this year’s show it’s impossible to do justice to anything. The logical places to start are the displays at Sydney Town Hall and the aMBUSH Project Space at Central Park on Broadway (both until 8 May), which have the highest concentration of work and run for only a short time – another result of shoestring budgets.
Pick up a copy of the program at one of these shows and plot your own course around the other venues.
Some of the most striking images at the Town Hall come from a group of photographers that work for Getty Images. It’s hard to forget Mike Korstelev’s underwater photo of a killer whale facing off against a mountain of small fish. Equally impressive are the photographers from Fairfax Media Photos and Clique Photographic Association who’ve contributed work on the unassuming theme of The Weather. With lightning strikes, bush fires and storm clouds it’s more like a view of the Apocalypse.
The variety of images at the Town Hall ranges from the sophisticated Hollywood photographs of Michael Grecco to works with a humanist agenda, such as Natan Dvir’s Eighteen, a series of portraits of young men and women from Israel’s sizeable Arab minority, taken at a turning point in their lives; or Raphaela Rosella’s You’ll know it when you feel it, that shows what life is like for young women who fall in love in dysfunctional communities.
The exploration of issues through portraiture is continued at the aMBUSH space, with Daniella Zalcman’s Signs of Your Identity, which uses the faces of indigenous Canadians who were taken from their families in the same manner as Australia’s ‘Stolen Generations’. Each portrait is interwoven with a landscape image, emphasising the degree to which an indigenous person’s sense of self is bound up with their relationship to the land.
Of the satellite shows, the most important is probably Laurence Aberhart: Three Decades. One might expect a large survey of work by (arguably) the leading New Zealand photographer to be shown at a public museum. Instead it’s at Delmar Gallery, the excellent exhibition space run by Trinity Grammar School, in Ashfield. (Until 22 May).
Although missing a few iconic images this is a broad-ranging selection of Aberhart’s photos, all taken with a century-old 8 X 10 inch camera that requires the use of a tripod. Aberhart has lugged this apparatus around New Zealand, Australia, the United States and South-East Asia, accumulating images that combine quirkiness and monumentality. The slow exposure times make him a photographer of landscapes and the built environment, rather than people, but each image is so suggestive of human presence it takes little imagination to add the characters to these empty stage sets.
Aberhart’s images of churches and cemeteries are highly atmospheric. They manage an aesthetic sleight-of-hand that makes them seem both full and empty – devoid of people but redolent of history and nostalgia. In Taranaki from Rahotu, Taranaki, 1 June 2010, a broken stone figure kneels in contemplation of a distant mountain. It’s an image of earthly ruin that looks towards eternity.
An equally idiosyncratic show is Mountains of Uncertainty, by Uruguayan photographer, Roberto Fernández-Ibáñez, at the Stanley Street Gallery (until 14 May). These images of craggy mountains have been created in the studio to duplicate graphs of economic activity in different parts of the world. A particularly dramatic example reflects the GDP Annual Growth Rate in Columbia 2000-2014. Another charts Melbourne’s cycles of boom and bust from 1860-2010. If this sounds like an elaborate gag, the saving grace is that Fernández-Ibáñez puts these scenes together with the skills of a talented painter or sculptor.
I’ll finish with The Lost Rolls by New Yorker, Ron Haviv, at the Black Eye Gallery (until 8 May) a show that represents a tantalising mix of control and randomness. The 25 images in the show have been culled from over 200 rolls of film that Haviv had lying around since he made the transition to digital. They capture moments from a distinguished career as a conflict photographer, combining images of war zones, poverty and turmoil with private snaps of former girlfriends – presumably a different kind of conflict.
The weird part of this exhibition is that many of the negatives have decayed or been damaged, resulting in smears of psychedelic colour washing across an image. It’s a shock at first, but one gradually discerns a strange beauty. It helps that Haviv is so skilful at framing an image in the camera, with the best photos displaying harmonies and repetitions that override the oddities. A woman holding a red flag in front of her face in Moscow, presents a perfect ‘found’ composition, mirroring a red flag that waves on a distant statue. A diver plunging into the ocean is supported by a column of red that has mysteriously imposed itself on the picture, offset by a thin line that cuts across the bottom left-hand corner.
The Lost Rolls could stand as a summary of so many of the themes of this year’s festival. It has significant social content, a sense of history, a private aspect, a precise formal dimension, and an outlandish ‘artistic’ aura caused almost entirely by errant chemicals. What more could one ask of a photograph?
Head On Photo Festival 2016
Numerous venues, until 29 May
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 7th May, 2016