A Juxtaposition of Essences
Charles Olson sat back in his oyster-shed,
working the words, mostly in a great
sweat of being, seeking to bind speed
looked at his sheaf of pages, each word
an oyster, culled from the fattening grounds
of talk. They were nurtured from day one,
from the spat-fields to their shucking,
words, oysters plump with life. On Mooney Creek
the men stalk the tides for corruption.
Gemes is able to give voice to those who inhabit her images.
When Deleuze, talking of Bergson, refers to the notion of Duration, of things looked at in terms of time rather than space, he notes that change brings constantly with it new essence, new substance. While the Documentary photography of Walker Evans, in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, captures in a social realist way the true grit of the American idiom, Juno Gemes's work observes place and people both in terms of their ?period? and in terms of their individual identities. So place and personality are intertwined. The scene and its players are entirely necessary to each other. Rather than a case of the captured image, it?s a matter of images being organic. And as this is art and not reportage, so there is also a third element?that of the artist, or more appropriately, the spirit of the "artist". Things are happening beyond the frame of the picture, things are happening before and after the picture. We have a moment in time, caught, but still the pictures allow a difference according to the context in which they're seen.
In a sense, Gemes is a symbolist photographer as well as an honest interpreter of the real. A strange combination, but I'd argue Gemes is as much poet as photographer, and it is through the interaction of these twin poles of the creative curve that such a contradiction can work. It is not surprising that the poetry of Robert Adamson is so at home with Gemes's images, and vice versa. In fact, at times they are almost necessary to each other. The Language Of Oysters shows this connection at its strongest. With imagery firmly embedded in the immediate, or even immediacy, of the scene, the mouth of the Hawkesbury, where Gemes and Adamson have been working together for over seven years, there is still a sense of the universal, of an artistic pursuit of grand truths.
In the cameos of the river and river life, those accumulations of miniatures which add together to give an impression of the chthonic nature of the land referred to by Roslyn Poignant in Mangrove Creek 1951 (Axel and Roslyn Poignant, Hawkesbury River Enterprises 1993), which Gemes became aware of five years into her project, we see a language at work which can be spoken and understood anywhere. There is mystery and truth here - the two are inseparable.
In her pursuits and observations of the moods of the river and its inhabitants, Gemes is constantly looking for those subtleties of change a casual observer so often misses or even ignores. The material collected by her lens is much like the inspiration that goes into a poem. The inspiration that is transferred to the page and then drafted to the point where it makes contact with its audience. Like the poet redrafting a poem, the photographer redrafts through the darkroom. Gemes does not work by subterfuge. There is an honesty and integrity in her interaction with her subjects. Be it with a local fisherman or with the texture of a surface, she allows herself to interact with her observations. In a sense it is the opposite to Baudrillard's statement, "The sensuality of behind-the-scenes power: the art of making the other disappear. That requires an entire ritual."
Gemes does not want things to disappear. Like Adamson she is a conjurer, drawing hidden meanings out of her subjects. In both poem and photograph we find layer on layer of meaning, and potential meaning. Gemes invests in her images all the work that she has done before. Though they are not linked by A-B-C-type chronology, there is movement. These are not just stills but really frames from a discontinuous narrative. The sequence of events distils into moments that live for themselves, moments that are unique, are whole in themselves. But necessary to other moments. Gemes does not isolate these, but juxtaposes and enjambs. Her art, in this, is post-modern. Her techniques, especially in her use of light, at times impressionist.
Gemes does not need to "assume" another's identity as she is comfortable with her subjects, and they with her. This volume is as fresh and vital as it is because she is trusted. The camera?s eye is an extension of her own. It does not intrude. She is not prying. She is not desecrating. It is not the ritual, it does not suggest the ritual, it allows, through the sensitivity of the artist, the ritual to speak its own language. The artist is there as translator. And as we know, there are good and bad translations. Gemes is a great translator!
Susan Sontag writes in On Photography: "Whatever the moral claims made on behalf of photography, its main effect is to convert the world into a department store or museum-without-walls in which every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption, promoted into an item of aesthetic appreciation." A photograph does not have to be of the place where it is taken, nor does it have to be an item that represents merely its subject. To be an item of purely aesthetic appreciation it must in a sense devalue the material of its making. This is the crime of the popular aesthetician, not the photograph as thing-in-itself. The Language of Oysters is not stagnant and reminiscent; does not support Sontag's statement: "Photographs turn the past into an object of tender regard, scrambling moral distinctions and disarming historical judgements by the generalized pathos of looking at time past." Like the poet, the photographer of A Language of Oysters is interested in universal, timeless themes. Their place in the Duration is relevant, because they are visited afresh and given added meaning. What Sontag talks of is in fact industry, or capitalism?s exploitation of what appears to be (though is not) an instantaneous medium. When she talks of photography, such a versatile and complex art, she is in fact talking of art in general. Her argument is with capitalism and its exploitation of "art" - photography being a convenient and available scapegoat.
Gemes's photographs manage that delicate blend between the investment of time and the freshness of immediacy. I suggest this is because they live outside the concerns of Sontag's Western capitalist world, despite being conscious of this world. They are not so concerned with this, but aware enough to "see" the effect this usage, fetishization, has. I believe it?s the consciousness of poetry that does this. Adamson himself is of the river. In it we see his people. Gemes is working from both the inside and outside. On a broader scale, her mentor Lisette Modell (of whom was said: "I know of no photographer who has photographed people as inwardly") and the photoactivism of Tina Modotti, so admired by Gemes, have allowed her to construct an investigation of her subject quite independently of preconceived notions; as has her Europeanism, to use her eye to examine a different landscape anew, while also being invested with a direct lineage, if you like, to the place.
Gemes is aware there's no definitive picture any more than there's a definitive poem. There are many. And a photograph will only be art if it is not lost to reminiscence, to the past. She is not of Sontag's sentimental recollection. There are some tough images working in this volume - "Great Tattoo" being a fine example. Adamson's poems are also harsh and confronting when they need to be. The impact of poems like "What's Slaughtered's Gone" counters any idea of sentimentality. The photographs, like the poems, project. They can and will do these things, but also do more. One should consider how the photographs are presented to a viewer. Arrangement, that is, context, is everything.
When Sontag talks of scrutiny, she ignores the possibility that the photograph might "look back" on itself. That it has a life of its own. The viewer in scrutinizing the content is also scrutinizing self. How do we decode this internal identity from what we view? Memory, in a sense, is a series of photographs that rearrange themselves. Memories are tainted and influenced by different lights, as are photographs. The content is the same but the exposition differs. Sontag would be right if she were to refer to the empowered use a society makes of its images. They must have worth. Worth can be something either of general value or of value to a particular person. Photographs have both of these. But so would ancient fingernail clippers. A general functional worth, and collector?s value. But if they were archetypal images, and as such commented on their own position in the scheme of things, they'd have another worth. As does the photograph.
Because it is a "modern" art, too much is made of photography being part of commodity fetishization. It is an artform. The camera is as the brush, the pen, the instrument upon which a composition is played. It is the composition that matters. And to compose does not mean one needs to intrude or manipulate deceptively. It means one sees and arranges. There is a difference.
The consciousness of interaction between these visual and non-visual forms is exemplified in Adamson's poem "Meshing Bends in The Light". This is a case where the craft of the photographer has actually become the stuff of metaphor, where the language moves not only through the way a photographer sees but also through the technicalities of the craft. The conscious link between the flesh and blood of the animal, of the river, and that of the organic growth of the photograph, is intriguing. This is where a "third" artist is involved. The sublime artist. The creation of collaborators that exists quite independently. Conjured, it directs its own speech. It is the parallel text running with the river.
The turning moon is
up-ended in the silver
gelatin and sets. The hook
stops spinning through the space.
Consider the notion of the aspect of memory being not only in the subject but also in the observer. This does not make the frame nostalgic in itself, but a medium for considering the way memory moves between experience, the seen, and association.
A stream of light pours
from the sky into the mouth
of Mooney Creek, the river
flows in to the memory of whoever
looks into these frames.
The river flows. Memory is cumulative, it keeps flowing. With every return to the images it flows again. It has a new essence. The time of day is set but we look at it anew. We compare and contrast. It is, like language, active. Sontag says, "To photograph is to confer importance." Gemes would say importance is conferred on the photograph if you photograph what is important to you. And important is what is real. And what is real is what appears in the image. This does not mean we have to recognize it, or put a name to it. But the poet will attempt to. And in this process the inner self behind the portrait is doubly illuminated. There is both the tone of light, so all important to Gemes's craft (especially her river still-lifes where planes of light interact and intersect with planes of water, where surfaces are defined by the eye with which we interpret them - for each the way of viewing is different), and the tone of words - the gradations of tonalities and variations of emotion, experience, observation, perception, and interpretation - melded and transformed into poetry.
Though Gemes admires the resilience and courage of the river dwellers she does not attempt to idealize. She and Adamson are river dwellers themselves and see from the inside out. To communicate this culture with honesty, with a total dedication, is a matter of negotiation, of maintaining a constant dialogue with subjects and the environment, with the source of the imagery. They are active members in the field of vision, they confer meaning to place, they scape our appreciation, they also give rise to an aesthetics. It is interesting to consider that a fisherman as subject in a Gemes photograph is as much an embodiment of the river, in every line of his face, in the light on his skin, as he is the person. You photograph a fisherman and you get the river. And the meanings of a river are endless.
Gemes has described the culture of the river as being "invisible" to most of those who live beyond its reaches. Gemes and Adamson, through being part of this culture, are able to make it visible, to give it voice. Gemes sees this mediation with place through experience and participation as a kind of activism. It is important to consider that Gemes in identifying this culture does not see it as the only culture. It is simply one to which she has access, and is one which accepts her presence. Without this acceptance her constructions would not be possible. It is also important to consider that she is aware that there is also an "unseen" culture that is some 40,000 years old acting on and with the manifestation of inhabitation as she now finds it. It is there if one looks.
There are many images which directly approach this Koori presence (it is more than heritage; in its duration it maintains its past manifestations and holds a new essence for every ?new? time: i.e. it is all-pervading). Images such as Ancient Koori Rock Carving which is juxtaposed with a sweep of the river, boat cutting whitely through the water suggesting incursion and in its subtle quietness the possibility of co-existence, the juxtaposition and interaction of Buffy's Mulloway and Stingray Dreaming, the Fish Dreaming image and Poem Rock Carving with Kevin Gilbert. Juxtaposition is the key here. Gemes allows us to draw the parallels. We recognize the archetypal images, the unspoken inferences of connection. The inchoate registration of the land in human life. The river isn't read but reading its inhabitants. And this is universal.
The book's construction is paramount in the way we read these relationships. The attributes that elevate Gemes into the realms of the truly great photographers - those who have retained the integrity of the observed but instilled some of themselves into the observation (from Stieglitz through to Cartier-Bresson) - are that she can observe without intervention and yet invest herself into the construction without distorting its integrity. She is there in the shadow, in the light in the eyes of her subject, and the balance of the image. But she is only there insofar as it conveys the truth in her subject.
A major theme of Gemes?s work has been that of social injustice, particularly in relationship to Koori culture. In a recent interview with Gemes I asked her about the relationship between her project and that of Koori identity with place, specifically the Hawkesbury:
We mentioned the Mangrove Creek book, and we were talking before about your work with Koori people, their culture and art, and social aspects?white domination...
Yes. As it says in the Afterword of that book, "The rugged terrain of the lower Hawkesbury very forcibly imprints the natural land formations on the mind. During those few days in 1951 the dominance of the enclosing bush was reinforced through all the senses, and intensified by heat. Although the Aboriginal presence had been physically obliterated, it seemed as if it had been reabsorbed into the land itself, as a deep chthonic layer, and that the spirit of place had long since claimed the more recent white arrivals and rendered them indigenous."
I quote this because I notice some of your images have that Dreamtime and that deeply spiritual aspect, not only conceptually but texturally. You seem to develop even an Aboriginal art sort of feel about it.
I think that's very true, because it is here in this country. That may be true - I'm reflecting what I perceive, through experience, about this country, this particular landscape. As I became familiar with the oyster-farming and fishing culture that is prevalent here, and is to a large extent an invisible culture - it simply is not visible to the rest of society or to the community - I became aware that here were seven generations. There were people who had lived in this landscape for seven generations, and whose relationship to the River was very respectful and guardianlike.
This idea has been strongly with me throughout the work - it was clear then, it's still clear now. I also feel very strongly the Aboriginal presence here... It is a pristine country, and as I know from a surveyors' map from the Australian Museum, and that actually dates back to 1890... this land is covered with over 260 Aboriginal rockcarvings. So that the Aboriginal presence for me is very strong, and the relationship between the oyster-farming community and their feeling for country, I found to have some similarity to Aboriginal relationship to country. But having said that, it's only now that Aboriginal people are coming back into this country.
Do you see with the multiple generations, of oyster-farmers for example, that have been here, a "parallel" between Aboriginal land inheritance and continuity in the land (albeit of much longer standing), and this continuity within the families? Is there a cultural parallel in any way; or a spiritual parallel, maybe?
You?ll have oyster-farmers who can read the River. They can know from looking at the surface what?s going on underneath. And it's that kind of specific knowledge of the River that is handed on from generation to generation that has a similar resonance to 40,000 years of Aboriginal occupation and relationship, specific relationship, in a guardian/custodial sense, to country. I have to be careful here because it's not the same. But there are some similarities.
What is clear is that in Gemes's work there is a consciousness of everything else that might be going on in a picture. There is a sense of the potential and likely, a consideration of the subtexts that are operating on the primary, or seen, image. It is important to realize that the Koori spiritual continuance is of the land and not of the camera. Gemes is sensitive to the presence and its meaning but does not suggest that it requires "capturing" to persevere. Rather, she acknowledges its power and invites it to work on her constructions. She knows that without this link any interaction with the place would be infertile. It is part of her collective imagination and there is no sequestering it or bending it to her purpose. It holds the energy. Gemes is merely an active conduit for its speech.
It is in fact because of its non-literalness, that a photographic image that is not directly related to a poem can illuminate the text by suggestion, juxtaposition that enhances and illuminates. The Language of Oysters is very much an example of photographs prompting, or to use a word of Gemes?s "provoking", the poem, while with the Mooney Sequence we have the poems provoking photographs.
It is interesting to note that there is something of Adamson's 1989 volume of poetry The Clean Dark in this book. The idea of the image interacting and enjambing the text can be seen here. In The Language of Oysters there is a more conscious presentation of this process. In a review of The Clean Dark - "Shadows In The Water" (Salt Vol 1, No 1 June 1990) I alluded to the process of interaction between the visual and textual planes, and referred to the use of image as signifier. It is relevant to quote sections of this piece:
Robert Adamson opens his latest volume of poetry, The Clean Dark, with a quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations:
Two pictures of a rose in the dark. One is quite black; for the rose is invisible. In the other, it is painted in full detail and surrounded by black. Is one of them right, the other wrong? Don?t we talk of a white rose in the dark and of a red rose in the dark? And don?t we say for all that that they can't be distinguished in the dark?
The notion illuminated by Wittgenstein has been transcribed by Adamson through the silkscreen of language and article. The darkness of the page, the light of inspiration. A focal point, to be sure, but no answer, no solution. And this positive equivocation is carried throughout the collection, despite something of a refutation in the final poem. Or is this the reaction made necessary, the details anchoring the magic?
The piece goes onto reference the link between image and text:
The dust cover offers us death suspended, netted. Each section in turn opens with a photograph by Juno Gemes. The first, a camera mounted on a tripod aimed at a tin shed, a distillation of the art. The black and white Symbolist cross-over, a tease, a tempting desire. The camera is there for a shot to be taken, the image and attainment, a result of intention. But maybe this shot will not be executed, it is as the red and the white rose, the darkness.
The final section of the book, "No River, No Death", is introduced by the most effective, to my eye, of the photographs. Life-shift, the wreckage of shadow and light, the plumbed depths, stilled ripples, Trees, sky, shed and shack, collapsing inward, though with a poise that is almost graceful. And, somewhere, there is death. Language "licking its flesh wounds".
"No River, No Death", the first poem, consolidates the Styx image:
Now leave from a jetty, souls going where souls go
The wharf sags with tar-drenched oyster racks
and a fisherman?s punt rocks as its side for Charon.
Though, in spite of these reflections on death, a matter-of-fact wonderment retains a place (beyond the "microwaved" voices of politicians /civilization):
the larrikin prawn bird starts to sing
This last line so much captures the spirit of the river dwellers. Even in death they look to the wider world, to its mysteries and wonders. There is always a dignified humour to be found in their austerity.
What is fascinating in The Clean Dark in the context of this discussion is that the river, a place that has "always" been Adamson's and to which he has given his signature, is the dynamic that has developed between him and Gemes. Each has enriched the other's vision. Gemes has brought another history to Adamson's. In terms of duration there?s a new essence to complement those that have passed before. As with the two roses, we are talking about notions of presence. The dynamic between the concept and the observed "thing" is at the crux of this, as it is in the collaboration between poet and photographer.
The dialogue that occurs between Gemes and Adamson is very much about giving voice and illuminating the unseen. Mangroves are a fascinating sourcing of the unseen. In Adamson?s poem "Phasing Out The Mangroves" we sense the language of the mangroves ("The great hunched mangroves/ will no longer tend/ the instincts of kingfishers;") is comprehended by the swamp children but not the language of destruction, of the intruding "modern civilization" ("the swamp children/ speaking a language of arithmetic in cracked syllables."). Ecologically, there is loss here, but the faces of the river are resilient and will build around change. In Gemes's photographs we find image after image juxtaposing the trappings of the modern world, subtly, with those of the "old". It's as if the spirit of the mangroves will still be struggling up into the light from beneath the "bent glass and metal domes". Gemes's mysterious and almost breathtakingly silent (the "silence" is almost threatening) photographs of mangrove shoots pushing up through the mud echo these themes most profoundly because they make reference to nothing but the mystery of the mangroves themselves. It is because we subconsciously form juxtaposition ourselves through being familiar with the construction of the book and the nature of Adamson's verse, that we make such observations and feel such impressions. They are ghostly and mysterious but carry a primal power that is of the instincts of kingfishers. There is a strength there, as there is in any of the portraits of the river people. It's as if they are of the dark room, these otherworld creations. But of course they are the guts of the river itself - the art is there in nature, with all its force and wonder.
One thing that is striking in Adamson's river verse is his confluence with the river. It flows through his blood and over the page with the sleekness of a fish run. The flathead emerging from his hands in the image Adamson's Catch (52, Section V) suggests that it's difficult to separate the two. It's interesting to note that such communities are based on a cyclical understanding of survival. The predator and the predated are necessary to each other. The sense of comfort with this is not always there, and death isn't always matter of fact. There are those nagging doubts. The grandmother tells her grandson that "the prawns will eat you/when you die on the Hawkesbury" and the ocean as something which the river requires but is like a truth that is too awesome to face - where "The colour of their skin/mingles with the blood of their predators" and "Our bodies are constantly drawn towards the slaughter"; consider "They are the flesh we feed upon come from the depths/out beyond the Continental Shelf". Gemes deals with Adamson's more sombre and darkly gestating images with care and delicacy. She synthesises them into a greater picture that can tolerate the darkness of thought. In her hands they always emerge solid and life-affirming. Though both she and Adamson deal with minutiae, the fine details of this existence, it is as part of a greater picture.
Robert Adamson has spent much of his life on the mouth of the Hawkesbury. As the Bunyah of New South Wales is to Les Murray's verse, so is the Hawkesbury to Adamson's. Adamson, the great Australian lyrical poet, has developed an extensive oeuvre of songs and incantations that draw on the environment, mythology, and spirit of the Hawkesbury. His metempsychotic bird poems, his codices of love and death, and evocative lyrics of place, are well known. But Adamson is also an innovator, constantly introducing new vocabularies and "voices" into his rich and varied language, and through this the infinite languages of the river. In recent poem like "Creon's Dream" we find new arrivals:
The river seeps through the window, the books
are opened out on the desk. When the first breeze
hits the curtains the cats scatter.
It could be dawn for all I know, concentration
wanders through Creon's words to Antigone Go
to the dead and love them - okay so they live as
long as I do - what else can I make of it?
The bright feathers from a crimson rosella lie
in clumps on the floor with a pair of broken wings.
There are new poems here as well as those taken from Canticles on The Skin, The Rumour, Swamp Riddles, Cross The Border, Where I Come From,The Clean Dark, and Waving to Hart Crane. It is interesting to note that these poems, regardless of where they sit in the manuscript, speak to each other. There is a sense of permanence about them. They flow between each other like the river between points on the riverbanks.
In other words, the history of the place is constantly redefining the future, and vice versa. Once again, it's a juxtaposition of essences. Adamson has been distilling these essences for decades, and in many senses, Gemes's images form a kind of visualization of this process. That is how an earlier poem can interact with a later image. The poem allows entry because it is fluid, the image invites the poem because it is conscious of the total history of the place, and the poem is part of this. One is reminded of the Spanish picaresque novel with its narrative flow, collation of experience, with some destination bringing it all into focus. In a sense, the publication of this volume, with the interaction between the image and text, brings the work of both artists into a new kind of focus. Each can exist artistically without the other, but together they enrich and add commentary to the other's craft.
In considering Gemes's portraiture I'd like to bring to notice two images from section IV of the book: No 41 Lorraine Biddle (née Doyle) shows Axel Poignant's portrait of Lorraine's grandmother (Margaret Alberta Doyle - Lower Mangrove Creek, 1951) and No. 42 June (Morley) Bonser with model of Surprise II, daughters-in-law Gwen & Jan Morley, grandchildren Sandra Vassallo, Debbie Groat, great-grandchildren Kylie & Nathan Vassallo & Melinda Camera. What is emphasized in both of these images is the continuity of family and identification with the river. It is a wonderful compression of time as well as emphasizing of change. The grandmother is still with us - not because of the photo, but because of the spirit of the granddaughter. But what the image does, like a poem, is act as an annotation to the fact. A reminder to an outsider of what is knowledge to the insider. It is also of the spirit of Gemes as artist that she pays homage to her artistic predecessor in Axel Poignant, accepts his art as part of the river's spirit. This is like the poet recognizing those poets who have rowed similar waters (with Adamson we have Shelley, Mallarmé, Olson, Duncan, Webb, Slessor, Bishop, Crane and many others). A Gemes portrait works like an Adamson poem; it allows the inner light of the subject to glow. In the poems taken from Where I Come From we feel this acutely. With the river as background, and using the ?child? as focus, the poet paints a complex family portrait. Take "My Fishing Boat":
Mum and Dad are at it again
in the room
next to mine
their terrible sobbing
comes through the damp wall
they fight about something
I have done
I get out of bed
and go down the yard to the river
push my boat out into
the black and freezing bay
under the mangroves
that smell like human shit
I move along my secret channel
my hands blistering
from rowing slip with blood
around the cove I tie up on a mangrove
it rains harder
all I catch are catfish here
and have them sliding
about in the belly of the boat
they are the most ugly looking things
in the world
In image 42 the shifts and continuity between generations are palpable. Apart from genetic associations, the model of Surprise II brings out of the faces what it is that is common to each. This is their history, it makes them inseparable. This is what we feel on reading Adamson's poetry. That once it is in the blood one could never leave this place. In none of Gemes's portraits is there a sense of exclusion. Her evocations belong, as do Adamson's sensitive and passionate songs of river life and spirit, to the realm of essences.
In arranging the images and text into sections the authors invite us to make assumptions about how they should be read. But these are narratives, and not essays. They are taken and written from the inside and projected out. As we find Henri Cartier-Bresson saying in Paul Hill?s and Thomas Cooper's Dialogue with Photography:
I have never been interested in the documentary aspect of photography except as a poetic expression. Only the photograph that springs from life is of interest to me. The joy of looking, sensitivity, sensuality, imagination, all that one takes to heart, come together in the viewfinder of a camera. That joy will exist for me forever.
And Cartier-Bresson's point is as relevant to the poet as it is to the photographer. Gemes and Adamson, so defined in their own arts, are also expressing a vision that breaks free of the implied boundaries of form, that asserts itself anew and unhindered with every page?be it of text or image. In The Language of Oysters both artists evoke the spirit of the river and its inhabitants, and also conjure the element of art itself, so often absent from documentary observation. It is the realm of potential meanings, deep below the layers of text and image that touch us. As Henri Peyre has said of Mallarmé's "[Le Vierge, Le Vivace Et Le Bel Aujourd'Hui]": "The interested reader, who may prefer a reading different from ours, would do well to remember Robert Frost?s insistence that a poet is entitled to all the meanings that can be found in his poem."