Interview with Juno Gemes, October 1995, discussing her forthcoming photographic book

This project has a prototype or a precedent, if you like. Is it in some senses influenced by Mangrove Creek 1951: A Day with the Hawkesbury River Postman. In fact you’ve done a series of contemporary Hawkesbury River postman photographs, and I believe he’s the last of his kind, not only in Australia but in the world, according to locals. That earlier book was done by Axel and Roslyn Poignant—Axel took the photographs and Roslyn wrote the text thirty years later. In this book you’re responsible for the visual images—the photographs—and your partner, Robert Adamson, for the text, in the form of poems. Could you give us a general statement on that?


It’s interesting how I’ve crossed tracks with Axel and Roslyn Poignant’s work twice. In 1982, I saw Axel’s Retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales—where my attention was drawn almost exclusively to his work with Aboriginal people at Liverpool River, Arnhem Land, in the 1950s. That same year, 1982, I had an exhibition at the Hogarth Gallery, We Wait No More, and a substantial number of works in two seminal exhibitions, Apmira—Artists for Land Rights, Paddington Town Hall, and After the Tent Embassy Exhibition, edited by Marcia Langton and Wes Stacey at Bondi Pavilion, then touring nationally; all this work drawn from my work with Aboriginal people and communities from 1969, Central Australia, Mornington Island, Queensland, Eloho Island, Northern Territory and extensively through New South Wales. So we were covering similar subject matter from a very different point of view. He persuaded the people at Liverpool River to create with him these very posed and stylised photographs that were very much in the pictorial style of that period. Whereas my work with Aboriginal people is collaborative in a totally different sense, in that I was producing images that could serve the aspirations of Aboriginal people in the struggle at that particular point in time.


Anne Marie Willis suggests Poignant’s work, while in the “heroic documentary tradition”, did break with the previous negative imaging of Aboriginal people, These questions did speak to my central concerns at that time. It is now possible to envisage that photographic strategies do change and are time-specific.


So then I was amazed when the Mangrove Creek book came out in 1993, to see that he’d been up in the Hawkesbury River for a two-day period, in which in fact he was not only exploring the riverboat postman route, but was testing out his new Rolliflex camera equipment which he was going to take to Arnhem Land. That same year I had an exhibition at the Brooklyn Memorial Hall for the community, of photographs drawn from the last seven years’ work. So we had traversed each other’s track twice. We were well into the work by the time the book appeared. While Roslyn’s text is a mediation on the nature of memory and first encounter histories, enmeshed with local histories—we come from a similar position on these issues, though again, at a later time.

Some of the people depicted in my works are in fact descendants of those same families. Roslyn imagined that life on the River would change dramatically after the 1950s; in fact it hasn’t changed much at all—more tourism, a strong environmental movement, some land returned to the Awarkal through the Native Land Rights Tribunals, oyster-farming, fishing-co-operative ventures, river-access only communities, still approximately the same size. Adamson grew up here and we’ve lived and worked together here since 1987.


And the people who produced the book with Roslyn Poignant came up to me when I had a small exhibition of Hawkesbury River material—my work on the River, which has been going on for seven years now. For the community I was asked to provide an exhibition, like a gift back to the community, so they could see themselves reflected in these images; and indeed they did take a lot of pride in them. Anyway, the same publishers came up to me and said, “If you want to publish these in a book we’d be delighted.” So: these are just the ways our tracks have crossed.


You say he came up for two days to test his camera equipment; you’ve been here for quite a number of years, and you’re very familiar with your camera equipment. What about the relationship you have with the River, and also the relationship your partner has with the River—and how does that relate to the book as a whole?


I do think that Axel came up with some very strong images from that period, but it was a fleeting look, and he and Roslyn admit that; whereas Adamson and I came up here to live in 1987. And that began for me—the sequence of coming up here, of finding Bob’s family again, of staying at Moonee Moonee, of being familiar with the poems—this led me first of all to understand Bob’s relationship with what I think of as his country (after all, he grew up here) and began a process of my relationship with this country.


Your teacher, Lisette Modell—in an Aperture monograph on her it says, “I know of no photographer who has photographed people as inwardly as Lisette Modell.” Do you see yourself in your documentation of the river and its people as someone who is entering the subjects, the people—or do you see the landscape as being of primary importance? Which do you see as dominating—or is there an equality between the landscape and the subject—is it a matter of them being homogeneous: a synthesis?


I don’t ever consider myself a “documentary” photographer—I never have been that. I construct images quite carefully. And I have a sympathy with Richard Avedon who regards all his images as in a sense being autobiographical, because they come after all from his sensibility. A woman photographer, Garcia Iturbide, says, “It all goes together: your aesthetics, your politics, your morality, your sexuality.”


It is exactly the relationships that exist between the landscape—the river—and peoples who live here that I am examining in this body of work—I examine my own relationships as well as many of those I know in this community. So does Adamson, though differently, through language.


And Ralph Gibson has also said that you have to incorporate your life into the picture. It’s not just a matter of removing yourself… The poet Michael Palmer has referred to Octavio Paz observing the fact that poetry is not just about writing a newspaper report; that’s not the political poem. The political poem is being witness to you experiencing what’s happening—and your social consciousness. I know that you’ve been influenced by Tina Modotti. Can you comment on those issues?


There is a certain kind of photography—and I’m one of the practitioners of it—that Sebastio Salgado calls “photoactivism”, which is a kind of neat term. And it is activism through making visible in a particular kind of way… with the Aboriginal struggle, you have to remember that when I started my work there were no images around, except the very derogatory stereotypic images being published. I have to be careful with that argument because it keeps being used, sometimes where it’s appropriate, sometimes where it’s not. But I was creating images from a very informed position of relationship. And that is the way I work here too.


I never photograph anybody who doesn’t want to be photographed. I would consider that quite an immoral act. I work from within relationships.


Do you ever find an occasion, given in this case your subject is the River, where the images come spontaneously, those glimpses, those moments in time—or are they structured in a way that you know your character (if you’re taking a person), or know your place, and you explore that thoroughly? Like the artist who takes many sketches before doing the final product, before you do your master print, do you have a sense of what you’re going to do? Or is it a combination of both that spontaneity and that master-work?


It is a combination of those things. This body of work that you see is drawn from seven years’ continual work. So you’ve got a hundred images that are probably drawn from an archive of about five thousand images. Now it can also be that— for example with the mangrove series, where I’ve decided beforehand that I want to do a series on the mangroves, because no-one has really looked into mangroves or mud, which are both essentl nurturing grounds for so many life forms on the river—you’ve chosen the subject matter, you’ve thought out a particular light that you want to go out in; but then what happens when you get there is that though you’re looking for something, something unexpected and magical takes place within the act of looking. Where you see the thing in its quintessential mode. It comes together in a geometry, almost as if an invisible, sacred geometry suddenly reveals itself. You’re open to it.


So you’re never imposing on the image, on the act of seeing. The act of seeing exists in itself, and these things actually construct themselves within the image, rather than you, say, going to the mangroves and saying, there’s a series of geometric references that exist in my mind as I see a mangrove, so I’m going intentionally to capture them. Or is it a case again of those two blending—of having a notion of what they look like, how they form themselves and what they project—and then going and seeing them appear?


Yes, if you take nature to be a kind of veil of illusion… if you take it to have within it magical—this is perhaps the wrong word—mysterious laws, and you are trying to see how to convey the emotions that are conjured up by the element of the landscape in a particular light.


We mentioned the Mangrove Creek book, and we were talking before about your interest in Koori culture and art, and social aspects—white domination…

Social injustice…


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. 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.


You once said to me that one of your favourite quotes was from Jean Cocteau, “the way to kill death is through photography”. Do you see that the continuity between the generations, or the spirituality and the land, is related to that comment? That you as the artist can enter that landscape and in a sense bring, say, the first generation in with the fifth and the third—preserve them in one moment, if you like? That you can capture in the face, in one of your portraits (which are so wonderfully “etched”), in the face of an old fisherman, say, all the generations that have bought into his life; so that all time in a sense is lodged in one of your portraits, in one of your scenes?


That’s very good if it is so… I like that quotation very much because I see that in Australia particularly, there’s this sort of chronic subservience to French theory, and to the work of Sontag, Barthes and Baudrillard, where you have these simplistic notions equating photography with death—which sounds clever but, I think, is absolute nonsense. In fact, we know the past from photographs. We will know the present from photographs as well. And photographs actually bestow immortality on their subject matter.


So in this face we do see that there’s no death: there’s continuity. It’s an affirming art.




And you’ve actually said in conjunction with this that it’s a language to itself.


Yes. I believe that most photographers do feel that they are dealing with a language, and that it has its own rules and laws and strictures; and each operates within this language differently. In the same way that writing about photography—the best of it—often equates it with poetry, because it has that similar resonance, of people creating reality from within a specified use of language.


Victor Bergin has said, in Photographic Practice and Art Theory, “visual and non-visual codes interpenetrate each other in very extensive and complex ways”. How does the text operate—taking the idea that language is something which can exist in the imagination, as opposed to the photograph, which is a distillation of the imagination—a very physical one that can never be forgotten, whereas poetry can exist as a concept; a photograph is an entity…


Yes, but poetry is hewn out of words, out of a use of language, construction…


So you do see that as a physical thing.




It can be idealised as something that doesn’t have to exist in words. But as a visual artist you see it, when you sit with a text next to you, as being as physical as the photograph.




It becomes an image as well?


Oh, yes. Adamson’s poems are so rich and dense in layers and layers of imagery…


Have the physical images in Bob’s poetry led you to search for a particular physical thing in the Hawkesbury environment; to frame something specific that Bob has illuminated?


All the time, really. But I’m never interested in illustrating his work, as it were. But his feeling for the country—his feeling about fishing—he’s taught me a great deal about that very primal, immediate relationship to the River. In which he too has that respect for that which he kills, and will only kill that which he can eat. And the physicality and the visual quality of all that have just opened a world to me, and so I respond to that in my own way.


Your images are factual, because they exist on a plane—in the sense that they’re representations. But light: the introduction of light into the visual plane, into the scene, becomes an active metaphor. This is where I see a similarity between Bob’s poetry and your photographs: that they have the metaphor of light. Looking at these photographs, the most dominant thing is the interaction of light and the depth of the shadow—the brilliance in the eruption of light. Not only sunlight, but imagined light.


Like, for example, in the mangrove pictures. There’s a sense of darkness in the earth, the “chthonic earth”; there’s a sense of light coming out of the darkness.


Well, black and white photography is the medium I work in; therefore my palette is from deep rich blacks all through the gradation of tonalities to a barely defined white. And all this is etched onto film by light itself. So light is the very essence of what you draw with. You observe light—light delineates mood, emotion—it is your primal tool, if you like. You’re drawing with light all the time; that’s what photography is.


In a piece which is shortly going to appear in Overland, you say, “So often, photography is deadweighted by terminology. Philosophers, cultural theorists rage at its apparent power, its imagined freedoms. They hang elaborate fictive constructs onto its invisible skeleton. Yet the creative dynamic of the medium eludes them.” Then you go on to say that the “photographic image contains its own transformative language, its own syntax. I’m a photoactivist—the pen, the paintbrush, the camera.”


Now here you’re collaborating with another artist, you’ve said you’ve gained from it—but the photographs and the texts are still complete things in themselves. Because they are separate entities and both provide their own answers, how do you see text and images sitting together, and why should they? Do they need to?


I think of both works as being complete in themselves, but as drawing from the same source… I think they complement each other very well.


When you say “photography is deadweighted by terminology”, do you mean that the person who looks at a photograph doesn’t need to have knowledge of the tricks and tools of photography, the mystery of the darkroom? Is it unnecessary?


It’d be lovely if people knew as much about what is actually involved in the creation of master-prints and the final image as they do about the other artforms. And in fact I think that they do in many other countries. But the fact is here they often don’t.


What I’m referring to in that quotation is that because people do not decipher either the technical processes or the aesthetic processes of photography very readily, it appears to be a silent medium. I don’t think of it as a silent medium at all. I think it speaks with a very powerful articulation that appeals to the emotions, the intellect and the eye.


But because it is coded within its own constructional language, and people don’t necessarily decipher that—nor do they often look to the intentions or the aesthetics of the photographer—they just feel free to use it as a skeleton on which to hang any fictive construct they imagine.


Do your photographs ever move outside their frame?


I hope so. People are free to read them as they want.


But even on the surface—even physically—do they remain firmly embedded in their space, or do they offer suggestions outside what you actually see? Is what is seen in the photograph, physically, enough for the coding to be registered and then decoded?


I like very much the idea that it suggests more. And I like very much the idea that people can come back to the images and see more in them. And that they suggest something further that goes beyond the frame is a very attractive idea to me. That’s why I also very much admire the way Avedon puts his books together, particularly Nothing Personal, which was a collaboration between Avedon and James Baldwin. They went to highschool together, as it turns out.


This is a major influence on the Hawkesbury book?


It’s been a major influence on me. It’s a very little-known book in this country. But you see how, for example, a naked portrait of Allen Ginsberg is juxtaposed with an image of members of the American Nazi party saluting. That kind of juxtaposition, so that there is a possibility, by the way images are sequentially put together, of creating a greater narrative…


Wyn Bullock has said one of the important things that have come into play over the years in his work is the notion of ordering—ordering of the images. Obviously, when you’re putting a book like this together, that is vital. Is there any sense of the picaresque here?




Is it a random juxtaposition? How have you gone about structuring this?


What you’re wanting to do is to juxtapose images against each other, so that they “bounce off” each other, as it were. So that you create sequences that are unexpected, and yet have this effect of layers of perception.


So even within a subgroup, like “The River Postman”…?


That’s a narrative sequence. There are three major narrative sequences in this book: the oyster-punt races, the Hawkesbury River postman, and the “language of oysters”, which is actually going up oyster-farming.


W. Eugene Smith’s idea of structuring a photographic essay—they’re not always in sequential order either—but you get to build up an impression. Are you working with that principle at all?


W. Eugene Smith (I think of him as a photoactivist, by the way) discovered that a fish cannery in Japan was so heavily polluting the waters with mercury that children were being born deformed. And he persuaded the editors of Life magazine—no easy task!—to publish this sequence of images that would reveal what was going on there. There’s an image that’s often referred to as the “pieta”—of a mother holding her deformed son in a round Japanese bath, and she’s looking at him with total adoration. It’s such a powerful and emotional picture that the publication of that sequence of images—that he really had to fight for—actually closed that factory down.




Yes! So what you’re talking about is photography as a language, and here you have a master photographer who understands this language very well, and can put together a sequence that deals with so many emotional levels as well as visual levels, not only to tell what’s going on, but to evoke an emotional response from the viewer.


I notice in your images quite often there’s a wonderful balance between a whimsy, a joy of life crossed with heroic attitude and dignity, and at the same time an irony, a sense of death and threat sometimes. In the fish-throwing pictures, for example. The wonderful frivolity in the expressions—enthusiasm and joy—as well as something quite bizarre about the whole process. You can’t just label it by saying, “here are these people having a good time”. There’s a balance, between an eschatological view, and a very joy-filled, light-filled view. Can you explain this balance?


I do have a very strong sense of the absurd. It’s a quirky sense of humour, I suppose you could say. Coupled with this sense of the absurd. And I look for the reflections of that… The oyster-punt races were something that’s very particular to this community; it’s very humorous, very dark, quirky, if you like. But it’s very true… of this area, and its particular culture. It has in it absurdity, humour and, I think, charm—perhaps a little sense of menace. Because, after all, people up here are very tough.


I mentioned the heroic: do you think because they’re tough they are heroic?


Yes! I do. I can see danger inherent in saying that. But I think there is a quality—if you look at the river doctor series, for example—there is a heroic quality that comes out in those images. Because it’s there. Because it’s a woman doctor taking her two young children, aged one and a half and three, out on the River when there’s a blowing gale, because she has to go and see her patients, and they’re river-access only. And that’s the kind of heroism that’s a day-to-day ingredient of the life up here.


This is true especially in terms of the photographs that have that deep, earthy, spiritual feeling, that Aboriginality about them—but all of you pictures are rich with texture. You seem like a sculptor. They’re very physical. It’s as if I want to see what they feel like when I see the surface. Is this a very conscious thing?


I’m very drawn by texture, and this country is full of it. In the mud, for example—who would have thought that mud could be like this? You have to live up here, I think, to understand how important the tide is. And how once you’ve got used to looking at the mud as it is revealed by the outgoing tide, you start to see a particular geometry, a particular beauty to it.


Is there much relationship between the structure of this volume and your earlier exhibitions, such as Under Another Sky? Is there a continuity here? And how do you see exhibiting in a space as being different from presenting images in a book?


I love the idea of “the book” because I don’t think it’s easy for people to respond fully to work in a public space. A book, after all, is a very intimate, private object—you can look at it in your own time, and go back to it again and again. So that’s a far more intimate relationship.


In the sense that photographers put—not obtrusively, but intrinsically, because it’s part of the art—themselves into their photographs; they are part of the photograph, and through that you can get into the skins of the subjects—do you think that intimacy is an entirely vital thing to the art? That it is an intimate art?


It is for me. Many other photographers approach it differently. You take a look at Ralph Gibson. These images are very intimate for him, but you might find them rather cool and very geometric and very dramatic. But they’re intensely personal images for him.


Yes, I appreciate that… But what about your earlier works and earlier exhibition—was there any correlation with this work?


Under Another Sky really did have a certain narrative element in that sequences of images were placed together… so that each image hopefully built on the one before. So there’s something of a similarity here, but this is another cycle. Here I’m juxtaposing images and I’m dealing with the relationship between people and country, between landscape and particular aspects of the landscape, and the particular culture that people create when they live in relation to country.


Bernice Abbott has also said, referring to Modell, that “one of the first reactions when looking at Modell’s pictures is that they make you feel good, you recognise them as real, because real people express a bit of the universal humanity in all of us.” Do your pictures make us feel good? Should they?

This goes very much against the grain of the kind of discourses that are going on in photography! What I love about Lisette is—we’d walk around the Piazza San Marco together, and her continual question was, “Tell me what you see,” and the next question would be, “Tell me what that means to you.” And her final dictum was, “Never create a picture without knowing what you want to say, without having something that you desperately want to say.”


Are you a political artist?


Yes. My engagement with everything I deal with is an acute engagement, and I do see an endless struggle between good and bad going on in the world. Good and evil, if you like. And I do see that photography can have an activist role. But in these images it is a more subtle kind of activism where you hope that the respect for country and the respect for tiny cultures such as this can be encouraged.


That brings me to a question about intrusion, and the photographer as intruder. I notice two very interesting photos here with tattoos, and the male tattoo is extremely territorial… You get the feeling it’s saying, “Don’t walk on my turf, mate, or you’re gone”. And we have another one of a woman with bands tattooed around her arms—a sense of fecundity about them, life flow—which is a nice irony considering their serpent image… Irony runs through all these pictures in many ways. But do you ever feel that you can be intruding upon a particular space?


I don’t use a long lens so that pictures are taken without people being aware. The serpent woman is a very good friend of mine who has boats and has taken me out on numerous journeys.


So there’s sharing. The intimacy is between you and the subject.


Yes. So what I was going for in that image is that this particular friend has a very strong relationship with this country—she’s an environmental activist, as it turns out. And I wanted to show that relationship with country, and the tatts are very much part of her, as she is very much part of the river culture. And you’re quite right in speaking of the masculine and the feminine here because that says something about how gender is defined within the river communities.


How important is what goes on in the darkroom? I recently heard it called a “place of performance” and a “confessional”… How important is the unseen process of the photographer to the final product, to the image, to the art?


The darkroom is really the testing ground. It’s where you observe the image in the most concentrated way. Also, just as the poet makes a second, third and fourth draft, through the manipulation in the darkroom you can actually change the meaning of an image. You can augment the mood of the image; you can do a number of quite transformative processes within the darkroom.


Printing really is the other half of the creating of the images. A lot of photographers now get someone else to print up their images. But I agree with Ralph Gibson that they’re missing out on half the process. And that is the ability to control what the final image looks like, what it says and how it says it.


Do you use a specific camera for all of these images, or are there a number of different cameras you use?


I’ve basically worked with the same equipment for the last twelve years, and that’s a Leica SL. I have a 6 and a 4. But I use them all manually, and there are three basic lenses that I work with—35,28 and 90. I don’t use the standard 50mm lens at all.


And the actual film?


Mainly Tri-X.


What speeds?


I vary the speed enormously. I often shoot under circumstances where there’s very little light, so I bump up the film considerably.


Now, could you give me a reaction to some terms…Cultural specificity?


That’s fairly appropriate to this work. Where you’re involved… As I said, the river culture is to a large degree invisible, and it’s particular by its relationship to the river; it has grown out of that relationship. So these images make visible a culture that may not otherwise be.


The difference between immediacy and depth?


If you’re fortunate, and if you’re really tuned in to the material that you’re working with, you’ll have that magic time when those things occur simultaneously. It doesn’t always happen, but you sure know when it does.