PhotoForum: News From The Sun – Reviewed
What kind of ‘news’ can the sun convey? The type of news we have come to expect from photography is evidential, related to its perceived truth value, but the photography in News from the Sun (City Gallery, until March 15) is testament to a contemporary practice that critically explores the materials, processes and genres of the medium itself. The way we respond to and engage with photography has, in a way, become photography’s favoured subject.
Bringing together the work of Justine Varga, Shaun Waugh and Harry Culy, News from the Sun cleverly and concisely explores some of the symbolic categories through which we understand photography – the horizon, the window and the still life. These categories, the exhibition literature tells us, are ‘cliches’, they “have become ciphers for photography itself. Their use often tells us what a photograph is or might be.” The photographers in News from the Sun explore how these categories might simultaneously be photographic subjects, conceptual frameworks and structured ways of seeing. The line of a horizon, for example, signifies perspectival space; the camera’s field of view is certainly a window of sorts; a still life requires us to consider the symbolism of the chosen elements. In this respect, the exhibition references John Szarkowski’s categories for photographic analysis: The frame, time, vantage point, the thing itself, the detail.
None of these categories are tidy, or clearly defined. Varga’s work explores the materiality of the photographic object – film, emulsion, light, surface. In 2017 Varga’s portrait of her grandmother, Maternal Line, won the prestigious Olive Cotton award. Rather than a camera-based portrait, Varga had asked her grandmother to spit and scribble onto a piece of photographic film, creating an image which captured an interaction between the two, scratched into the photographic emulsion. In works from News from the Sun, Lattice #4 (2017-18) and Lattice #2 (2017-18), the window is the subject of the image, but also suggests the structured way of seeing created by the ‘window’ of a sheet of film. The boundaries of this ‘window’ – the edges of the film – are visible with the film brand and speed running along the lower edge. This acknowledgment of the material characteristics of photography is present throughout Varga’s work; other pieces such as Inscribing #1 (2018) and Inscribing #3 (2018) show evidence of scratching, smearing, of palm prints and the texture of skin pressed against the film’s surface. They are also repeated, as is the image of the window, in several of Varga’s 10 exhibition pieces. Varga’s work is an acknowledgement of photography as both image and material object, and visually, they are immersive and lavish visual creations. Rich with colour, texture and detail, they are immensely satisfying.
Harry Culy’s series The Gap negates any purely formal or aesthetic engagement with his subject. His practice has been described as ‘Aotearoa Gothic’  – his work conveys a sense of stillness, silence and uncertainty in careful formal arrangements. This atmosphere of unease is also evident in The Gap, an ongoing series Culy began in 2014, looking out to sea from the same location at Sydney’s South End beach. The horizon line stretches around the gallery walls; 10 frames of the same scene at different times of day and in different weather conditions. Viewing the works is a meditative, almost hypnotic experience, one described in aesthetic terms in the titles of the works: Pewter, Blue/White, Orange Dawn, Soft Grey, Black/Black. From a distance, some photographs seem to reference abstract painting more than the living surface of the sea. But it is the 11th frame, Don Ritchie (Found Photograph) that is the hook providing the contextual information that shifts the meaning of the series from one that might have primarily formal concerns to one with a layered sense of history and humanity at its core. The story of Don Ritchie suggests we look at the horizon, at the seascape, and consider others who have done the same. Culy’s series ultimately points to the ‘gap’ between what photographs show, and what they might mean.
Shaun Waugh’s Still Life (2019) gives the previously insignificant single use plastic bottle the monumental presence it now holds as a symbol of plastic pollution and environmental degradation. The panels of Still Life (2019) are a synthesis of layered transparent bottles, no single object clearly revealing itself, but rather conveying a sense of the enormity of plastic waste through a process of digital stacking. The cropping and layering confound any expectation we may have of a conventional ‘window’ onto a photographic arrangement. So too does the chromatic aberration, fringes of blue and purple playing along the edges of some of the plastic forms, acknowledging rather than attempting to hide the long-standing battle between photographers and their lenses. Waugh also places his arrangements against either a black or white background, such that the transparent objects seem, in places, to sink into their backgrounds. This then, is a still life in which the object is not singular, cannot be clearly discerned, and has to hold its own against a backdrop; the conventions of the still life genre are inverted.
In bringing together the work of Justine Varga, Shaun Waugh and Harry Culy, News from the Sun curator Aaron Lister has created an exhibition which is at once visually satisfying and conceptually articulate. It asks us to reconsider our expectations of photography, and expand our understanding of photographic genres, processes and materiality.
Deidra Sullivan is currently Curator, Photographic Archive, at the Alexander Turnbull Library. She previously taught photography on the Bachelor of Creativity programme at Te Auaha, WelTec and Whitireia’s joint School of Creativity, Wellington.