Traces Unseen

Various artists: Traces Unseen

PhotoAccess Online Gallery


Until 20 June 2020

Traces Unseen features three interstate artists Damien Shen, Todd Johnson and Tara Gilbee, all working at the cutting edge of photomedia.

Shen has created and etched tintypes to respond to archives documenting his rich heritage of mainland China and the indigenous Ngarrindjeri people. Johnson has studied the effects of the geographical environment on our emotions and behaviour. Gilbee contributes solargraphic works capturing a forensic digital tracing of a quarantine site. Each has explored contemporary questions relating to personal identity.

In her catalogue essay, exhibition curator Aimee Board writes “Each exhibited artist calls into question the essence of the photograph as an imprint of light, while at the same time uncovering the historical role and narrative of the image.”

Renowned for his skills as a draughtsman and explorations of his personal heritage, Shen combines traditional imagery and the archival source to create his works. His practice is to deconstruct the world around him to understand his identity. Here, he has drawn on archival images of paintings sourced from various Dynasty periods, tying in with family heritage from China. He shows us himself as Emperor mounted on horseback, but in his Ngarrindjeri homeland. This work strongly resonated with me, just a year after seeing some aspects of various dynasties whilst touring China.

Image 1

Damien Shen, Never Venture, Never Win, 2020, etched tin type, 4 x 5 inches. Courtesy of MARS Gallery.

After making charcoal drawings of relatives as he recorded their oral histories, Shen photographed them. He overlaid the resultant images with intricately etched lines, exploring darker aspects of Australia’s complex past. The resultant masks are quite fascinating to look at, although I didn’t find them quite as compelling as some of his previous “vintage style” portraits.

Gilbee has a multidisciplinary approach to art making. Her practice moves between individual studio work to the exploration of interesting sites and context for making and presenting work, with a focus on the intervening spaces.

Using solargraphy, a pinhole photographic method for recording the marks of the sun rising and falling, she tells the story of the Old Quarantine site at Point Nepean in Victoria, set up in 1852 to protect the local population. Ships carrying diseased passengers were required to land and disembark, where luggage and people were disinfected before heading to Melbourne. Another appropriate exploration given the quarantine arrangements most recently used because of COVID-19. Gilbee says, With the pinhole,’s like the porthole that you look out in a ship or a guard looking through to the inside of a cell. It has a really strong ocular and pupil effect…

Image 3

Tara Gilbee ‘Untitled’ (Solagraph – Nepean Quarantine Station (1) 6 months) 2017-2019 Digital scan of original photographic record. Dimensions variable.

Johnson employs analogue techniques to explore the materiality of photographic images resulting from a physical exchange between the body, film, and elements of the environment. His ongoing series, Eighty Lakes, documents numerous Australian lakes including Burley Griffin. Once developed, the film is later submerged in water collected on site, for durations of up to two months. Gradually, the film becomes malleable, as minerals, bacteria and pollution of the water create unpredictable abstractions. The shapes and patterns in these images are wonderful to explore.

Image 2

Todd Johnson, 1 week, 3 days, 2 hours, 2020, archival giclee print, 80 x 80 cm

Johnson considers film to be an obsolete medium and sees a three parts connection between the obsolescence of film images, the technology itself, and landscape in an age of environmental instability. He speaks of “decaying slide film” productively performing the material embodiment of environmental deterioration. Many people scanning their old slide collections during COVID-19 isolation will have discovered decay in them, so should relate to that.

​As curator Board writes “As luminous inscriptions of light, the works presented in Traces Unseen investigate the intangible aspects of histories and of place. They also capture, indirectly, points at which the producer and the produced converge.”



Pavement Pounding

During the pandemic isolating I have spent considerable time pounding the pavements of my suburb getting exercise; also photographing things on those pavements beneath my feet. Here are just three of the images I have captured.

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Each year the Canberra Photographic Society conducts two portfolio competitions, one for prints and the other for projected images. This year I decided to create my entry for the projected image event from the pavement imagery. I called the entry Pavement Pounding. The title image repeated the words in the opening paragraph of this article.

ROPE_B_0_Pavement Pounding - Title image

Here are the images in the portfolio, in the order presented to the judge, Judy Parker. Each separate image is a triptych. They show shadows, textures, partially eroded surfaces, weeds, shapes, faults lines in concrete, leaves and more. I did a little work to make the edges of each part of each triptych have a slight sort of torn paper edge.

ROPE_B_1_Pavement Pounding

ROPE_B_2_Pavement Pounding

ROPE_B_3_Pavement Pounding

ROPE_B_4_Pavement Pounding

ROPE_B_5_Pavement Pounding

ROPE_B_6_Pavement Pounding

Judy made her comments on each entered portfolio during a Zoom meeting of the Society on 5 May, sharing the images from her computer monitor screen as she spoke about them. A few days later Judy’s commentary was circulated to all the Society’s members. This is what she said about my portfolio: “A well-observed series of triptych groupings of extremely simple but emotionally gentle subject matter. I found this set very graphically satisfying and quite beautiful. The mix of organic and more geometric surfaces and the linking within and across the sets make this a particularly effective portfolio.”

Judy gave my portfolio a score of 4 out of 5. I was not amongst the top scoring entries. The winning portfolio scored 5. Numerous others scored either 4.5 or 4.

The winner was Marta Yebra with “After the Fire”.

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Judy said it “is a strongly observed, highly graphic and beautifully presented set of four images in the aftermath of recent fires. The high angles, both distant and downwards, give an overview of the general (with the damage contrasting with the distant green) and the detail, with tortured trees and layers of ash. The sequence, including the visual links between images, makes this a highly emotive and successful portfolio. The precision of the detail heightens the starkness of the subject and strengthens the communication.”

The two runners up were Dave Basset’s “Country Pub” and Sarah Ausserlechner’s “Orcas in Alaska”.

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Judy’s comments: “All in the one location and presumably on the same occasion, this very well executed and presented set of people studies, passing in front of a country pub and its occupants, is particularly well-timed and empathetic. Crisp captures, entertaining in their identification of character (even the Renaissance portrait in the window), these are a wonderful set of characters in an iconic location.”

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Judy’s comments: “A very well-photographed set of four Orcas in motion. I love the water details as well: ripples, spray, bow waves and the neutral tones of cold water. Precise focus and stop-motion: “the frozen moment” literally. Whether formation, solo or interactive groupings, the format and presentation of this group of images make it a clearly seen and empathetic description of a rare sight. Including the strongly motivated male. A very well-integrated set. Well done.”