This is Suburbia

Photography Review

Davey Barber | This is Suburbia

Canberra Contemporary Art Space – East Space Gallery

and Belconnen Arts Centre – Window Gallery

Until 29 November 2020

Davey Barber has set out to explore the place that raised him, the Canberra suburbs, for his debut exhibition This Is Suburbia. Commissioned by Craft ACT for the 2020 DESIGN Canberra festival, these photos document something of Canberra’s suburban streets.

It is unusual to have one exhibition shown across two locations, as is the case here. At Belconnen there are six images of Belconnen suburbs. At the East Space Gallery, on the shore of Lake Burley Griffin, there are a further ten prints from other suburbs.

Barber’s intention was to document characteristics that he believes make suburbs instantly recognisable, both to residents and to their visitors. He shows dwellings, shops, laneways, parks, and a couple of residents. To emphasise our ‘Bush Capital’, the photographs also cover our four very distinct seasons. They are candid and storytelling, but nobody has been asked to smile for his camera.

In an exhibition catalogue essay, a National Gallery of Australia Curator of Photography, Annie O’Hehir, says “It’s something special to have your city reflected back at you through the lens of a camera…..what the camera is capable of doing….shows us….what our usual distracted, glancing, preoccupied way of seeing does not…” This is spot on. It is why good photographers speak of seeing, rather than simply looking. Until we truly see, we do not get the best images.

I have lived in seven suburbs since arriving in Canberra: Reid (in a hostel), Ainslie (in a house, with my parents and siblings), Braddon (briefly in a backyard caravan), Hackett (my newly built first house), Bruce (briefly, in a townhouse), Melba (a second-hand house for a new relationship), and now Lawson (brand new townhouse in a complex). Viewing this exhibition, and thinking back over the years, I recalled various characteristics of each suburb. The long-established gardens of Reid. Things that became our landmarks as my brother and I regularly walked between Ainslie and Civic via Braddon. Laneways and shopping centres.

Two of Barber’s images are of specific businesses that I know – a suburban take-away a short walk from one of my homes, and a restaurant that I visited in the past. So, I was reminded of specific things and memories associated with them.

In addition to the shops already mentioned, we see street views of houses – hidden by closed shutters or large trees, small ghostly figures gathering for community sport on fog-shrouded parkland, a boat “parked” in a laneway, a resident mowing his grass, a backyard, the floodlit exterior of a supermarket alongside an empty carpark, a skateboarder passing through one of our ubiquitous tunnels, and a carwash with no clients on a foggy night.

5. Untitled 5 © Davey Barber
3. Untitled 3 © Davey Barber
9. Untitled 9 © Davey Barber
12. Untitled 2 © Davey Barber
13. Untitled 3 © Davey Barber
16. Untitled 6 © Davey Barber

If we look carefully, we not only see these things but also hear sounds and smell odours. Unfortunately, viewing the prints in the new Window Gallery at Belconnen was spoiled by reflections each different time of day that I visited. Barber himself is disappointed that it is not possible to get close and see the details in his imagery. I hope these problems can be overcome as the concept is good, providing a space where passing pedestrians can both see exhibits and be enticed to go inside and see more there.

Puzzlingly, two of the prints displayed at Belconnen are not in the catalogue, whilst two that are in the catalogue are not in the Window.

Also, in the East Gallery, there are the semi-finalists and finalists in the Sweet Suburbia: 2020 Photography Competition which sought responses to the ‘This is Suburbia’ theme. That is appropriate as Barber was one of the judges.

This review was first published in the Canberra Times on 16.11.20 and on its Website here. It is also on the Canberra Critics Circle blog here.

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