Reviews

A Surrounded Beauty, and Portrait

Photography Exhibition Review

A Surrounded Beauty | Sarah Rhodes

Portrait | Melita Dahl

Photo Access | Until 10 July 2021

These two exhibitions explore portraiture. ACT-based artist Melita Dahl investigates connections between the traditions of fine-art portraiture, photography and facial emotion recognition (FER) software.

We all try to understand the meaning of facial expressions. Some believe we recognize anger most easily, others that we recognize happiness most easily. Facial cues may be insincere or misinterpreted. Experts are split even on whether the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile is sincere or forced. The ability to decipher the true intent and emotional response from facial expressions is of great interest to a range of sectors.

Dahl muses on how FER builds on the idea of using the subject’s eyes in photographic portraits as a ‘window to the soul’ – because looking into a person’s eyes supposedly can tell us what that person thinks and feels. Dahl draws our attention to the threat of technology that seeks to determine our psychic state.

Perspective Machine 01, 2020 © Melita Dahl

Each of Dahl’s prints is stunning. The print quality is excellent, with each black clearly distinguishable from a subtly different adjacent black. Excellent portrait lighting is a strong feature of each image. The facial expressions of the subjects are wonderfully controlled.

happy (0.96), 2019 © Melita Dahl

Through a series of posed and, sometimes, overwritten images, Dahl explores the idea of adopting neutral expressions as a strategy for disrupting recognition algorithms. By keeping our faces expressionless, would we be able to protect ourselves from digital surveillance?

Deadpan 9.980549278246, 2021 © Melita Dahl

To quote from a catalogue essay by Gael Newton, ‘Paradoxically, the resulting deadpan neutrality Dahl sought in these portraits is countered by the very ability of naturalistic and digital photomedia to create characters that we as viewers, respond to.’

Discussing these works with other gallery visitors, I heard words such as intriguing, mysterious and sinister used. One person enjoyed the ever so slight smile on the face of just one person in two groups of four young men – the same person in each group.

In A Surrounded Beauty, award-winning photographer Sarah Rhodes investigates the capacity of photographic portraiture to explore concepts of place. She has sought to capture each subject’s aura by using the lens as a link between the person’s inner being and that of the place occupied.

These images challenge traditional concepts of portraiture. Rhodes sees the resulting collaborations with her sitters as stories that meditate on the relationship between self, vulnerability, and landscape. For her, these stories ‘heighten our awareness of place and how the atmosphere of place shapes who we are’. One striking example is a work containing no part of any person’s face or body; rather it shows a group of apples fallen from their tree and lying scattered on the ground below, some partially obscured by shadows. Viewers are left to imagine something of the person who planted the trees, grew them, tends the soil, sweeps the path in that place and, perhaps, consumes the fruit.

Fallen Apples, 2021 © Sarah Rhodes

In another image we see a girl, but the emphasis is on the stormy sky behind; her face is looking down at the landscape beneath her feet. This too is not a traditional portrait, but it is good to see an artist taking an approach that seeks to reveal more about a subject than just their appearance.

Girl Under a Stormy Sky, 2020 © Sarah Rhodes

The catalogue essay by Jessie Boylan observes ‘A Surrounded Beauty, conjures a dream-like world, where people and place are disparate yet connected at the same time. Although they all appear to be weaving different threads, their stories are woven into one.’ I found an image of identical twins on the spectrum fascinating and of particular interest, as it very much weaves the two of them into one.

Mirror Identical Twins on the Spectrum, 2018 © Sarah Rhodes

This review was published in The Canberra Times on 21/6/21 here. It is also on the Canberra Critics Circle blog here.

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