Paul Hetherington and Jen Webb, Watching the world (Review)

Hetherington and Webb, Watching the worldI hope it’s not condescending to suggest, at this time of year, that a book would make a good Christmas present? I know some publishers, and fair enough too, choose around now to release certain types of books deemed to be good gift material. That, however, is not the case with this book, Watching the world, as it was in fact published back in July. It’s just that I’m reviewing it now and, quite coincidentally, I think it would make a good Christmas book. This is not because it’s a light, easy summer read, as it’s not your typical beach book, but because it’s a very attractive book that is priced reasonably and that can be enjoyed in multiple ways. You can meander through it sequentially, stopping to ponder, or dip in and out, exploring what catches your fancy.

Subtitled Impressions of Canberra, Watching the world comprises poems by Paul Hetherington paired with photographs by Jen Webb. It has a rather interesting genesis, as the Introduction explains, in that it’s the “result of an extended collaboration” between the poet and the artist. Their aim was to explore Canberra as a place in which people live and work, rather than, as is usually the case, as a planned city that is also the national capital. I like that idea. Too often Canberra is used as shorthand for the federal government – as in “Canberra said today ….”. But, as we who live here know, there is far more to Canberra than that.

Hetherington and Webb’s method of working was interesting too. They worked, they say, semi-independently:

Jen took photographs, which Paul then used as springboards into poems. Paul’s poems led, in turn, to Jen taking new photographs, or editing existing ones.

They continued this “iterative process” until they found “enough poem-photo pairs” that would satisfy their intention. They suggest that in this method of working a new “reality” appeared, one that was somehow separate both from themselves as individuals and from their partnership, a reality which confronted them with ideas about “the incommensurability of world, image and word”. That makes sense to me – I think! At least, it makes sense to me that we never can completely or exactly capture in one form – say poetry – that which is in another form – in this case life in Canberra. It seems both obvious and sophisticated at the same time to make this point! And so, when you have a poem and a photograph both “commenting” on each other and on life in Canberra, then the meaning (or the “reality”) surely becomes multi-layered? Hmmm … I think I’ll leave the philosophising here, but I hope that I’m making sense and that I’ve understood what Hetherington and Webb are saying.

Now, I’ll get to more concrete stuff (a very poetic word, that), starting with the wider project. In the Introduction, again, we are told that it was initially produced as an installation for the Imagine Canberra exhibition during Canberra’s 2013 centenary celebrations. It then had a couple of other iterations – at a conference, and as a set of scholarly essays – before finding its way into this book form this year. I love that they have managed to achieve such varied mileage out of their work.

And finally, the book itself. The poem-photo pairs are divided into three sections – Where we live, Memory places, and Paddocks and perambulations. They are, as you’d expect from the process described, idiosyncratic, although there is logic too to the groupings. The first poem-pair is titled “Waltz” and captures the physical sense of Canberra. I was amused by the poem’s opening:

Like algebra, these straight-drawn streets,
curves, crescents and rounding circles

Starting with the “straight-drawn streets” must surely be a little provocative gesture to the popular cry from tourists that they get lost in Canberra’s circles! We do, I’m sure, have far more traditionally designed streets than circular ones. It’s just that the circular pattern is a feature of the inner, early Canberra where tourists focus. The accompanying image is a low aerial shot of a warm, cosy looking Canberra suburb in autumn. The poem suggests that there is magic in Canberra, that for all the apparent “algebra” in its straight lines and curves, there is much here that cannot be easily defined or narrowed down to simple formulae.

The poems vary in tone. There is, for example, a subdued reference to indigenous inhabitants in “Ainslie”, whimsical self-deprecation in the simply titled “Canberra”, and wry or defiant humour in “Letter”. At least, it made me laugh: a woman hands her letter to someone, perhaps a husband she is leaving:

‘I know it’s not done
to be so formal
but just this once
I’d like the last word’

The accompanying image shows the back of a blue car driving away in light rain.

Sometimes the meanings of the poems and the connections with the photography are clear and unambiguous, more literal perhaps. Other times they are more tenuous, or abstract, as in “Handkerchief” with its accompanying leaf-litter image, encouraging the reader-viewer to delve further. I enjoy these challenges. It would be interesting to see whether different combinations challenge different readers.

The images are, of course, important, though being primarily a verbal/textual person, my focus tends to be the words. However, there are some gorgeous images here. I’ve mentioned a couple already. I also like the mystical tone of the poem-photo pair titled “Boundaries”, the sense of coming into and out of our different spiritual and physical selves, our individual and our social selves, and so on. A simple image and a two-line poem. Perfect.

Some of the pieces are universal, that is, they could apply to a lot of places in which people live, but many draw on signs and symbols familiar to Canberrans – the circles, the balloons, and Black Mountain Tower, for a start. We are a bush capital, and along with our trees come the birds. I enjoyed the cheekiness of the poem titled “Birds” (and the accompanying image setting movement against stillness) which suggests that for all the planning, life in the city might have other ideas. If you are now intrigued, have a look at the sample provided online by Blemish Books. That will probably speak louder than my 1000 words!

Watching the world is a quietly subversive work that looks at Canberra from an insider’s point of view – with a lot of affection but a willingness to cast an acerbic or questioning eye at times too. And remember, it’s Christmas soon!

Paul Hetherington and Jen Webb
Watching the world: Impressions of Canberra
Canberra: Blemish Books, 2015
ISBN: 9780994250827

(Review copy courtesy Blemish Books)

Villainesses thriving in Canberra

Now I know many Australians see Canberra, their national capital, as a soulless, boring, sliced-white-bread sort of place but not so. There is life here. Art is happening – and it’s fresh, vibrant and young. Not all our young people have left (yet!).

Last night Mr Gums and I went to the opening of a collaborative exhibition organised by a group of twenty-somethings. The theme was Villainess. It was chosen, as one of the collaborators Georgia Kartas wrote in the foreword of the accompanying booklet,

for its surface-level but nonetheless undeniable badassery. Heroes have quests, villains have motives.

This is not a politically-focussed feminist exhibition as its name could suggest – though by its very existence it makes a statement about young women and their sense of self, their confidence, their willingness to get out there and do something for themselves. No, in fact it’s a fashion photo shoot exhibition. It is fun, clever, wicked – and it is stylish, as you’d expect from a fashion shoot. You can read something about its origin and the creation process at hercanberra and at Georgia Kartas’ redmagpie blog.

The collaborators were Elly Freer (photographer), Laura McCleane (make-up artist), and Georgia Kartas (fashion editor). The clothing, the hairpieces, the props were all sourced locally.

The photographic subjects are – of course – villainesses and they were chosen by the models – Elly, Laura, Georgia and their friends. There are ten villainesses, and they come from literature, popular culture and mythology, ranging from the very modern, such as Elle Driver from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, to the very classic, like Medusa.

We loved the exhibition. The photographs are beautiful, and exude a delightful, but intelligent, irreverence which characterises the ethos of the exhibition. A lot of thought has clearly gone into the event, including the production of an accompanying booklet which contains written responses to the villainesses by local writers. These responses give the exhibition an extra dimension – reflective, and often satirical, or tongue-in-cheek. I particularly enjoyed Eleanor Malbon’s response to Elle Driver who was modelled by Elly Freer (what a coincidence in names here!) in which she manages to spoof both Quentin Tarantino and James Cameron (Avatar):

… All together, the problems of the world make a charge at Driver.

Flesh meets steel as she wields her swords. Elle Driver dunks soil erosion in a bucket full of gypsum. She rips the mask off charity programs to reveal their reinforcement of material inequality. Her bullets fly through the heart of the underlying causes of biodiversity loss.

You get the picture I’m sure. The booklet itself, designed by Sheila Papp, is a lovely piece of art and a fabulous memento of the exhibition.

Yep, a good night in which we saw the next generation of artists-creators strutting their stuff. What fun!

Kaori Gallery, Cnr London Circuit and Hobart Place, Civic
7-9 November, 2013

Disclosure: I have known the photographer since she was a baby. Go Elly!

William Gilpin and travel photography

Yes, I know that William Gilpin, about whom I wrote in my last post, died before photography, though only just. He died in 1804 and, according to Wikipedia, the first permanent photograph produced by a camera was made in 1826. However, the notion of cameras – through the camera obscura – was already well known. This, however, is not really the subject of today’s post. The subject is the third essay in his Three essays, which is titled “On the art of sketching landscape”.

The thing is that this essay reminded me of travel photography because his main focus is “taking views from nature” the intention of which, he says

may either be to fix them in your own memory – or to convey, in some degree, your ideas to others.

Aren’t these our two main aims in taking travel photographs? That is, to help us remember our travel and/or to share out experiences with others?

He then goes on to give advice about how to sketch, some of which is specifically about the tools and implements of sketching, but some of which relates more broadly to composing pictures. For example, he writes of getting “the best point of view” for the scene you wish to sketch (or, for us, to photograph), stating that “a few paces to the right, or left, make a great difference”. He’s right there. There are times when I’ve been too lazy, or felt I didn’t have enough time, to walk about looking for the best aspect, only to be sorry later when I’ve seen someone’s better photograph of the same scene.

And he talks about “scale”, that is,

how to reduce it [the scene] properly withing the compass of your paper: for the scale of nature being so very different from your scale … If the landscape before you is extensive, take care you do not include too much: it may perhaps be divided more commodiously into two sketches …

Today of course we can take panoramic photos, and we can enlarge (or crop) to our heart’s content when we download our images onto our computers. Still, the better the original photo, the easier later editing is, eh?

His advice then starts to get more interesting, because he goes on to differentiate between making a sketch that “is intended merely to assist our own memory” and one “intended to convey, in some degree, our ideas to others“. These latter sketches, he says, “should be somewhat more adorned”. Now, part of this adornment is simply about the detail. A sketch to remind us of what we have seen may only require “a few rough strokes”, while one that is to convey something to others who have no idea of the place, needs “some composition … a degree of correctness and expression in the out-line – and some effect of light”.

But, he then goes further to suggest that “nature is most defective in composition; and must be a little assisted”. In other words, it is alright “to dispose the foreground as I please”. Yes, fair enough. We do this often, don’t we, in composing or enlarging/cropping photos? But, it is also alright, he says, to take further liberties:

I take up a tree, and plant it there. I pare a knoll, or make an addition to it. I move a piece of paling – a cottage – a wall – or any removable object, which I dislike.

He qualifies this, though, by saying that “liberties … with the truth must be taken with caution”. We should not, he says, introduce “what does not exist” but can make “those simple variations … which time itself is continually making”.

All this made me think of photography, digital in particular, and how easy it is to remove or modify or manipulate an image to make it look better … and made me realise that no matter what tools we have to hand, this is something we have always liked to do. And this is the point that Gilpin is making with his theory of “the picturesque” because, if you remember the definition I gave in my previous post, it is about “that peculiar kind of beauty, which is agreeable in a picture”.

What I take away from all this – ignoring Gilpin’s tendency to pomposity and prescription, for which he was, fairly I think, satirised – is that he is talking about the difference between “reality”, or what is actually there, and an aesthetic “truth” relating to the ideas (and even feelings*) conveyed by the scene. And that makes sense to me.

Fedra Olive Grove

Gilpin would not like the rows of olive trees here, but would probably like the irregular somewhat rough tree.

* There is, I believe, much academic debate about whether Romanticism rejected or extended the ideas of the Picturesque. I’m inclined to think it’s not a case of either/or but a more complex development.