Dark poet: Trent Parke's The Black Rose

Installation view of  Trent Parke: The Black Rose , Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2015. Photo: Pedro de Almeida.

Installation view of Trent Parke: The Black Rose, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2015. Photo: Pedro de Almeida.

A decade ago, unbeknownst to him, I witnessed Australian photographer Trent Parke at work. Passing through Sydney’s Martin Place I recognised Parke watching and waiting, as nimble as a gymnast, arms raised with fabled Leica in hand, lining up the contingencies of urban life in his viewfinder. As an assortment of pedestrians stood in line waiting to cross Elizabeth Street, a narrow strip of high-noon sun pierced city blocks, perfectly spotlighting this human traffic. Later, coming across the resulting photograph of this encounter as part of his 2005 series Coming Soon, I wasn’t surprised to see that Parke’s visual mastery relies not just in a magician’s timing and sleight of hand, but in his ability to render the most light-filled continent on earth in cavernous darkness. Armed with a mere black box with a hole in it, Parke tests the limits of mechanically engineered silver halide crystals to render the numinous as dramatically as Caravaggio achieved using oil on canvas in picturing Saint Matthew at the moment of his conversion.

In forging a visual signature of high-contrast, graphically powerful and almost palpably textured monochromatic slices of life, one feels that Parke’s dedication to blackness as symbol and substance is comparable to religious fervour. One needs to have the uncompromising attitude of the zealot, the devoted drive of the pilgrim and a touch of the preternatural seer to have achieved Parke’s stature in his chosen medium. Over a bit more than a decade, beginning with his first solo body of work Dream/Life & Beyond (2002), moving through to the landmark exhibition Minutes to Midnight at the Australian Centre for Photography (2005), followed by his admission as Australia’s first and only full member of the prestigious (some might say pretentious) photo co-op Magnum (2007), Parke has built a career that has garnered international accolades and widespread admiration among his peers, even if real and testing critical evaluation has eluded the work’s deeper significance [1]. Now, as evidenced by The Black Rose, Parke’s monumental presentation at the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) in Adelaide, it’s clear that general audiences and critics alike owe him more than a little reciprocal effort in getting to grips with the full spectrum of his always wondrous, often perspicacious, sometimes mournful vision. 

The Black Rose represented a major commitment from a state institution to presenting the work of a living Australian photographer not seen since the Art Gallery of New South Wales’s Bill Henson survey of 2005. Taking over the entire basement galleries, the exhibition achieved the immersive experience it patently was aiming for, yet it didn’t quite come together as the cohesive entity it was packaged as by curators Julie Robinson and Maria Zagala. Begun in 2007 after relocating his young family to Adelaide and driven by a deeply personal grappling with memories of a youth marked by the untimely death of his mother as Parke was entering adolescence, The Black Rose testified to the expressionistic power of remarkable eyes yearning for a sense of place in the world. Tender fatherly observance tempered by confessions of loneliness, the epiphanies of suburbia contrasted with the brutality of fact in the desiccated carcass of a rat, the existential attraction of desolate country roads set against magnifications of insects as evocations of a primordial humanity—room by room Parke’s iconography revealed shamanistic tendencies, perhaps in search of a means of healing irrevocable emotional wounds. Punctuated by non-photographic elements—short animations, video sequences and a darkroom developing tray from which emerged a portrait of the artist by means of a rear-mounted screen—many of Parke’s images as presented in the exhibition, though masterfully printed, were beset by incongruities of scale. To be sure, this is a problem that runs rampant in contemporary photography for the obvious historical inferiority complex towards painting and cinema, and yet it was still disappointing to grapple with the occasional imbalance of inordinate physical proportion with delicate psychological import.

In his foreword to the weighty accompanying publication, AGSA Director Nick Mitzevich describes The Black Rose as neither a survey exhibition nor a retrospective, but as an artist-led enterprise that can be experienced as a single work of art. Though not untrue, this is not entirely accurate. Everywhere one turned both gallery and book was awash in prose gleaned from diary notes in the collection of the 14 artist’s books that, in fact, acted as the conceptual and practical catalyst for the exhibition. The inclusion of all this text was for the most part distracting marginalia, a hurdle that recurringly impeded a straight run at the visual artist’s intuition. Indeed, it was constructive to overhear a gallery-goer during my visit, otherwise captivated by all that she saw around her, proclaim: ‘I’m not reading that, it’s too much!’ More than most who might desire to be heralded as heir to Robert Frank’s searching soul-bearing, Parke could—if he immodestly wanted to—try this crown on for size, but he won’t, nor does he need to. Frank’s hope that ‘when people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice’ is, I’m sure, Parke’s too. By this measure alone it’s hard to argue that he is not Australian photography’s dark poet laureate.

[1] See Blair French, 'Minutes to Midnight', Contemporary Visual Art + Culture BROADSHEET, Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Adelaide, vol. 34, no. 1, pp. 52-53.

Trent Parke: The Black Rose, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 14 March - 10 May 2015.

Published in Art Monthly Australia, no. 280, June 2015, pp. 58-59.

© Pedro de Almeida 2015.