There is much to enjoy about the work of Trent Parke, Australia’s sole member of the prestigious Magnum Photographers group. The Black Rose is an extensive exhibition based around fourteen books or diaries he has put together over recent years especially for this event and all find their calling from the sense of loss and despair arising from the death of his mother of a sudden asthma attack at his young age of 12.
It is these two influences that dominate the exhibition, both in substance and structure. The books contain Parke’s own writings and from there images congregate around both the text and in their connection to each other. For example, there is a wall dedicated to images around fish and then amongst them the form of a cactus that aligns with the images of fish skeletons. Elsewhere, Parke draws the even more abstract connection between scattered spindly trees on the outback savannah and ants on a Jatz Cracker biscuit.
But, it is the effect of his mother’s death that permeates so much on display as Parke seeks to both revisit and reclaim her and the childhood that was blanked out as a result. There is the found strand of her hair and other keepsakes found, moved or broken. There is the solidity of the family home lost as it gives way to the wrecker’s ball for the development of some McMansion. But there is also an agony unresolved that haunts him and, in time, the viewer with so many images of death, of living without necessarily being alive or the ever present spectre of imminent, unplanned death, such as we see in pictures with the spider inhabiting her web just waiting for a bug’s error and a giant whale washed up and now rotting ashore, its size highlighted by the presence of one his sons playing away in the near distance.
Even though gripped by this unease, there is also much to joyfully appreciate in individual images. One of Parke’s first virtues is his breadth of subject matter and approach. This is not a photographer who feels bound by a typecasting from previous successes and beyond his keen eye is an even greater intellectual sensibility about the world around us.
The second feature is the uniquely Australian perspective on that world. While reflecting his travels around the country as part of the creative process, Parke nonetheless embraces everything from sand dunes to sleepy lizards and then slugs. Then amongst the fauna and flora he also presents a certain beauty in death and decay, parched outback plains, ants and bats. There are the simple concepts – sunsets (albeit each day for a year), his daughter dancing on ochre dust – to the rewards of patience with night captures of wildlife, most particularly a passing shark at West Beach and the adrenalin rush of a croc encounter.
But one should not view Parke’s work as being locked in the world of serious contemplation as there is much humour to be found in gems such as Jem and blue swimmer and Cemetery.
While his black and white prints are the most successful, as mentioned, experimentation and a mind unconstrained by precedent all help make The Black Rose the most significant photographic exhibition this town has seen in many a year; poignant, affecting and powerful in equal measure. Without doubt it was the highlight of this year’s Festival’s visual arts component.
Kryztoff Rating 4.5K