© Cleared / image missing

Justine VARGA

Edge 2014-15
Collection Title: Accumulate
Place made: Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Materials & Technique: photographs, type C prints, chromogenic photograph, hand printed Edition: 3/5

Dimensions: sheet 123.0 h x 98.5 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 2015
Accession No: NGA 2015.893
Image rights: © Justine Varga, courtesy Stills Gallery, Sydney

When we think of photography we naturally think of a camera, even if it is just as an icon on our smart phone. The two go hand in hand. But we can take the camera out of the equation and still have photography. All we need is light. Indeed, the Greek roots of the word literally mean ‘drawing with light’.

Camera-less photography has existed from the very beginnings of photography and has never lost its appeal. The earliest successes, though they quickly faded in light, were made by Thomas Wedgwood, son of the famous potter Josiah Wedgwood. He directly placed objects onto light-sensitised paper and leather to capture their silhouettes. Other pioneers, such as William Henry Fox Talbot, one of the men credited with the invention of photography, similarly experimented in this way, although Talbot also used little cameras that Constance, his wife, affectionately called ‘mousetraps’.

Images made by light alone, without the aid of a camera, are understandably appealing to many contemporary practitioners, as a reflex to our increasing digital engagement with the world, particularly through photography. One significant Australian artist exploring the possibilities of this technique today is Justine Varga, whose work is in the NGA’s new display of Australian art. She is particularly interested in the relationship between photography and time, and her images are often produced through long exposure times. Sometimes, months on end are captured in a single image on film. Her images, Varga says, ‘shift the decisive moment, stretch it out and collapse it again’. An eloquent description.

During a 2014 Australia Council residency in London, Varga produced her series Accumulate, which she made by strategically placing light-sensitive film in different parts of her studio—in the entrance, on window ledges and so on. She allowed the film to expose over many weeks, and this slow build-up of information resulted in the shimmering planes of colour we see in her finished prints. These are photographic works created by the world but free from obvious reference to it.

Many photographers over the years have returned to this pioneering way of making images: Man Ray produced images of strange and enigmatic beauty in the 1920s and, around the same time, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, a Hungarian émigré working at the Bauhaus school of art and design, also took the process to new heights. Rare and wonderful examples by Man Ray, Moholy-Nagy, Jacques-André Boiffard, György Kepes and Roger Parry can be seen alongside other highly important photographs from the NGA’s collection in the exhibition The world is beautiful, now on show in Canberra only until 10 April.

Anne O’Hehir, Curator, Photography

in artonview, issue 85, Autumn 2016