For those unfamiliar with the work of the Oculi photographers, this is nevertheless a good introduction to their work; full of several breathtaking photographs…

Helen Frajman

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Dean Sewell, Kangaroo, from the series Canberra Bushfires, 2003, Oculi, Hardy Grant Books, Melbourne, 2010 - Cover

Dean Sewell, Kangaroo, from the series Canberra Bushfires, 2003
on the cover of Oculi, Hardy Grant Books, Melbourne, 2010

This substantial publication marks the first ten years of Oculi, the Australian documentary photography collective.

Established in 2000 by a group of Sydney based photographers including Trent Park, Narelle Autio, Tamara Voninski and Dean Sewell, the group now consists of ten members – Donna Bailey, James Brickwood, Tamara Dean, Jesse Marlow, Nick Moir, Jeremy Piper, Andrew Quilty, Dean Sewell, Steven Siewert and Tamara Voninski.

This book is both a survey of the work of its current members and a celebration of the collective’s longevity and burgeoning success.

Ten years ago a book like this (and a collective of this sort) would both have been considered a starry eyed fantasy.

The climate for documentary photography was not good and many of its practitioners despaired of ever seeing their work in quality publications.  Finding high profile galleries in which to show was equally difficult as the art world exhibited an open hostility towards documentary practice.

Photographic publishing – indeed fine art publishing as a whole, is very limited in Australia, even today. Our very small market coupled with a lack of a strong tradition of art publishing means that producing a book here is commercially unattractive to publishers.

In 2000 it would have been difficult to imagine that a commercial publisher would take a punt on a substantial collection of documentary photographs. In 2010 such a publication is still a brave act, but at least the environment for documentary photography has somewhat altered.

This shift in attitude has of-course a multiplicity of causes, but among them must be considered the emergence of the CCP’s Documentary Photography Award (whose first winner in 1997 was Oculi member Steven Siewert).

Also significant in the softening of attitudes towards documentary photography is the role played by Aladsair Foster, Director of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Photography since 1998, in supporting the work of documentary practitioners – many of them in fact members of Oculi.

In 2000, the early Oculi photographers decided that for them the best way to combat the prevailing sense of despair was to band together and use the then very new medium of the internet to promote themselves and their images.

They did not form a photo agency as such. Their aim was not commercial. As they continued to expand and grow, to lose some of their founding members and gain new ones, their work was picked up by European and American photo agencies, which now distribute their work internationally.

Donna Bailey, Zoe, 2004, Oculi, Hardy Grant Books, Melbourne, 2010 p.176

Donna Bailey, Zoe, 2004

Since 2000, the Oculi photographers have enjoyed remarkable personal success. Each one of them boasts a cornucopia of significant prizes, residencies, grants and awards – both locally and internationally. Individually and collectively they have exhibited broadly throughout Australia and overseas. Indeed, their personal and collective successes must also be counted amongst the reasons for a shift in the perception of documentary photography in Australia today.

For all those interested in documentary photography this book ought therefore be a cause to celebrate too. Unfortunately, this particular publication does not do justice to the individual photographers’ work. Anthologies are intrinsically difficult. Looking at a bunch of different people’s work in a publication means moving from one ‘voice’ to another and often the voices can cancel each other’s impact out.

This is particularly the case when dealing with photographers whose practice is as diverse of those of the Oculi collective. When you have, for instance, the menace-charged images from the 2005 Cronulla riots by Andrew Quilty alongside the intensely personal, moody portraits of her family by Donna Bailey, or Nick Moir’s lyrical shots of dramatic environmental events side by side with Tamara Dean’s constructed images from her Ritualism series replete with art historical references, you have a very heady brew.

This kind of juxtaposition of many artists, many voices, many subjects requires careful editing in order to bring to the viewer an understanding and appreciation of the disparate artists and their work.

Oculi is laid out in a particularly idiosyncratic fashion.

The book mixes extended layouts from each of the photographers with longer melanges of two to four images from a number of them.

Hence a run by Jeremy Piper veers forwards and backwards for ten pages from his images of ship breaking in India to his work from East Timor, segues into Dean Sewell’s photographs from Aceh for two pages and then to Sewell’s images from Chechnya for another two and then to a shot by James Brickwood of an ambiguously gendered person asleep in a debris strewn warehouse.

As there are no titles or section names and captions to the images are at the end of the book, we don’t quite know what (or whose work) we are looking at and the images drift into each other yielding undesired outcomes. In the case of the above-mentioned sequence what are in fact works from several very different series, here becomes a sea of displaced and marginalised people.

This is an unsatisfying way to experience these photographers’ images. Many of the works come from larger series and are much more profound and comprehensible when viewed as discrete bodies of work.

Those images which are allowed that kind of presentation, for example, Jesse Marlow’s lovely little explosions of colour from Don’t Just Tell Them, Show Them, presented here as a continuous group for ten pages, remain in the mind long after the book is closed.

Jesse Marlow, Yellow Square, 2007, from the series Don’t Just Tell Them, Show Them

It’s a very large book (over 250 pages) and by book’s end one is rather wearied by so much variety presented in so confusing a way.

The book’s design alas is also not kind. The paper stock and layout, particularly in the captions section, suggests a more ‘commercial’ venture than a photographic book – something akin to an annual report.
The rather heavy handed use of black backgrounds for many of the images tends also to leach them of life and many images have not been prepared as well as they could have for printing. The black and white images in particular feel somewhat flat and muddy.

Still, for those unfamiliar with the work of the Oculi photographers, this is nevertheless a good introduction to their work; full of several breathtaking photographs including Dean Sewell’s sensational – in every sense of the word perhaps – cover image of a dead kangaroo seared to a burnished glow by bushfire.

Dean Sewell also provides an engaging and frank essay surveying the group’s history and ideological tussles and most intriguingly tells us that below the surface of the collective is ‘a matriarchal undercurrent driven by Voninski, Dean and Autio’.¹ Given the notoriously butch reputation of documentary photography, you’ve got to check out the book on that basis alone!

¹ Dean Sewell, Oculi, Hardy Grant Books, Melbourne, 2010 p vii

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