Sydney Morning Herald Metropolitan 20 April 2004
Beyond fashion to fine portraiture
Juno Gemess collection bears witness to Aboriginal life and icons, writes
April has proved to be an expansive month for photography in
Sydney. Juno Gemess Proof exhibition has successfully transferred
from Canberras National Portrait Gallery to the elegant on-campus exhibition
space at Macquarie University.
Gemess Proof show represents 30 years of documenting
the emergence of the Aboriginal movement in Australia. It is frequently elegiac
in its assembly of images with departed cast members of the drama of 20th-century
Aboriginality present in image, if not in life from elegantly dressed
iconoclast Burnham Burnham to poet Oodgerooo Noonuccal and inevitably, Charles
Burnham Burnham, once known as Harry Penrith, is photographed
in 1984 standing next to fellow NSW South Coast identity Guboo Ted Thomas. This
picture carries the trademark easy rapport of Gemess other images.
Even when her subjects are looking close to camera, Gemess
presence is barely noticed, so easily is her role as a photographer accepted.
One picture which particularly arrested me was of dancer Lois
Cook, photographed deep in rocky bushland near Sydney. As part of a fashion shoot
organised by Gemes using Aboriginal models wearing garments with indigenous motifs,
Cook reveals a presence infinitely more powerful than the vacuous chic usually
associated with fashion. Cooks prideful gaze easily ferried this image from
fashion into fine portraiture.
Gemess artlessly diarist approach to covering political
change for black Australia suggests that photographic artistry was never her first
Indeed, there is a certain unevenness to Gemess printing
style, but this photographers successful witnessing of political change
in recent Australian history outweighed any minor technical reservations I might
Ultimately I was more impressed by Gemess ability to be
present at important intersections in political history such as the handback
of Uluru to the traditional owners in 1985. Occasionally, however, images tilted
from reportage into rough surrealism as with the eerie Two Members of the Stolen
Generation, Alice Springs 2000 where the women were photographed on stage
watched over by a ghostly, much larger video projection of themselves.