A master storyteller who works with photography, film and video, Tracey Moffatt is one of Australia’s most renowned contemporary artists.
The image-maker, who has received an RPS Honorary Fellowship, unravels tales often rooted in her own experience besides issues of race, gender, sexuality and identity. Her 2019 work Portals is a series of photographic diptychs, each telling a story that wraps the viewer in a sense of mystery and nostalgia.
“What’s a portal?” she asks her audience during an artist talk at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney, Australia. “A portal is a window or a door into another world, another dimension. The camera for me is just an instrument that takes me places. I try as an artist, with colouration and composition, to make [my work] almost unphotographic – like painting.”
She describes how she created the eerie diptychs using low lighting and shutter speeds in remote, unidentifiable locations. “It was very simple,” she says, “very old fashioned.” The images, although subtly manipulated to create a ghostly effect, are more like paintings than photography, she adds. “I didn’t want the works to look like I’d manipulated them, although I had to keep printing them and printing them and printing them. Yes, they are digital, but there was no reason that the work had to look digital – the warm colouration and so forth.”
Moffatt describes being influenced by the world of art, particularly the work of Edvard Munch who has become synonymous with his haunting painting ‘The Scream’. “I look at painting all the time – [including] Edvard Munch, the great Norwegian painter. I always love how he doesn’t finish the face.” She describes how in her work ‘The Hospital Ship’ the protagonist similarly appears to have no eyes.
Although reluctant to pin down the stories and locations behind Portals, Moffatt gives a little background on four of the diptychs.
‘The Hospital Ship’, 2019, from the series Portals, by Tracey Moffatt HonFRPS
“The nurse is coming out of the water, ghost-like. It’s like she doesn’t know she’s a ghost. She’s coming ashore after the shipwreck and she just wants to make everything right – she’s still working.
“I shot the work on a remote beach [during] cyclone season, with fantastic, crazy skies, first light, really early in the morning. The hospital ship is a fragment, a wreck. I photographed that ship many ways, but … I went with this file that was barely there. I wanted the feeling that perhaps [the ship] was still moving, gliding in.
“That in fact is a real hospital ship, a wreck. It went down in a cyclone in the 1930s. But [the work] also references the true story of the ship that was bombed during 1942 in Morton Bay, the area I come from in Australia. It was torpedoed by the Japanese despite a giant red cross on the side that was lit up, and people perished.”
‘The Outlaw’, 2019, from the series Portals, by Tracey Moffatt HonFRPS
“Who is the outlaw here? I think it’s the horse making a getaway – just that straight run like in a cowboy film. This was photographed late afternoon – it was a nightmare to print this work. I chose this low light, so the original image was just dark blobs. It was a matter of printing and printing and printing, and shifting and shifting the tone. I liken [this process] to music … Bring down the pitch and bring in the base.”
‘The Departure/Arrival’, 2019, from the series Portals, by Tracey Moffatt HonFRPS
“We see a woman with a suitcase, followed by a car. There’s a mansion. We don’t know if the car has dropped her off or if it’s tailing her. I like the story to go many places – it can be read in many ways. I don’t like to put my own decisive reading on my works because then the audience can’t bring their own imagination to the work.
“The woman is of a certain age. It’s afternoon. The building is a French colonial mansion that I found. I do not talk about where the works are shot because I find then it becomes like a documentary. It’s not realism, although I appreciate great documentary photography. Is she arriving, is she leaving? I wanted to print the mansion so it looked a bit Disneyesque. Was it something she aspires to or is leaving?”
‘The Visit’, 2019, from the series Portals, by Tracey Moffatt HonFRPS
“This one is quite spiritual. Something’s going on. Is the woman conjuring the little girl? Is that her as a child? It’s a little bit autobiographical – that is my first memory aged two-and-a half to three, walking around the Aboriginal mission of Cherbourg. (The mission meaning the reservation.) And I toddle around alone, unsupervised, and I visit people. You know in those days when kids weren’t supervised? I ran errands at five or six. Imagine kids now running to the shop.”
All images courtesy of Tracey Moffatt HonFRPS and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney