Sue Ford photographs document face of cultural change

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NGV Australia

Federation Square. Melbourne

Until August 24 2014

A large architectural drum sits in the gallery, plastered with photographic reproductions of Roman portrait busts. At first this cylindrical bunker looks like a joke: sculpture in the round, which is in fact flat, a photographic surface that has been bent over a convex support.

But it changes when you walk around and discover an entrance, giving onto a large circular booth with twin projection. The screen on the left shows a person’s face looking awkwardly into the camera, creating uncomfortable and tightly cropped footage. The other side reveals the same person in the same situation a decade or more later.

The contrast isn’t joyful but nor is it mere documentation of the loss of youth, as if charting the sitters’ decline from a gorgeous mixture of shyness and sparkle to the wear and tear of ageing. The depredations of time morbidly express an inevitable slippage of life toward the grave.

This discourse was exhausted by baroque poets like Shakespeare – who loved to describe how we’re destined to rot – and was explored by painters since Masaccio’s day. But Sue Ford (1943–2009) had another agenda in this work that carries the simple title Faces 1976-1996.

When she took the original footage from 1976, she would not necessarily have predicted her return decades later to film the same souls to witness the attrition of time. She would have been more interested in the attrition of the camera, that ocular menace that records more than is polite, that rudely calls for a response, for something unusual, a demonstration of charm or uniqueness.

Against this expectation of performativity, Ford’s models are unprepared to sustain a stylish act. They don’t know where to look. They gaze into the camera and smile, as is conventional in still photography; but the gesture doesn’t work for long with moving images, because the smile fades; it grows heavy on the face from the moment it reaches its climax; and so what should one do in the refractory period, where the smile becomes stiff and is desperate to relax?

For Ford’s sitters, this embarrassment seems easier to handle after a decade or so. The older faces are more confident and are better able to hold the gaze. While looking at the camera, they can invent a miniature narrative that takes them from the challenge of the first encounter to the disappointment and anxiety of “what next”?

Ford selected outdoor garden environments for her live portraits where the wind is blowing. At once familiar and unsettled, the atmosphere of these silent films emphasises a brittleness in life, as if we’re harrowed by time as dead leaves may be scattered by the wind.

The installation is like a circular temple or tholos from antiquity, as if it might bear an archaeological title like the Temple of the Winds (the name of the rotunda in our Botanic Gardens); and its convexity covered in sculpture recalls the reliefs on a Roman triumphal column.

For all her learning, there was never a less pretentious artist than Ford. Her artistic projects were both ambitious and casual, a combination already manifest in Faces, which is both austere and informal, gathering the almost random responses of friends in front of a 16mm movie camera.

The large Ford retrospective at the NGV reveals a heterogeneous oeuvre, but with a consistent interest in people. Much of her work is documentary, photographing friends and personal networks, which included significant women’s groups, activists and indigenous communities.

The process of ageing was not an obsession, more a curiosity akin to Ford’s interest in individuals who handle cultural change. Her work places us among people who are engaged in the politics of gender, class and race in a way that is magically both grand and self-effacing.

Like many in her generation, Ford acquired an ambivalent attitude towards the aesthetic properties of her medium. Many of her works are stimulating but not strikingly beautiful, including the pieces that self-consciously exploit double-image techniques.

Paradoxically, for an artist so interested in other people, her best photographs are her self-portraits; but none of her photography, with its great documentary value, reaches out to the audience as much as her embarrassed fortress of Faces.

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