Last Light 2007
Sue Ford: Not Blinded by the Site
by Ashley Crawford ©
All artists, regardless of medium, are involved in the act of looking, of trying to pin down in
some concrete form (even if just momentarily) an impression, a place. They share certain
attributes with private detectives and forensics experts, archeologists and scientists –
investigators who take the slimmest threads to compile a final, dense tapestry of information.
This most certainly applies to Sue Ford who, in a 46-year career, has never tired of the most
rigorous investigations. Talking with Ford, one walks away having been barraged by a morass
of broiling ideas, a sense of an analytical intellectualism meeting a poetic lyricism.
But Ford is neither a purebred conceptualist or a fuzzy romantic. Indeed, if anything she has
found an almost ideal balance between the intellect and the felt which has been articulated
most recently in her unique balancing act between the digital and the ‘painterly’.
That she is on a mission is beyond dispute. The various bodies of work that constitute her career have each required grueling research
and she is not adverse to taking risks, both in the adventures she undertakes to garner her information and in her presentation – which
more than once has raised eyebrows and, upon occasion, political ire.
With Ford’s work we have to go beyond, or perhaps beneath,
the obvious. In her recent series Last Light she subverts the
role of photographer by taking photographs of photographers.
There is both a sly humour at play here and a considered
analysis of contemporary human interaction with ‘nature.’
Ford raises some intriguing issues in these works. By
photographing the photographer, rather than the sunset itself,
she is adding a narrative about the human condition, the
notions of awe and the sublime which her tourist
photographers seem to think can be captured with a digital
click. But she is doing something further here. Almost
inadvertently she has simultaneously taken her own stunning
sunset pictures and images of twilight moments with the
figures superimposed, almost heroically, taking on a similar
role to that of the figures captured in the works of the German
romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, the master of the
Last Light is essentially a continuation of the work entitled Videoland that was shown at the NGV in 1994. “This work is looking at
photography, landscape and illusion referencing the digital world where everybody is now a photographer,” Ford says. “I have chosen to
work with this subject in a digital mode, intentionally using the particular qualities of digital imaging to produce this body of work.”
The result, almost despite the media, is distinctly painterly and impressionistic – a far cry from most digital photography shown today.
But it also highlights the media-saturated condition of contemporary life – everyone today, it seems, is a director, creating their own
sense of reality.
But there is also an extraordinarily powerful sense of ‘place’ in these works, an element even more strongly explored in her other recent
series, Site Unseen. Here the mysteries deepen and Ford as both detective and archeologist comes to the fore. Unlike the traditional
romantic notion of Australia’s white beaches, Ford digs beneath the surface, discovering artifacts and histories. The “veil of texts” as she
dubs them, which lay over the works could, with variations, be applied anywhere on this vast continent with its hidden histories – hidden
both through time and through a more contemporary governmental policy of denial.
In these works Ford’s veil of text suggests are far deeper history to the site she has chosen to document. Her unknowing collaborators,
the archeologists who have investigated the region, had discovered stone flints cut in accordance with Aboriginal tools. Suddenly these
beach-side bush scenes take on far deeper cultural and historical significance; she has combined the potentially mundane with the
overtly studious to create an alchemical boiling point of meaning and significance.
“Being on site knowing even a small amount of the history, changes the experiences of being in that particular site,” she says. Her
interest in Indigenous history alongside that of white history in this country has created a rare blend. “This juxtaposing of the text and
images is intended to work like a kind of a ‘Time Mirror’, she says. “The viewer will really only see in it what they are able. I like to leave
it open to different readings and not make any political statement.”
In 1974 Sue Ford was the first Australian photographer to be given a solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria with her now
famous Time Series. Her work has always touched a nerve, perhaps in large part due to what she describes as her “interest in Australian
history and the relationship between past and present and the nature of impermanence.”
Ford studied photography at RMIT in Melbourne and since 1971 she has had numerous photographic exhibitions. She has also made
films which have achieved critical success, such as Faces which was featured at the opening of the new Australian Centre for the
Moving Image, at Federation Square. She has featured in numerous major exhibitions and, over the years, Sue Ford has helped
establish photography as the cutting edge of contemporary art.