Shadow Portraits 2002
Sue Ford: Shadow Portraits
by Anne Ferran ©
In Sue Ford's Shadow Portraits nineteenth-century studio portraits are strikingly transformed
into very contemporary artworks. In the 1800s thousands of portraits like these were taken in
the photographic studios of places like Melbourne, Geelong and Ballarat. The setting was
always the same - a painted backdrop of European origin, a carved chair, balustrade or plinth,
a flourish of drapery. It seems ironic now that such a second-hand, old-world setting would be
the one used to declare the success of a colonial life - for such was the intention of those
In Ford's images the studio settings survive - a little faded, the borders foxed - but the bodies
have undergone a startling transformation. Each one has been invaded by other, more
mysterious elements. Where faces and bodies used to be there are twigs, stems, gum leaves,
fern fronds - a delicate interweaving in black and white. The effect is startling and beautiful. The vegetal mottlings seem entirely alien to
the stiffly-positioned bodies yet occasionally there are affinities; a skeleton-leaf suggests a gauzy mantilla, fern fronds Circling a skirt
look like embroidery worked by a giant hand.
As often in Ford's work, it is shaped by her everyday
experience, and bears traces of her hand. She has described
gathering scraps of leaf litter for the images from long-familiar
places in the bush, of being conscious of the fragility of that
other reality, always underfoot. Her touch is evident in the
occasional waywardness of the silhouettes, the sharp un-
smoothness of the outline where bodies were cut out by hand,
sharply, with a knife. In these re-worked portraits Ford has
chosen to question the colonial reality of these nineteenth-
century forebears at exactly the moment when they were trying
hardest to confirm it. If they felt a secret anomaly at work in
their lives what better place than a formal portrait to contain
and conceal it?
A history of selective visibility must surely be what the title, Shadow Portraits, is about. It makes reference to Australia's shadow-history
and the ghosts that keep coming back to haunt it. This is not surprising since a sense of history as layers of time that reach up to and
embrace the present has been a constant in Ford's work for a long time.
This awareness of history as a continuing site of contest is perhaps even more strongly evident in the three accompanying pieces, the
collage works collectively titled Van Dieman's Land Suite. The leg irons, 'magpie suit' and convict hoods of Mask and the contemporary
land-rights protesters of The March are clearly locked in an ongoing engagement. Chronologically the VDL Suite are the earlier works,
predating the Portraits by 4 years.
It is nearly a decade since the Shadow Portraits and the Van Dieman's Land Suite were first seen as large-scale laser prints at the
National Gallery of Victoria, part of Ford's 1994 solo exhibition, Time Surfaces. Their re-emergence now demonstrates, among other
things, how much has changed in the last decade. Back then hard questions about the European occupation of this country surfaced
only intermittently. Now they are with us constantly.
Perhaps it can be seen more clearly now that the past of the Shadow Portraits, for all their nineteenth-century origins, is not distant at
all. It is the same past the present is steeped in, the one we are living with now.