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Shadow Portraits 2002

Catalogue essay

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

images.

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.