An Expanding Subterra

ARTS, Books, Visual Arts

Back when I was studying photography, our first year programme leader was a guy called Wayne Barrar. It is fair to say that neither I nor any of my classmates knew anything about the man or his work. But at that stage, for most of us, our knowledge of photographers and photographic practice was rather limited. Within weeks, however, Wayne had opened my eyes to what (landscape) photography could be. It needn’t be a beautiful cliché postcard shot, it could have depth and meaning within its surface beauty. It is also fair to say that Wayne has been elemental in my post-education photographic progression, as one would hope university tutors should be.

As much as his own work and approach held great appeal for me, the photographers and movements he introduced me to helped cement my own ideas. Integral amongst these was the New Topographics movement—a 1975 exhibition seen by few but which has been immensely influential. The usual description of New Topographic work is along the lines of ‘photographs that find beauty in the banal’, but it is much more than that. It is photographers moving away from the sublime to examine the human interaction with the environment in such a way that seems to be neither commending nor condemning. (Coincidentally the New Topographics exhibition was recently restaged, and an expanded version of the catalogue has been published.)

It is this model that has driven much of Barrar’s photographic documentation since the mid-1980s. In 2001 Otago University Press published Shifting Nature: Photographs by Wayne Barrar, a small survey book of Barrar’s work which demonstrated both his consistent thematic approach and his wide-ranging technological approach—including ‘traditional’ photography, both black and white and colour, cyanotypes, and paper negatives. Now the Dunedin Public Art Gallery has put out An Expanding Subterra (NZ$55), a companion volume to the exhibition of the same name.

Subterra is a series of images that Barrar has been working on for the last few years. The works reference both contemporary and early photography, while continuing to reshape the landscape genre. Amongst contemporary art photographers there is a movement concerned with photographing human spaces, generally rooms, often less-seen spaces such as museum storage areas, prison cells, computer server rooms and the like. I find very few of these works interesting, partly because of the standardised ‘objective’ approach of the photographers often makes for monotonous images, but largely because I don’t find the spaces themselves interesting and tend to question why the photographer felt it necessary to document those areas

As the title suggests, with Subterra, Barrar has turned his focus to the underground. Inspired by a trip to the Australian opal town of Coober Pedy and the reimagining of old mines as domestic spaces, Barrar started looking elsewhere for similar sites. Inevitably the subsequent sites included working mines in New Zealand and Australia, but also numerous business sites in the US and some New Zealand-dug WWI tunnels in France.

Going against the trend of similar photographers, Barrar’s human spaces are not always people-less. These photos are documenting human encroachment into a very un-human environment, and while this presence is overt, sometimes there is also a literal presence, reminding us that these are actually inhabited environments. Nor do we get a standard roll call of just the spaces, as Barrar often records the detail rather than the whole area, looking at the incongruities, particularly in the domestication of the underground; what Barrar calls the “commodified subterra”.

As a long-time fan of Barrar’s work, it was always likely that I going to be drawn to these images. I’m not going to pretend for a moment that they are entirely original (they have a clear pedigree, and some remind me quite explicitly of recent work by Lewis Baltz), but the sites that Barrar has explored are ones that have been largely hidden from the public gaze and consciousness, and that in itself makes them intriguing works. The fact that Barrar is also a very good photographer with a lovely eye for the frame is an added bonus.

The two accompanying texts by David Pike and Aaron Kreisler are also very good. Pike’s essay, ‘Looking Underground’, is a brief overview of the subterranean, and particularly its representation in art. Pike is a world expert in underground spaces, author of numerous books on the subject, and an academic colleague of Barrar’s. He clearly knows his subject and rounds off the essay with a reasonably in-depth discussion of how Barrar’s work fits within the pantheon of underground art, and photography in particular.

Equally valuable is ‘Ground Control’ by Dunedin Public Art Gallery curator Aaron Kreisler. Primarily looking at Barrar the photographer, Kreisler gives a great summary of Barrar’s background, photographic motivation, and artistic output. Kreisler’s writing is clear and lucid, and even when discussing more technical aspects of art theory he is able to break the language down into plain English. I have not read much of Kreisler’s writing, but thoroughly enjoyed this piece. It serves as a great introduction to Barrar’s work and concerns, this series, and other ongoing projects.

While I would have liked to have seen the exhibition, this book is (I’m sure) a fine substitute, and the 80-plus photos and two essays presented are a great addition to New Zealand photographic record.