Remote studio dates is a series of conversations with artists, curators and researchers to document and explore coping mechanisms for isolation in the current health crisis. Each date focuses on one work, project, concept or dream, with digressions and slippages, without the need of ending somewhere but with the desire of opening something up.
It’s 11.30 of a sunny Sunday morning in Bologna, Italy. I am waiting to connect with Michael on Skype from what the pandemic forced me to arrange as a workspace, i.e. my tiny, and not so comfortable, home-desk. It’s almost 8pm in Melbourne and here he is. It hasn’t been long since the last time we heard from each other, but our last encounter dates back to late October 2019, when I was about to leave Australia at the end of my research period at Melbourne University. Since then, Michael has worked on Tether, a very personal story of his journey through cancer while raising his daughter. Early 2000 Michael was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which required ten months of treatment, at a time his daughter was turning one year old. Tether features in the exhibition program of Sydney’s Head On Photo Festival 2020, which is taking place online because of the unfortunate Covid-19 circumstances. We had a chat about his latest series, while also looking back at some cornerstones of his visual research surveying sense of place and connection to his country of the Kimberley, where he moved from in 2018.
C: Nice to see you man. How did Head On start?
M: I haven’t heard much, the exhibition opened on Saturday. Might have been some sales, they usually tell me a week later. With everything being online you only get bits of information.
C: Yeah, how are they assessing the actual response?
M: Hopefully, they have a feedback form or something, otherwise I’m not sure how they’re going to record the traffic. I mean they’ll be able to get all visiting data: how many people visited etc. It will be interesting. Who knows man, who knows.
C: I was curious about how you coped with editing the last bits and pieces from home isolation. Getting to work on the final stages of a series which sheds light on a personal history of disease in the midst of a global health crisis it’s quite an extraordinary circumstance. And this is the first time I see you delving into something so deeply personal and intimate.
M: Yeah it was a funny timing, I guess. I always wanted to do this series and never found the right time in my headspace to create it. I was thinking it would be probably another two years before making a personal work and then for some reason at the end of last year I thought ‘Nah, it’s a good time to do it now’. This year is the 20th anniversary of my treatment, so the time was now.
I knew conceptually it would be quite strong: when someone opens up a personal story it is well received in different levels. Matching the imagery with the story was quite a hard thing because of the limitations of lockdown: going to locations to shoot or finding multiple people to work with. Then it was an abrupt end: when I was really opening up the story of this series, the pandemic happened, and it has put more stress on what I wanted to do. But I was lucky enough, you know, I planned well ahead and I guess it all worked out.
C: At this time last year we talked extensively about your methodology and I know how the formal and aesthetic insights can sit at the back of your mind for a long while until they match with the right story to tell.
M: The concept has been in my head for quite a while, you know, fifteen years at least. I have been sketching ideas to do the show for about two years, and it originally was going to be something with big props and many people. Then the pandemic started, and I ran out of time. I went back to my sketches and I just re-evaluated what made the images and the story work, what was the overall theme. And the overall theme in the end was me feeling alone. So, in that regard I told myself ‘What do I need all these props and scenes for?’ and thought of how I could create the feel of loneliness with colour. I decided I was going to use lot of negative space, make everything black or everything white, but then also add colour, an emotional touch. So, I stripped all that back to just one person, one figure, and to emptiness.
C: What particularly resonated with me in this regard was the vignetting in the blue backgrounds. I find it effective in emphasizing the encircling hand gesture of protection and care, and in stressing the suffused lighting. It renders the idea of a soft ambience, a niche evocative of your inner self as battling with the disease whilst looking after your daughter.
M: Yeah like a light in the dark.
C: Even in the texture. There is no stasis, and the struggle unravels ongoingly.
M: There is a lot of technical stuff I went into: I made sure the subject was in focus, totally sharp, then I allowed some movement. The background is a soft grainy finish, so it is like coming out of that darkness. It’s a pity, I’d love to see them printed.
C: Because, of course, you haven’t yet.
M: I wanted to get them printed life-size, because the print ratio is 1:1, so it is life-size sharpness, which will be amazing to see. I wanted to go down that route of it being technically perfect, but then allowing the colour and the mood to have a bit of a motion, so it was a fine balance.
I’m quite happy with the work. It is very personal, and it is very much about a time of depression. But most of the imagery around and about depression is quite dark. I think the way I shot these works is not dark or gothic or morbid at all, it’s a different kind of emotion, you know?
C: Sure, it is a personal story of sufferance. But the relationship with your daughter is implied, such a pivotal component which makes a lot of warmth radiate from these images. There is a strong physical presence which eschews a translation of depression into powerlessness.
M: I have been getting a lot of great feedback from this series and people are definitely connecting to different images which is good. I think it concerns more of a private market, which is fine, is great, because everyone at the moment is trying to push this whole Captain Cook thing because of the anniversary. Everyone is creating stuff about Cook; that is why I went the other way and did something personal. It was a breath of fresh air!
C: I remember this is actually one of the first topics we discussed in our first conversation over a year ago: the ever-presence of a Captain Cook narrative, whether in its celebration or in its subversion.
M: Yes, because even when people say ‘Oh, we are doing another view on Cook’, just being part of it is still making him strong. Being a part of that conversation is still giving Cook power.
C: I was also curious to have a chat with you about your abstract landscapes since we are currently reconfiguring our relationship to places. Maybe, while living this time of isolation, we are starting to struggle with remembering places sharply, even the most mundane and familiar ones we used to experience in our everyday. Memories are becoming more and more personal, and our perception of the phenomenal reality out there is starting to shift into ideal and intimate recollections. This is something which made me think of your ‘emotional landscapes’.
M: It is all about remembering a landscape through the details and the emotion it gave you. And I think, like you said, being locked up and not being able to go to these places, you could look at photos and say ‘Yeah it does look like that’ but in the end you really feel it when it triggers your emotional memory. I think nowadays we are so used to take photos of anything in landscapes; rather, sitting back and embracing the landscape gets you connected emotionally, it stays with you a lot longer. The point of my abstract landscapes was to do the opposite of the picture-perfect landscape: it starts from what you remember looking, it is about what emotion it gave you and that’s where the colour and textures come in. That’s where I was going to. I had it in my head: ‘How can I do it without showing the perfect photo’, so I looked online and then I didn’t have the money to buy those fancy glasses so I just experimented, you know? It took me nearly 3 years to figure that out.
C: Because you were working on that before moving to Melbourne?
M: Yes. When you do long exposure, you got to do it early morning or before sunset or you are stuck with those really blue or really purple colours and that’s not the feeling I wanted. And that’s when I experimented with the welding glass, to do it in the brighter daylight when the tide is in. It was much about the limitations of the landscape where I am. For example, when the tide comes up to the rocks; it only happens a certain time of the year, at a certain time, so that’s why it took so long, and also depended on me when I was having time to go out and do it. I slowly picked the way, got the glass and then found out that after 1 o’ clock in Broome it was the perfect time to do it and to get all the colours, the reds and blues and greens and yeah… lot of sun tanning!
C: It is indeed interesting to think about it in terms of limitations. That’s why I asked you if you were doing this before moving to Melbourne. Being in the opposite corner of the country of course restricted your chances to visit these places, but then again, I know how up north, even if country hasn’t been taken over by buildings, you have fences everywhere. This adds on to the limitations as well.
M: Yeah, like you said we still got fences that limit us up there. For me to do that kind of abstract landscape work, there’s no real colour here, it only works on certain places, that’s the beauty of it.
C: All you’ve done in Melbourne is studio work right?
M: Yeah. And it’s good because I’m using that limitation as a way of trying new stuff and expanding my storytelling. I’m just trying different ways. So, there’s two or three series I want to start: two in studio, and the third has to be on location. Once this lockdown is over, I can go back home and do some more landscape. There’s a series I want to do with youth, it’ll be quite funny, quite raw.
C: I was trying to experiment a bit from home as well but have never been able to frame ideas from an indoor location.
M: Well, hopefully a lot of people will go out travelling and seeing the land now after this lockdown ends eh? Even for me, I just want to do a drive up the coast. Go back west, drive along, see the country. Photograph the country, photograph the people and tick that box.
Michael Jalaru Torres (b.1976) is an Indigenous photographer and media professional from Broome, Western Australia. As a Djugan and Yawuru man with tribal connections to Jabirr Jabirr and Gooniyandi people, he is inspired by the unique landscapes and people of the Kimberley region, which feature prominently in his work. His photography draws on his own stories and personal history and explores contemporary social and political issues facing Indigenous people. Much of Michael’s work involves conceptual and innovative portraiture and abstract landscape photography. Through his portraits of people taken ‘on country’ he promotes positive and individualised representations of Indigenous people. He also incorporates etching, drawing and other design work into his conceptual photography, combining traditional and iconic Kimberley imagery within a modern aesthetic. Michael is a self-taught photographer and was drawn to photography as a visual medium because of its accessibility and the challenge of capturing stories in single images. He experiments regularly with different mediums and is interested in expanding his photography into installations and motion work and pushing the boundaries of how conceptual photography can be used in virtual reality. Michael’s photography has appeared in exhibitions in Sydney, Perth and regional Western Australia.
Cristiano Capuano is a PhD candidate in Historical, Geographical and Anthropological Studies at the Universities of Padua, Ca’ Foscari Venice, and Verona. His current research revolves around relational networks in Indigenous Australian photography and how they inform issues of identity, memory, and representation, with a specific focus on a documentary legacy emerging from contemporary visual practices. In 2018-2019 he undertook a one-year fieldwork as visiting researcher at the University of Melbourne’s School of Culture and Communication. Previously, in 2017 he has published his first research monograph as a volume of a series dedicated to contemporary art, edited by the Visual Arts Department of the University of Bologna. In 2015-2016 he spent a one-year exchange at the University of Sydney, where he started nurturing an interest in Indigenous and postcolonial studies. Cristiano holds a MA in Visual Arts and a BA in Drama, art and music studies from the University of Bologna. He has experience as photo-reporter, journalist, copy editor and radio newsreader in local media agencies in the city of Bologna, and is a freelance editor for Witness Journal, an association promoting photojournalism and education in social photography. His photography work has been featured in group shows in Bologna.
Featured Image: Michael Jalaru Torres, Blood of my Blood, Tether (2020), 594 x 841 mm. Ilford gold fibre gloss “Blood of my blood binds us; her glowing warmth illuminates the void as I give sanctuary to her evolving soul.”