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Presence And Absence: The Photography of Fiona Clark

Sun 21 Sep 2003 In: Events

"Mayor shocked by dancing pictures" may seem like a quaint newspaper headline now, but it would seem the work of one of New Zealand's most accomplished photographic artists is no more welcome in some circles now than it was in 1975. The controversy then was over two Fiona Clark photographs of a pair of transvestites dancing, featured in a nationwide touring exhibition called "The Active Eye". Such was the storm created in the media that the exhibition never opened in Auckland, and Clark's photos were removed from displays in other centres. The debate now is less furore and more quiet dismissal, as Clark's latest project "Go Girl" has been greeted with indifference by galleries in New Zealand (including a rebuff from our national museum Te Papa) despite opening in Sydney to rave reviews. "The visual record of New Zealand has rarely included gay and lesbian history," says Fiona. "As a photographer I think it's so rich and beautiful. All the tragedy and joy are part of our culture, but it's never seen that way. It's time it was celebrated." "Go Girl" is a multimedia exhibition that revisits Clark's extensive catalogue of images documenting the LGBT community in the 1970s. It is augmented with present-day portraits and video interviews with some of Clark's subjects who have survived this tumultuous period in our community's history. "The survival of the community is actually a key element to understanding those early photographs," Fiona explains, saying that she wanted to avoid pure nostalgia and place her historical images in a contemporary context. "There probably isn't a gay or lesbian person alive, from my generation, who hasn't lost friends to either the virus, or suicide from not being able to come to terms with their gender." Clark's work began in the early 1970s when she was a student at the Elam School of Fine Arts in Auckland. She was originally a student of design - the photography came as a way for her to record her friends and her environment, a very different social landscape to the small town of Inglewood where she grew up. She says the LGBT community was the first she ever felt safe in. "I found Inglewood High School really oppressive," she says. "In my sixth form I did Fine Arts Prelim and tried to do photography but I was told photography was not art." Building up a body of work based on those around her, Clark made a serious impression with two series of images called "Waterfront Workers" and "Dance Party", the latter an event organised by Gay Lib at Auckland University. It was at this point that Clark started a trend that would continue throughout her work - presenting her images with a large white border that would allow her subjects to annotate their photos. "I always take work back to the people photographed," she explains. "The border gave people room to do that. It gave them space to have a voice in the photograph." The notes on the Dance Party photos are frank and amusing, sometimes self-deprecating and sometimes confrontational. An image of Tina, Diane and Tracy Carl reads "The three musketeers with the ugliest double-chined mole on the trade at the bottom" at the side, and underneath "We are real people   

Credit: Chris Banks

First published: Sunday, 21st September 2003 - 12:00pm

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