The integrity of imagining
Published in Photo Review Australia
by Steve Packer
Monday, 1 September, 2014
In a normal world, if a photographer scoured a city to find a studio with a ceiling high enough to accommodate a hydraulic cherry-picker, it would be reasonable to assume some degree of madness was involved. But not in the world of Melbourne art photographer Samantha Everton.
After 10 years of building a career based on surreal and sometimes unsettling photos, she has reached new heights – physically as well as in an artistic sense – with the magic realism of her latest series, Sang Tong.
The eight complex images, constructed from elements in suspension, and each with a young child at its heart, weren’t achieved through digital trickery. There was no merging or montaging, nor any other digital post-production.
‘What you see is exactly what I saw when I pushed the shutter button,’ says Everton. ‘I made my models and backgrounds appear to float by shooting vertically downwards from six metres above the floor, towards a number of layers.’
At the centre was a custom-built, weight-bearing glass platform, two metres square and three metres off the ground. The children lay on the platform and objects were suspended above and below them with fishing line. Below that, on the studio floor, were painted canvases.
‘I used a combination of flash, tungsten and painted torch light,’ she says. ‘Their different colour temperatures and long exposures create vibrancy. Sometimes several lights were positioned within the frame, hidden behind objects or the child’s body.
‘One of the challenges with Sang Tong was me being suspended up in the cherry-picker, having to relay instructions to several assistants down below. I took 30 if not 50 exposures of each composition, and every split second was slightly different. The look in an eye, the point of a toe, the light on a leaf… everything had to be just right.
‘It was extraordinarily complex, ambitious and exhausting. But it was well worthwhile.’
Why go to such extraordinary lengths when any image can be faked these days using software? The answer lies in the high value Everton puts on ‘visual integrity’.
‘Throughout my entire career, I’ve always created everything in-camera. There’s an edge to it, a feeling. I want the viewer to look at the work and feel like they could step into it, that’s it’s happening right there. I don’t want them to be noticing the technical aspects. I want them to be mesmerised and mystified by the image.’
SANG TONG is the first of Everton’s highly regarded art series to have been shot in a studio – specifically Glow Studios in North Melbourne. It’s also the first time she has used digital capture rather than film.
‘I still love film and I’ll go back to it,’ she says. ‘With the logistics of being six metres above the ground, using my usual camera [a medium format Mamiya RB] wasn’t practical. I prefer the grain of film when printing my images full-size, and didn’t want to compromise on image quality. I was fortunate to secure the sponsorship of Nikon for my first digital shoot. I used a D800E, capturing 100 megabytes a frame, and I’m very pleased with the results.’
Her prints are 1.5 metres wide and a metre high, on a variety of matt papers with a fibre-based feel to them. When using film, she chooses Kodak Ektachrome E100G for its fine grain and colour saturation, and because it scans well.
‘I print with an inkjet process. However, I treat it like a darkroom and print strip after strip and do it by eye rather than on screen. It takes me about three months to perfect the colour reproduction and to print a full show. I adjust web versions of my images for screen viewing, and the versions that end up on exhibition invitations. I take great care to ensure that my work has the same impact in every medium.’
Sang Tong takes the human factor in Everton’s images to another level. The subjects are all young children who were born in Thailand and adopted by Melbourne families.
‘They include my own son, and three of my own four siblings were adopted, so it’s something I feel passionate about,’ she says. ‘I wanted to depict these children as themselves, and they have dual identities. In one sense they are everyday Aussie kids, but they identify as being Thai as well. Like a documentary photographer, I got to know the children over a two-year period. Each image intimately reflects their personality.’
Sang Tong also draws on a Thai folk tale of the same name (it means ‘Golden Shell’) to illuminate the fantasy world of each child. In the tale, a boy is born into royalty, abandoned and adopted by a giantess. At the age of 10, he finds out he is adopted and sets out to explore the palace he has been living in. He discovers a range of magical objects including shoes that enable him to fly and a well of silver and gold. Lowering himself into the well, he emerges with a beautiful golden body, but also a mask that makes him seem ugly. He later encounters a princess who sees past the mask and falls in love with the beautiful young man within.
Everton says she likes her images to tell a story, but she’s not comfortable talking about their meaning. ‘I don’t want to dictate to the viewer what they see within the images. They contain enough ideas for the viewer to identify and construct the narrative that talks to them.’
EVERTON grew up in remote mining towns in central Queensland, mainly Emerald and Capella. She worked and travelled overseas as a hairdresser for eight years before moving to Melbourne in 1999 to begin her photography career.
She has always been artistic, but says it took her a long time to find her medium. ‘I used to paint, sew, design elaborate cakes and make just about anything with my hands.’ Even as a hairdresser, she favoured weird and wonderful hairstyles. For her first photography exhibition she used a cut-throat razor to shave elaborate patterns into people’s hair, painted them and photographed them.
Before studying photography at RMIT in Melbourne, she was a cadet photographer at the Melbourne Times newspaper. ‘I realised early on that I wanted to change the things in front of me – move this over there, manipulate that – and of course you can’t do that with photojournalism. I loved doing the feature work, taking portraits of artists and other people. That evolved into the highly constructed images I produce today.’
In recent years her work has been well recognised with awards and glowing media coverage in Australia and overseas. In 2010 she achieved first place in the portrait category, third place in the fine art category and an honourable mention at the prestigious Prix de la Photographie in Paris. In 2011 she was featured in an issue of the British Journal of Photography based on a worldwide search for emerging talent.
Everton says she’s content with concentrating on the art photography market in Australia and is making a living on that basis. ‘Australia has a strong market, very open to photography as an artform. There may be some opportunities in Asia in the future, but I’m very happy in Australia.’
She typically has one year on – ‘the creation year’ – and one year off – ‘the exhibition year’. ‘I travel the exhibition and that covers my costs.’