Culture

Australia’s only Magnum photographer Trent Parke turns his lens to the places, events and people of his childhood.

By Gretchen Shirm.

Trent Parke’s The Black Rose

Trent Parke
Credit: Julien Klettenberg

There is a moment, as the Art Gallery of South Australia’s director, Nick Mitzevich, is introducing The Black Rose, when Trent Parke steps out of his thongs and stands barefoot on the gallery floor. He contemplates his empty shoes in front of him. Mitzevich is explaining it took AGSA only 40 minutes to make the decision to commission the work after hearing the proposal from Parke.

Before Parke takes position behind the lectern, he steps back into his thongs, as though he’s assuming his role as the internationally acclaimed, multi-award-winning photographer. When he speaks, I expect to hear something polished, even anodyne – in my experience artists rarely enjoy speaking at such events. But what he says is startlingly personal. He tells those gathered at this preview that the exhibition is about his mother’s sudden death from asthma when he was 13. The death he never really dealt with, but which defined his life.

In this room full of strangers, it seems astonishing to be told something so intimate; for a photographer who earned his praise by training his camera so relentlessly away from himself, to turn the focus on his own life. He tells me later, “I don’t like the spotlight. I actually don’t like the idea of people knowing who I am.” He laughs, as though mystified about how this exhibition, for which he took thousands of new photographs over a period of seven years, came about. It started with the theme of home; moving to the quiet suburbs of Adelaide from inner Sydney with his young family, he started reflecting on his own childhood.

 

Parke is tall and thin. Up close his skin is sharply creased around his features, the hallmark of someone who has spent too much time in the sun. He has the leanness of a man in constant motion. Beside me, he cannot sit completely still; he fidgets and shifts. His words tumble from his mouth; sometimes he seems to be making sense of what he says only after it’s spoken.

For a long time he didn’t want to think about his mother. He was the only one present when she died; his father was at squash, his brothers were asleep. On the day of the funeral, he persuaded his father to let him stay home. Although he was 13, he can’t remember a single thing about her. “No voice. No memories. There’s just nothing there.” The only thing he does remember is a photograph taken of his mother, holding him as a toddler, sitting on a carousel. That picture forms part of the exhibition.

Parke’s amnesia is selective. Apart from his mother, he remembers his childhood well, living in Newcastle’s outer suburbs. He speaks of a complete freedom growing up. He and his brothers would go out all day fishing for yabbies or riding bikes, returning home only when the streetlights came on. “From as early as I can remember after that period, Dad was at work,” he says. Parke’s brothers are both younger and remember their mother well. Over the years they’ve spoken of memories they have in which Parke was also present – events he cannot recall.

In a way, the exhibition is about reclaiming his memories. And things did trickle back as he traversed that territory. “They’re like visions, they’re grappled memories,” he says. Although The Black Rose began from an intensely personal place, the paradox is its universality. Everywhere are recurring ideas of life, death, nature and renewal. The photographs include pictures of the birth of one of Parke’s sons; the decaying, calcified corpses of a rat and a cow; a bright white obelisk on the site of his own birth; a grainy photograph of a fox and the glow of its eyes in the dark. Parke’s photographic gaze captures beauty and brutality in the same sweep.

The first camera Parke owned, a Pentax Spotmatic, belonged to his mother, Dianne. He says one of his first photographs was of a bird box, “which is just like a camera itself, it’s a circular hole, but it contains life”. He has always had this curiosity about life, which he says comes down to a constant questioning of “what is real and what is not”. Although the personal nature of this exhibition marks a departure in his work, he says the personal aspect has always been there. “For me it’s always been about putting myself into my work… nine times out of 10, if I really analyse it, it’s because of some experience I had growing up.”

Parke has a way of speaking to you as if you already know him, assuming knowledge you couldn’t possibly have. He mentions names – Narelle, Jem, Dash, Tyron, and Grant, all members of his family – as if they are people I might know.

Parke is married to Narelle Autio, also an acclaimed photographer. After an opening of a joint exhibition of their work in 2013 at Stills Gallery in Sydney, the gallery posted a photograph of Parke and Autio on their Facebook feed with the caption: “Power couple alert!” Parke tells me Autio gave up the past two years to help with this show and it’s been an enormous amount of work, not least because they use film and print everything themselves. Autio is his partner in life and in photography, though Parke tells me that for him the two are the same thing.

The exhibition begins with the “black rose”. It’s not a rose, but a succulent given to him on a road trip with his family in country Victoria. He stopped to look at a plant in a motel car park, a flower unlike anything he’d seen before. Someone spoke from behind him and Parke turned to find a “very small, angular man, like something from a Stephen King novel. He wasn’t quite right.” The man said most people don’t notice the flower and that it was a traveller’s plant. He told Parke to take a cutting. Although Parke wasn’t home again for weeks, it eventually grew when he potted it. There is an element of strangeness to the story, as there is in many of his anecdotes, as though he is attempting to find meaning amid the curious events that make up his life.

Photography also holds a deep sense of mystery. “Since I saw that picture come up in the darkroom tray for the first time, it was like a magic trick,” he says. The years putting together The Black Rose were full of coincidences. There was the smashed portrait of himself as a boy that he found when he went back to his childhood home in Newcastle to collect belongings of his mother for the project. He walked in and “a picture of me was on the floor, lying in the last spot I saw Mum alive”. It had hung in the hall his whole life. Autio and his brother were mystified, but Parke said it was only a coincidence. His account is matter-of-fact, but throughout our conversation there are hints towards a preoccupation with the role of chance. He refers to a memory of his mother’s tarot cards, and a dream that led him to a skin clinic where a cancer was discovered and later removed.

 

Parke very nearly became a professional cricketer. He trained in Adelaide at the same time as Shane Warne, Ricky Ponting and Glenn McGrath and played professionally for New South Wales. But he was offered a paying job as a photographer for The Daily Telegraph and had no time to train anymore, “so that was it” for his cricket career. Later he worked as a sports photographer for The Australian and took photographs of the Australian cricket team.

He took the infamous photographs of Shane Warne smoking cigarettes; Parke’s dark sense of humour emerges as he shows me the negatives hanging in the exhibition. He also describes an earlier series, The Christmas Tree Bucket, depicting the all-too-familiar rituals of Christmas as “a dark comedy”.

Eventually, he gave up newspaper photography to pursue artistic work. One of his first exhibitions was a series he made with Autio, The Seventh Wave, featuring the experience of ocean swimming from below the waterline.

In 2007, Parke became the only Australian member of the prestigious international photography agency Magnum, founded by Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1947. Magnum’s members vote on potential applicants at their annual general meeting and Parke was to present to them at their London headquarters. Visiting the office the day before, he learnt he’d confused the date and the meeting was in fact under way as he arrived. “The whole of Magnum was sitting there and there was a lecture being given, and the guy stopped and said, ‘You must be Trent from Australia’, because I was wearing my singlet, board shorts and thongs.” When it came time to vote, the esteemed members readily recalled the bloke with flowers on his shorts.

Parke downplays the achievement of surviving the selection process, which is famously gruelling. Russell Miller, in his book on the agency, observes that, “Photographers like to joke that becoming a member of Magnum is tantamount, in the rigour of the initiation, to joining a religious order.” It requires invited photographers to submit a portfolio of 80 photographs to the scrutiny of Magnum members for majority approval, in a process repeated two years later and again two years after that in order to be approved as a full member. The application can take up to 10 years if a photographer doesn’t receive enough votes along the way.

Parke is now a full voting member and shareholder of the agency, which is a co-operative owned equally by its photographers and run for their benefit.

Some photographers take a lifetime to produce 80 quality photographs, which may be the reason the agency represents more photojournalists than artists. What drove him to pursue membership? “It’s always a personal challenge,” he says. It’s the competitive personality that also made him a professional sportsman.

There’s always been a tension in Magnum between the conflicting demands of aesthetics and journalism. But Parke tells me that in his intake, “Magnum really changed in terms of the photographers it was taking on”. It became more artistic in its focus. While Parke’s earlier series Minutes to Midnight, a dark, brooding depiction of Australian rural and regional life, might have fallen closer to the documentary tradition, The Black Rose firmly cements his artistic intention. His work doesn’t reference what happens “in terms of events – I’m interested in life”.

The exhibition concludes with a picture of a tree. On his last trip to Newcastle, one of Parke’s childhood neighbours told him they called it “the Dianne tree”. Many years earlier, the block it grew on was being cleared for building work and the tree was to be cut down. Parke’s mother staged a protest and the tree was saved. It towered over the family’s backyard as Parke was growing up, though he never associated it with his mother. He tells me that whenever something good happened in his life, people would say it was his mother looking over him. But he had never believed that superstition. It wasn’t until he went back to his old house in Newcastle that he felt perhaps, in a way, she was. In the exhibition, his mother’s tree is shot from a child’s perspective, the camera peering up the trunk of the imposing gum. 

I ask Parke if there is a connection between photography and his amnesia. He agrees photography is often the way he remembers things. “We can be travelling on a country road and I can remember every single time I’ve photographed something because it’s distilled in my mind … but all the other travel on the way, it’s only ever getting to the point where I take another picture.”

Before I leave, I ask about his cricket days. He tells me he was a leg-spinner, and when he stands I can see it in his body, the long arms and torso. Even his wrap-around sunglasses fit the part.

It’s another part of his life he hasn’t quite left behind. Now his two sons have taken up the sport, and he takes them to training.

“So, you’re a cricket dad?” I ask.

“Yes,” he laughs. “Cricket dad.” I think he likes the sound of it.

He shakes my hand and his thongs snap at his bare feet as he walks away.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 25, 2015 as "Frees frame". Subscribe here.

Gretchen Shirm
is a Sydney author. Her latest novel Where The Light Falls will be published in July 2016.

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