Tamara Dean’s dusk photography
“How did you take the photo, of the bodies in the water?”
“From a bridge.”
“What paper is it printed on?”
“Cotton rag. It has a velvety way of taking in colour.”
It’s April last year and question time has just opened for an auditorium of art teachers who sat silent for an hour as photographer Tamara Dean presented on her craft. “Tamara,” the convener had said, introducing her earlier, “is one of Australia’s most poetic photographers”.
They ask technical questions, mainly, as if through a series of small, precise understandings they’ll behold the whole.
“How did you get the skin so luminescent?”
“A kickback of light off the clouds.”
Afterwards, Dean moves through a throng of teachers on morning tea. They want to congratulate her on the biennial. Dean has won several awards, has had seven solo shows and had photographs hung in London’s National Portrait Gallery. But when she announces she’s creating two works for the 2018 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art – opening next weekend – something in her voice changes. This one’s big. The first is a series of nudes shot in four instalments in the city’s botanic gardens; the second, a major installation work incorporating sound and scent.
“Was it okay?” Dean asks as we leave her talk.
“It was great,” I say. “I liked how you described the bush.”
“When you said the Australian bush brings you into the moment.”
“Oh, yes. Good.”
“A teacher there told me her female and transgender students love your work.”
We stop at a cafe. Dean wears knee-high stockings and flat lace-up shoes. She carries olive, mustard and rust colours well. It’s not so much an olden chic as genuinely appearing to have come from an earlier time. She is shy and slightly unsure when she speaks, like a cat tamping its next move. Yet when I ask why she did the talk, she says: “I want to be added to the school syllabus.”
Her photographs are bold and opulent. Some resemble the Pre-Raphaelite paintings of John William Waterhouse, though relieved of his syrupy male gaze. “My sisters and mother are integral forces in my life, which informs my feminine and feminist perspective,” Dean had told the teachers.
Her portraits shot in nature are heavy with the menace and mystery of the Australian Gothic, but while they reference the inchoate dread of the early colonial experience of the bush they have none of its dislocation. Her subjects, often nude and clearly vulnerable, aren’t prey to the landscape’s hostility or immensity, but immersed in it, entranced or entangled, negotiating a complex peace.
We head to the station. She has to get back to Cambewarra – a country town a few hours south of Sydney – to collect her kids from school.
“Do you have a good book for the journey?”
“I’ve got a Peter Carey book.”
“Oh, the new one?”
“I don’t know. I got it at the op shop.”
On a winter morning three months later, Dean collects me from Bomaderry train station. She and her children and filmmaker husband, Jonnie Leahy, moved here in 2016.
“How are you settling in?”
“Really well. It’s the first time I’ve felt like part of a community since Newtown in the early ’90s. I mean, it’s not countercultural, but everyone’s really warm.”
We head to the husk of her studio with cake and tea. “Sorry there’s no lunch,” she says.
There’s no door, either, so we clamber in where the north-facing windows will be. Sun streams over us. We laugh and creak our cane chairs back a little. From here the property slopes to a creek obscured by trees and, behind it, Cambewarra Mountain rises.
“Does it have a name?”
“It translates to Fire Mountain,” she says. “I think there are a lot of flame trees.”
Dean lived on the edge of a nature reserve until she was seven. Her family moved but she returned as a teenager to sketch the scribbly gums, angophoras and river rocks. Later, art school. A dalliance at 18 years old with a cottage in Bilpin, bordering the Blue Mountains National Park. Her early 20s were spent travelling and transient, busking as a fire-twirler and squatting in southern Italy with musicians and “the obligatory dogs”.
“When I began taking photos I was incredibly shy,” she says. “I used a wide-angle lens to make it look like I was photographing something else when I was really trying to capture the entire scene. It meant a lot of people in the edges and corners of my images. When I look at the work from this early period, all I see is shyness.”
By her mid 20s, she’d done design, animation and illustration. Her photographic portfolio was based on her friends, many of whom were squatting in Sydney’s Leichhardt, Drummoyne and Tempe. “I was lucky in that lots of my friends were a bit eccentric,” she says.
She met photographer Dean Sewell, the father of her two children, and through him joined the photographic collective Oculi. At 25, she got a job as a photojournalist at The Sydney Morning Herald. The squats had disappeared.
“It was a time when Sydney was hungrily chewing up any empty spaces,” she says. “Within a year, everyone was gone from the places I’d documented them in. It was a really fundamental thing to learn, how fleeting it was.
“People can be uncomfortable being photographed, but it’s important to push through that, knowing the value in three, 10, 20 years’ time. When I was photographing the squatters of Broadway, I felt people didn’t want me there, but a decade or so later, I was contacted for those photographs. I became a bit less worried about making people uncomfortable.”
Dean is no longer a photojournalist. Her motivation – then to document, which has a conveniently selfless air – is now solely to serve her artistic vision.
“How would you describe yourself now, doing shoots?”
“I’m very… What’s the word? Tenacious. I’m not going to be free and easy because it doesn’t yield what I need.”
When Dean’s first baby, Ruby, arrived in 2005, her life changed radically. Within 15 months, she and Sewell had a son, too. She couldn’t walk for months after Jack’s birth but, even before, early motherhood was hard. “I loved my children but was shocked by how the days became long and lonely. I had lots of time to think but not much time to create. Photojournalism, that part of my life, it had lots of momentum, but stopping gave me time to reflect and choose what I wanted to do.”
On maternity leave, Dean began planning and orchestrating her own shoots. Conceptual work consumed her – a leap from newspaper work, which honoured narrative and telling other people’s stories. “I started delving into allegory and more universal, personal stories. I learnt a different type of patience. I went from spending all my time shooting to all my time planning. I’d wait months or years for images to take shape.”
Partly through observing her children, Dean grew fascinated with “the informal rites of passage young people instinctively create for themselves in nature”. For her fourth solo show, The Edge, she told people: take me to your secret place and show me what you do there.
In one image, Ebenezer Rock Drop, teenagers gather on a riverbank as a boy is about to swing out on a rope. “We hiked to a hidden bend in the river and I spent a few hours watching them interact,” says Dean. Through dense bush, with the gear, she found a ridge and waited for sunset. “The time of day I shoot in is very limited. I watched as they got their nerve up and when the light was right I started directing them. I thought the moment might be the jump itself but the strongest image was the pregnant moment right before.”
Water is a recurring theme. Not the blue coastal breakers but Australia’s brown rivers, inky ponds and tannin-stained rock pools. In her pictures, you can rarely see an inch in, let alone to the bottom. Bits of bodies – faces, limbs, fingers – trail above or just beneath. Dean says American photographers Sally Mann and Mary Ellen Mark are influences and sure, you can see it. But the water in Elizabeth Jolley’s 1986 book, The Well, thrummed with a shape-shifting ability to embody our deepest fears and yearnings, and that’s in Dean’s work, too.
Her models are often wholly or partly immersed. Water, nudity, prickly scrub, mud, bugs, the cold: sitting for her can be a challenge. Yet a stream of eager candidates flows. She has thousands of followers online and uses social media to issue requests for subjects.
I responded to a callout in 2015 for androgynous teens with a picture of my identical twin nephews, then 11 years old. She replied, explaining her work on rites of passage. “Gender is an interesting area of self-exploration,” she wrote. “Symbolically, an androgynous appearance can be perceived as a universal sense of humanity.”
The twins liked Dean and agreed to do the shoot. Don’t cut their hair, she gently instructed.
We met in the spring at a dilapidated Newtown house with peeling paint and creaking doors. Dean liked the “painterly” light and sense of decay. A few hours in, one boy said “my feet hurt”, but he whispered because he didn’t want Dean to hear. He wanted to do a good job for her. The twins’ portrait ended up a signature image in Dean’s exhibition About Face: Are You a Boy or a Girl? Dean was “really nice”, they said later, and the experience was “really cool”.
“How do you know when you can stop shooting?”
“Because things sort of die. It’s all happening and moving and then suddenly it just goes flat. Whether that’s the light, or the energy: something fizzes and it’s done.”
It’s February 2018 when we speak next and Dean’s biennial works are in a truck en route to Adelaide. She’s been in Brisbane overseeing the fabrication of her installation, Stream of Consciousness. “It’s a relief, a massive relief, because I’ve been working from a small-scale model and until I saw the mechanics at play, the scale, I didn’t know if it would be what I hoped. It’s incredibly satisfying that I’ve been able to take that conceptual idea and turn it into an experiential work.”
For the first time, Dean used professional dancers as models, which enabled one image, in particular, that she’s been idealising for years. “Basically, human figures running on all fours, relating to that sense of animalism within us. We’ve evolved to stand and run upright so it was very challenging, but they had the flexibility and physicality to create the forms in an elegant way.”
The weather, however, was capricious. “I was waiting for spring and summer to be when people would be comfortable nude, but it was really cold in Adelaide every time I went, even the height of summer.”
At the autumn shoot in the Mount Lofty Botanic Garden in the Adelaide Hills, a few hours in, Dean asked three young women to wade deeper into a dam. They were freezing, she says. “There was a point at which I felt they were so uncomfortable it was time to get them out.” They were draped in towels and given hot tea and hand-warmers. “They were so relieved it was finished,” Dean says.
“And then the last light of the day, the perfect light, came in and I had to ask if they would go back in. That light often isn’t there. It’s when the sun has set but light is still bouncing onto the clouds and it’s magical. But psychologically, it was very challenging for them.”
“You had to push them?”
“I said, ‘I think it’s worth doing.’ ”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 24, 2018 as "Seeing the light". Subscribe here.