Spilling across the city, the 10th Ballarat International Foto Biennale offers a panoramic view of the state of the art. By Victoria Hannan.

The 10th Ballarat International Foto Biennale

An exhibition with portrait photographs of public figures, including Vladimir Putin and Neil Young.
Platon’s photo series People Power at the Ballarat Art Gallery.
Credit: Andy Chappell

In 2015, tech analyst Benedict Evans estimated there would be more photos taken that year than were taken on film in the entire history of analog photography. This is unverifiable, of course, but it hints at how technology has democratised the art form. But does the fact that most of us now carry a camera around in our pockets mean that we’re all photographers?

The theme of this year’s Ballarat International Foto Biennale – the 10th iteration of the festival that began in Daylesford in 2007 – is “The Real Thing”. There’s no explicit explanation, but this festival suggests a division between the art of photography and its social media cousin. The biennale offers a panoramic view of photographic art in more than 2000 works, with exhibitions spilling from the Art Gallery of Ballarat to hotels, restaurants, cafes, laneways and other venues across the city.

The main gallery provides the central focus of the festival with the largest of its core exhibitions, People Power: a multi-room retrospective of the work of mononymous celebrity photographer Platon.

Even if you don’t know Platon’s name, you’ll surely recognise some of his work. He’s a staff photographer at The New Yorker and his portraits of world leaders and movie stars have graced the covers of Time and Esquire magazines, to name just a few. His work rarely deviates from his celebrated style: close-range portraits shot through a wide lens with a Hasselblad, a medium-format film camera. The backgrounds are either white, black or light blue with a halo effect from a fish-eye lens. Here, the prints are huge, arranged in loosely themed sections.

The exhibition begins with the room Power. The walls are lined with portraits of presidents and politicians. There’s Donald Trump wearing a withering stare, not unlike his recent mugshot. There’s George W. Bush, Aung San Suu Kyi and a rare opportunity to stare right into the ice-blue eyes of Vladimir Putin. Here, Platon invites us to come face to face with power.

Next we see Icons – stars of the film and music worlds such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harry Styles and Jim Carrey. Platon’s Disruptors include Pamela Anderson, Elon Musk and Russian protest and performance art group Pussy Riot. All are shot and displayed in the same way.

The rest of the exhibition is dedicated to Platon’s images of American veterans and their families, portraits of families torn apart by United States immigration law, and victims of Myanmar’s junta. Stylistically, Platon’s portraits are indebted to Richard Avedon, who dragged his studio into the fields of America’s West to shoot on location from the late 1970s to mid ’80s. However, where Avedon achieved an astonishing sense of authenticity, Platon’s work favours a sheen of airbrushed, brightly lit polish.

The photos in People Power are at their most interesting when we learn the circumstances in which they were captured. Muammar Gaddafi’s gruff defiance, for example, or the moment when pop star Adele’s young son touched her foot and Platon pressed the shutter button. These stories, though, are not always available, leaving the viewer out in the cold.

Other highlights in the Art Gallery of Ballarat include Instant Warhol, a small room containing 56 of Andy Warhol’s framed Polaroid portraits shot in the late 1970s and early ’80s. The subjects include Jean-Michel Basquiat, Sylvester Stallone, Mick Jagger, Truman Capote, Dolly Parton and multiple images of the artist himself, almost unrecognisable in drag. While Platon attempts to manufacture a connection with his celebrity subjects, it’s clear Warhol is shooting from the inside. There’s an obvious intimacy on display: the actors, writers, artists seem at ease with Warhol and his almost obsessive documentation. His reasons for taking so many Polaroids were twofold: many went on to provide the basis of his celebrity paintings, while the rest formed a sort of visual diary.

In one of the smaller alcoves are works by New Zealand photographer Yvonne Todd. The Stephanie Collection features portraits intended to unnerve their viewer. There’s nothing ghoulish about them, nothing offensive, but the models hold slightly off-kilter gazes. Their eyes are empty, their bodies in discomfort. Bar one, Todd designed all the outfits the models wear – an impressive feat.

Inspired by ’60s fashion catalogues, these photos are concerned with the dark side of the domestic and feminine. Ice Blue – the only male model on the wall – stands out. Todd convinced her husband to dress up as an ex-boyfriend she’d spotted in the supermarket and pose for the image in an effort to reach some sort of closure.

In the Australian premiere of Ramak Bamzar’s deeply moving Pro Femina, the Iranian-born, Melbourne-based photographer pays tribute to women who have lost their lives fighting for basic freedoms. The exhibition also features work from her stunning Moustachioed Women and Rhinoplastic Girls series, exploring the effect of the male gaze on generations of Iranian women.

The festival continues outside the gallery, with its secondary hub just a few metres away at the Mining Exchange, a historic building used to trade mining shares during the gold rush. How To Fly by Swedish-born, Czech-based photographer Erik Johansson features 21 large-scale photographs suspended from its high ceiling.

A self-proclaimed “surreal” photographer, Johansson brings to mind the quote from the famous American landscape photographer Ansel Adams: “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” The kind of digital manipulation Johansson’s practice employs isn’t what Adams meant, but it’s a useful explanation of the work. Each of the pieces in How To Fly is a composite made from multiple original images stitched together and retouched to create scenes of childish wonder. To create Full Moon Service, Johansson took seven rice lamps, an electric generator, a car and two models out into a field to play out an unreal scenario: asking the viewer to imagine a business that offers the service of placing the full moon into the sky.

In Unlucky, a huge black cat looms over a scene in a European square. In the middle of the square, two men carry a large mirror towards a banana peel lying on the cobblestoned ground. The image looks as if it has been created by artificial intelligence but in fact it involved a painstaking compilation of photos taken and sutured together. The process is so time-consuming that Johansson is able to make only six to eight new images a year.

At the RACV Goldfields Resort, a 15-minute drive from the festival’s hub, you can get a behind-the-scenes look, through sketches and short documentaries, at how Johansson made his illusory works.

At the same location, you’ll also find Within the Landscape – hidden, as its title suggests, within the grounds of the resort. Featuring photographs by Naomi Hobson, Selina Ou and Lisa Sorgini, the work focuses on children and adolescents in three regions of Australia.

The Foto Biennale program also spills out into the streets of Ballarat. Down alleyways and on sides of buildings on the main strip, you’ll find works by Vineet Vohra: here, there, everywhere highlights some of the photographer’s most colourful images from the streets of India. Up high are a number of David Cossini’s jubilant mullet portraits from his Business in the front, party in the back! series.

A few minutes’ walk from the festival hub, on the corner of Bath Lane and Lydiard Street, you’ll find Lisa Roet’s radiant golden statue of an endangered Myanmar snub-nosed monkey. Though it’s not the first time Victorian audiences have seen this particular monkey – it hung from the Melbourne Town Hall in 2016 during the Chinese zodiac year of the monkey – it’s still a thrilling sight. Here in Ballarat, it clutches the side of the old Union Bank building like a glistening King Kong, inviting the audience to become photographer.

Roet’s Golden Monkey is just one of dozens of opportunities for people to get involved in the festival. With launches, galas, workshops and the festival’s open program, the Ballarat International Foto Biennale is an impressive and welcome invitation to take part in the vast possibilities of the medium. 

The Ballarat International Foto Biennale is showing at the Art Gallery of Ballarat and surrounds until October 22.


EXHIBITION Hoda Afshar: A Curve Is a Broken Line

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Gadigal Country/Sydney, until January 21

VISUAL ART Abstract Truth

Moonah Arts Centre, nipaluna/Hobart, September 15–October 14

OPERA Macbeth

Her Majesty’s Theatre, Kaurna Country/Adelaide, until September 16

LITERATURE Write Around the Murray

Venues in and around Albury-Wodonga, Wiradjuri Country, September 13-17

EXHIBITION BLAZE: people made known

Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, Whadjuk Noongar Land/Perth, until December 9


EXHIBITION Rembrandt – True to Life

NGV International, Naarm/Melbourne, until September 10

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 9, 2023 as "Making it real".

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