The Influence

Max Richter’s haunting and expansive compositions became the soundtrack for Magnum photographer Trent Parke’s latest work, Monument. By Neha Kale.

Trent Parke on the music of Max Richter

A man with a beard stares out a window.
German–British composer Max Richter (above), and Australian photographer Trent Parke (below).
Credit: AAP Image/Rhys Frampton (above), supplied (below)

For Trent Parke, the camera is less about documenting reality than it is about making discoveries. The only Australian photographer to be admitted to the Magnum Photos agency, Parke started his career in newspapers, but since his internationally acclaimed 1999 photo book, Dream/Life, his work has charted the messy space between fact and fiction. In Minutes to Midnight (2005), the result of a 90,000km road trip around the country with his partner, photographer Narelle Autio, he painted a psychological portrait of an Australia that had lost its innocence.

To make his newest photo book, Monument, he returned to ideas he has long been thinking about: to tell a story about human existence against the backdrop of its demise. The Adelaide-based photographer, who will show large gelatin prints from Monument as part of Sydney Contemporary 2023, says the work was shaped by Never Goodbye, part of a film score by Max Richter. The German–British composer, Parke says, explores a sense of expansiveness that he strives for in his own work.

Max Richter composed a haunting and elegiac soundtrack for Hostiles, a revisionist film about the Old West. You’re especially drawn to the track Never Goodbye. What possibilities did it open up?

When I’m making work, I always think of it as a film before it [becomes] a book. Monument was like a film that I’ve been working on for 25 years and then it was almost like I needed the soundtrack to crystallise that. My mum died when I was quite young and a lot of that time was spent trying to escape the real world, dealing with reality, dealing with questions of death and mortality. It was really about space for me, about science fiction films.

I watched the film Arrival and asked, “What is this music?” It was one of Max Richter’s pieces. And [another track] came on in the background and it was Max’s Never Goodbye – I was scanning the work for a couple of weeks and realised, That’s it, that is what I need to make. The structure and the flow of the music reflected the structure and flow I wanted the “film” to have. I sat with that piece of music, sequencing that book with my wife, Narelle. We kept going back and forth, back and forth. I must have listened to that piece of music thousands of times. The piano [reflected] the turning of the next page and the next page and the next page.

It sounds as if the rhythm of the piece unlocked something for you. One of your earliest artistic breakthroughs came with Dream/Life, which tapped into the loneliness you felt when you moved to Sydney to work as a press photographer at 22. Never Goodbye, too, spans sadness, grief and melancholy. How did it help articulate the emotions you hope to evoke in your work?

Photographs are so silent. Music is something that comes from a gut feeling. Monument has no words attached to it. It has no language – it’s about looking at it purely as a visual understanding and to understand the narrative as it evolves.

The story that is there has been building for 52 years of my life. In your younger years, you are most receptive to the world – your senses are in this heightened state. Listening to this piece of music and the way it starts with this melancholy and sadness… I don’t pretend to understand classical music, but I know what affects me and what it takes in the sequence of photographs to build something to a crescendo.

Monument starts off with moths that appear as star-like specks that trail across the night, the highway, the streets – an image recurs through the book of a man in freefall against the Sydney sky. I’m struck by how Never Goodbye, like so much of Richter’s work, plays with ideas of smallness and expansiveness.

The last part of Never Goodbye has this feeling of an apocalyptic world. Moving to Sydney from a country town was a culture shock – the thing that struck me was this movement of human beings, back and forth, through rush hour. My cousin had a flat directly opposite the Opera House. Every waking moment that I had – days off, weekends – I was on the street photographing life and trying to make sense of the world. When I was going back through these negatives, there were these pictures of moths. I had always photographed moths – from the harbour and sitting in the apartment, looking out.

Like the moths, I have always been drawn to light. But in my world, a moth is never a moth, it is like a force. Whether it is an alien, whether it is humankind, the moths disintegrate with the human race. It is about photographing real life but then I take it into my world, which is an imaginary place where I tell my story.

I have always been interested in the micro and the macro. When I moved to Sydney, it was as if I was from another world, looking at a newly discovered species. It is the same with the moth. It’s about looking at the vastness of the universe, at us in the life span of the universe and being no bigger than an insect. The falling man is representative of a falling star. When I made The black rose exhibition it was seven years of work, thousands of photographs, film. I was questioning our existence, our journey through life, birth and death. Monument is a more condensed version of that idea. Max Richter also composed the soundtrack to the [2019] film Ad Astra and it has similar connotations. I guess Max’s oeuvre has a wavelength that draws me in.

Max Richter’s Never Goodbye is also incredibly apocalyptic, and he talks, in an interview, about how to express violence with music and how to present something plainly without sensationalising it. As an artist, how do you balance ideas of despair and hope?

One thing that I have always battled with when photographing in black and white with strong contrast, is that when something is very graphic, it is hard to find the emotional element. With Monument, it was about slow time exposures, depicting people around this mass of swirling light. The coldness and hardness of the city and the concrete structures, juxtaposed with the moths finally [sparked] the emotional response I was looking for. As did placing us as a speck in the grand scheme of everything.

All the books that I have made have been different, but one thing leads to the next. For example, with The black rose, I found out that my mum had potentially predicted her own death through tarot cards and a clairvoyant – and I went down this path of doing my own fortune-telling and making my own readings. I took dirt from our yard and swirled it around to make shapes on the whiteboard. Dirt on a whiteboard is like grain and matter. That gave me the idea for the series The Camera is God. I pulled out all of these tiny pieces of the negatives and enlarged them until they were grain and matter. That was a big discovery.

It is about making discoveries after months and months of looking at something. As Monument ends, the faces of the people are really just grain and matter. The grain became like stars, like specks. We start in the universe and end in the universe.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 2, 2023 as "Trent Parke".

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