On Photographic Education

by Les Walkling on June 21, 2017

Les_Walkling_Moonrise_Daintree_2017_550pxLes Walkling, Moonrise Daintree 2017, inkjet pigment print, 800 x 1100 mm

Education entertains nearly a third of my professional life. Therefore why I teach, and why I teach in far away places like ‘the Daintree’ are important personal, artistic and pedagogical questions.

The answer, in part, is that ‘the Daintree’ doesn’t have Icelandic waterfalls, nor Patagonian peaks, nor Antarctic ice flows, nor other easily accessed spectacular spectacles. Though far away it is not a photographic safari. The Daintree is also downright hard to photograph. In other words, being without typical magnificent photographic ‘distractions’, it can therefore be an exercise in distancing ourselves from distractions, including those of our everyday lives, in order to concentrate on ‘being an artist’ and what that might mean in the 21st century. In short, the Daintree is an art-school where we can momentarily be out of the ‘line of fire’ and without prejudice work on our aptitude and priorities before returning to the ‘heat of the moment’.

There is also the answer that ‘the Daintree’ is rare, ancient, World Heritage listed, ecologically-sensitive, and hard to make sense of. The site of the workshop, the James Cook University Daintree Rainforest Observatory (DRO) and its dormitory accommodation, is also not about exclusiveness or privilege, but about coming together, belonging, and community building. The Daintree and DRO therefore take us out of our everyday commonsense, our expectations and comfort zone, and remembers that to share something is to more than double its worth. It is about what it means to indulge in things that matter the most to us, such as our creativity, and the responsibility we have to share knowledge, skills and thinking as a way of acting on our feelings and questioning our beliefs.

There is also the problem that formal photographic education all too often appears to prescribe staged outcomes that threaten the imaginative and the speculative, and in turn normalize these definitions and attitudes. Prescriptive teaching and learning outcomes can’t reward imagination because imagination (and creativity, innovation etc.) can’t be so easily judged or measured. Predefined outcomes, while perfectly fine in regulated industries – after all I would like my doctor to know certain things about medicine – end up discouraging the very thing that an arts education can foster, where personal objectives, shared outcomes, and speculative adventures are not only possible, but desired.

Our Daintree workshop is designed to counter these tendencies and the sad corollary that photography often means being expertly ignorant about what you are doing, or perhaps even worse, being incredibly ‘experienced at doing the wrong thing’. This leads to pronouncements ranging from simply stupid to down right misleading, if not fraudulent. An art-school therefore saves you some time, as well as many of the bruises (physical, emotional and creative) that can accumulate when you try to do this on your own. And while ‘how we interpret an image’ is as individual as we are and demands respect, how pictures push and pull on us is more reliable and can be learned, and worked with.

Therefore coming together in a far away place, and our relationship with photography, and photographic history and our contribution to it, is an act of defiance in the face of the multiple ahistorical instantaneous  ‘nows’ dominating the vastness of today, and it seems, much of our contemporary consciousness, let alone photographic education.

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On talking to dead people

by Les Walkling on June 5, 2016

The_Site_of_his_last_embrace_1986_550pxLes Walkling, The site of his last embrace 1986, silver gelatin print, 953mm x 762mm

Speaking with a dear friend the other day regarding our pictures, I recalled how often I have described the ‘two sides of the lens’, and the transparency and democracy with which the lens draws the world for us. And how ‘which side of the lens’ we spend the most time on, tends to define us as a photographer. Those friends obsessed with photographing things in front of the lens tend to be witness or documentary photographers, where as those friends who spend most of their time on ‘their’ side of the lens, tend to work in the world of contemporary art. So when someone asks me what I take photographs of, I simply say ‘I photograph things that can’t be seen’; which for me are my thoughts, feelings and emotions.

In this way photography is foremost an intellectual engagement, and a repository rich in ‘subjects that matter’ to us. But our pictures are also filled with insights and truths about ourselves that we barely know or can name. They make claims on our behalf, while also revealing what lies within. They manifest our thoughts as much as they bring into focus our demons and dreams.

I have also often characterised photographs as either portraits (of things) or maps (of territories). Both are representations or translations, but they differ according to our investment in them. Just as understanding itself is made up of both what is conscious to us, and what is unknown, feared or misunderstood. Our pictures, like ourselves, are equally aware and filled with wondering. The instantaneous privilege of a photograph channels both what is seen and what is unseen; who we are and what we are becoming.

The problem though of making pictures that matter beyond our self interest, never goes away. So much of my youthful exploration of this problem was consumed by ‘conversations with dead people’; that is, conversations with great artists who died long before I was born. Artists who may have never written down what and how they did what they did, but nevertheless explained themselves, their principles and methods so perfectly in their works.

Great pictures touch us and engage us in the most compelling and mysterious ways, and it is these mysteries that have kept me artistically alive all these years. This is also the greatest gift of friendship; what it elicits from us. For a good life is all about the company we keep; in our relationships, both in person, but also through deeds, words, writings, music, and pictures. I still talk to dead people on a daily basis, and count them amongst my closest allies. But whether our work amounts to anything worth anyone else knowing, that is indeed an enduring mystery.


Photography, Cinema and the Drama of Representation

February 1, 2016

Andrey Walkling, Fictional Encounters 2015, Pigment Print 280cm x 152cm As both cinema and photography fragment and disperse across visual culture through the proliferation of small screens, social media and connectivity, photography is both socially eclipsed and socially rooted at the same time. The digital archive has also made available the histories of photography and [...]

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Battle of the Centaurs

September 4, 2015

The Battle of the Centaurs, Silver Gelatin Print, 198mm x 248mm, 1981 Wonderful surprises are not always when you need them, but recently while working at the National Gallery of Victoria I was asked had I seen my work in The Horse exhibition (14 August – 08 November 2015). I knew the show was on [...]

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April 1, 2015

Les Walkling, NORTH  2014, Pigment Inkjet Print 1512 x 1499mm As a collective, we share a fascination with these far-away places, though not in the way that scientists are fascinated by things collected and identified, but rather, we are fascinated by the things we can’t see; our speculation and interaction, our wanderings and pondering. And [...]

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2016 Shark Bay – Inscription

December 23, 2013

Les Walkling, Downcast Eyes 2013, Pigment Print, 1498mm x 1512mm 2016 Shark Bay – Inscription is the latest body of work by Ninety Degrees Five (ND5), a unique collaboration between four photographers, Les Walkling, Tony Hewitt, Christian Fletcher, Peter Eastway and filmmaker Michael Fletcher. Prior to this, ND5 worked on The Pilbara Project and South West [...]

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In This Life – Virgil Donati

July 11, 2013

My dear friend Virgil Donati is about to release his new album, ‘In This Life’. It has been more than a year in the making and I contributed the album’s liner and track notes: IN THIS LIFE: In analyzing the relationship between music and narrative it is often supposed that meaning resembles a ghoul or [...]

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Shark Bay 2016

July 5, 2013

2016 – T Landt van d’Eendracht from Michael Fletcher on Vimeo. Shark Bay is a world heritage listed area, but the incredible biodiversity behind its world heritage status is not immediately visible, and therefore not immediately known nor understood by ‘outsiders’, at least not when viewed from the ground. Although our first trip to Shark [...]

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Q&A Evening with Dr Les Walkling

April 26, 2013

  Digital imaging should be simple and straightforward, but unfortunately this is rarely the case. Often the many resources on digital imaging can be confusing and a frustrating waste of time. This evening is an opportunity to have Dr Les Walkling answer your digital imaging questions. Les will begin the evening by discussing the three [...]

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South West Light – Sydney Presentation

March 14, 2013

ND5 – A photographers Perspective – ‘Come on…..really! are you serious?’ from Michael Fletcher on Vimeo.   Ninety Degrees Five (ND5) is a unique artistic collaboration between photographers Les Walkling, Christian Fletcher, Peter Eastway, Tony Hewitt, and film maker Michael Fletcher. On Sunday 7th April all the members of ND5 will be presenting together for [...]

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