Conversation: Eliza Hutchinson, Dan Rule and Paul Mylecharane
The following is an excerpt from a conversation that took place during the fourth installment of Perimeter Talks, on July 23, 2017, at Perimeter Books in Thornbury. Melbourne artist Eliza Hutchison spoke to Perimeter co-director Dan Rule and designer Paul Mylecharane about the book Family Photos, published in May. Hutchison’s long-awaited debut book took various twists and turns during a creative process that spanned more than two years. The end result makes visible the turbulence of the psychological and the uncertainty and fallibility of memory.
Dan Rule: The title Family Photos is a good place to start, I think, Eliza. For anyone who’s seen or spent time with the book, it perhaps doesn’t capture the conventional idea of a family album, but in time those connections reveal themselves. I’d like you to speak to the idea of Family Photos as a project.
Eliza Hutchison: One of the questions I was asked in an interview with Try Hard magazine was: “Isn’t that an easy topic to follow, the notion of the family photo?”. In a sense, it broaches that documentary genre, but it follows it through something that intimately connects to people's own psychology. If you think about all the photos that you keep, they’re family photos more often than not. You might keep a really bad photo, because it’s a photo of your dad, and you couldn’t possibly throw that out. I was looking for that emotional connection. It doesn’t necessarily have to prescribe a direct relation; it becomes more about trying to key into that intensity and also that notion of the bigger questions about life and death, and how photos somehow become part of your own psychology.
DR: So you’re talking about a psychological space or mode – the mode or function of the family photograph rather than necessarily a photograph of a family member per-se.
EH: Yes. In that notion of family photos, I was chasing an archetype through all these different media images and then rephotographing them so they became my own family album.
DR: The starting point for that whole idea was not having access to your actual family albums, wasn’t it?
EH: My parents used to have these amazing family albums, which were lost. I think it’s interesting that the older you get, if you’re not able to see or access those images of your own history, all you have is this memory of your history.
So for these works, I started by creating photographic sculptures, but then using the sculptures as memento mori for my lost images – trying to recreate these moments in my own history through found images and sculptures. There’s one particularly, Heart of Glass, which is early on in the book that really speaks to this idea. I got into documenting my own sculptural work…until the main outcome was making photos from the sculpture rather than the sculpture itself. That work [Heart of Glass] is actually from a Blondie poster. It harks back to my first teen romance, when we were at the ice skating rink and they were playing Heart of Glass. I don’t have any pictures of it but it was such a fond moment (laughs) that I made a sculpture about it. That’s how they become quite personal. In that way, you’re aestheticising your own history. Often a photograph never lives up to how you want to describe your history, so somehow you recreate it and aestheticise it in another way.
DR: I’d like to go back to those family photo albums, as some of the images in the book draw on actual family photos. There are the images featuring your parents, for example…
EH: They were so amazing because I had this quite exotic upbringing. My grandparents lived in Bellevue Hill in Sydney and had this amazing house overlooking the ocean. It was really beautiful and there were all these images of the house and us in the landscape, and they were all lost. And then another one of the amazing albums was of my parents in South Africa. My dad was head of distribution in the film industry so they had lots and lots of photographs with Zsa Zsa Gabor and Cary Grant. I was really obsessed with trawling through these albums and then I found there were only two images left from all these amazing black and white photographs. The perversity of it was that my parents were really right wing and they used to hang out with all these elites, including some of the architects of the apartheid system, which is just so shocking, looking back. So with this photograph of my dad in particular, I was just trying to extricate him from his surroundings.
My mum was in her early twenties and she had never cooked a meal; we had “house boys” as they were referred to and I was brought up by a maid. In some ways, she was lost in that world but sort of completely found herself in that world as well.
With the image of her, I kept on rephotographing it until it’s almost like she’s looking into a pool of water. It’s the idea that somehow that whole context of South Africa that she found herself in kind of formulated her, but it’s sort of a bit the medusa effect with this photo. That’s what I mean about reconstructing family histories, there’s something in that transition that heightens and highlights and shifts the meaning. I’m interested in the potential of all those things within that process. Rephotographing a photograph has a lot of interesting implications.
DR: On that theme of rephotographing photographs and effectively inserting your personal reflections into what would otherwise be a static image, perhaps you could speak to some of your images that capture a wider cultural context. There are a lot of images that deal with the darker side of Hollywood.
EH: Well, there’s Grace Kelly’s coffin; that’s rephotographed from her funeral parade. You can buy a lot of images off the internet and this one caught my eye because my dad was about to die and I became really obsessed with this notion. This funeral photograph, in particular, really spoke to that. I love the way it evokes a painting, and that in a way it was channeling Grace Kelly’s own obsessions. When I was growing up, it was the media story of the day and it had a big impact on me. You go into the process of re-photographing photographs with all these ideas in your head, even though it’s so experimental that you’re not quite sure what’s going to come out of it.
DR: That's really interesting to me. Even though this takes in various series or various bodies of work that have morphed into one another over the years, a common thread is dynamic between the family photograph and the mass-culture image. There’s the image of Ayrton Senna, the Formula One driver – who crashed on primetime television in the middle of the Italian Grand Prix – in his wrecked vehicle, which then bleeds over the page into your eldest daughter Strobe at 57 seconds old. I’d love to explore this binary a little – the death of this legend who is so many steps removed from your life, and then the birth of your own child.
EH: That particular pair of images really started with my nephew, who is obsessed with racing cars. He’s not so little anymore, but when he was six years old, he took my sister’s car and drove down to the shops (laughs). He was this real petrol head. He used to always talk about how he was obsessed with cars and speed, so as an extension of that I became really interested in the documentary Senna , which was about Formula One driver Ayrton Senna. It was really tragic because his car was flawed; it was like he was on a flawed mission. I was consumed with the empathy surrounding Senna’s death, and then because of my nephew and his obsession with racing, that sense of empathy began to consume both my family and the culture around us. Often, amongst all the distressing mass-media images out there, it’s almost as if people have lost their empathy. We’re so used to seeing these images that we’ve lost our real connection with what is going on.
It makes you feel very animalistic, that notion of life and death. Senna’s death, even though it’s quite removed, is a part of my psychology. And so is the birth of my daughter. I think it’s like a mind map of your own consciousness. We don’t separate all those parts of our consciousness out and say this is this and this is that – they all meld into each other.
DR: This deconstructed quality plays out throughout the book. A favourite spread of mine sees a crop of the family horse, Jasmine. Her snout creeps across the left-hand page, then a crop of Strobe riding Jasmine appears on the right-hand page…
EH: Strobe loves Jasmine. Most weekends I’m out in the paddock trying to negotiate the horses and the kids. They compete quite full-on at equestrian events and there’s this intensity. You can see it in this image of Strobe: this empathy and relation and competition and absolute love of her horse. Even though these are very personal images, I love the whole aesthetics of them as well, in terms of the shape of the jacket and the helmet and the plait and the mouth. The book is a lot about chasing sentiment. I really like that idea, of looking for sentiment within a photograph.
DR: Working on this book with you, it was a very different process to that of any other photographer I’ve ever worked with. The idea of the photobook itself is often quite prescriptive – it’s the photographer’s job to come up with a sequence from beginning to end, and then you lay out images in manner that’s often quite spacious and respectful to the frame, and then you get a really boring hardcover book at the end of it (laughs). Working with you, on the other hand – and this relates to the way you install your work in an exhibition context as well – there’s a real improvisational and associated quality that isn't about the idea of narrative, it’s more about psychological associations of memory and various formal and thematic cues. In the process of making the book, you would give over your work to us and to Paul [Mylecharane] to take that even further. It was a very collaborative process and you were really generous with your work. I’d love to get your thoughts on that collaborative process.
EH: We did a really rough draft and then we handed it over to Paul…
DR: That “rough” draft took about a year-and-a-half by the way (laughs).
EH: I think it was quite an astute pairing of people in terms of getting Paul onboard. It just seemed to work really well from the start… Even my more commercial works, Paul brought this new life to them in that process of cropping and shrinking and melding them, allowing one consciousness to blend into another from page to page.
DR: Paul, I’d love for you to talk about your process in this regard…
Paul Mylecharane: It was super interesting to work with someone who already explored the photographic medium in a different way, which was already really graphic, even when I had seen the work in a gallery setting. I was trying to reflect that. But also, things just happened. The fourth spread in is full-bleed both sides, and when those images started to come together, there were these weird synchronicities that happened, which just caught my eye, like the reds bleeding into each other. Sometimes you don’t know if it’s one image or two. The juxtaposition of angles and things just happened; it really wasn’t about trying to do anything with it.
EH: It’s quite artful to be able to chop up other people's images and still keep the meaning in them, and also keep the aesthetic.
DR: I thought another key thing that you did that I loved, Paul, was that fracturing of images, in which a part of the image would appear early in the books, and then the other half or another part of that image would appear or kind of echo later in the book. It really speaks to that idea of memory, reconstructing memory and the fluidity and unfixed nature of memories.
PM: This is something that you’re already doing, Eliza, that’s the interesting thing. Like from one exhibition to the next, a single image might have a certain orientation in the first show, then be upside down the next time. It’s not arbitrary necessarily but…
EH: It’s free form. My early work, in the 1990s, came out of that way of making in which you would come up with a concept first, then really try and make work to fulfill that concept. My work now, though, is coming from an image base. I’m looking for aesthetics and images that excite me, then spending time attempting to understand my own aesthetic sensibilities and the implications of that. It’s quite idiosyncratic and quite haphazard, but I think that makes for the diversity of the images. I’m really interested in the connections between sculpture, painting and photography, which haven’t really been considered in enough depth. It’s about uncovering meaning and form and aesthetics through constant making and reworking.
Editing: Dan Rule and Lizzie Stafford
Perimeter x Heavy is an editorial collaboration exploring contemporary photography, art, design and their various relationships to the published form. Produced in-house by the team at Melbourne-based bookstore, publisher and distribution house Perimeter and Sydney-based photography magazine and online platform The Heavy Collective, Perimeter x Heavy comprises book reviews, interviews, studio visits and features. While further expounding the published output of artists who feature across both Perimeter and Heavy's inventories, the platform aims to provide thoughtful insights into the wider here and now of contemporary publishing practice.