Photographer Trent Parke grapples with an unimaginable humanism

As the sole member of Australia’s Magnum, Trent Parke would be aware of that renowned post-war photo company’s humanist legacy and its critique of the legacy.

Simply put, the term “humanism” in photography is the way that photographs are used to portray what is known as the “human spirit” or “human experience”. The idea was popular in the late through the middle of the 20thcentury, with the work of photographers like Eugene Smith and Robert Doisneau beginning to slide out of fashion by the late 1970s.

Through the lens of human experience, photographs that depicted human experience were thought to transcend their real contents to reflect higher ethical or moral values. But these misconceptions obscured the goals that were at work during the creation of publications, exhibitions, and publication of images.

Trent Parke, Catfish and turtles, Roper River, Northern Territory 2011 from The Black Rose and the black rose. Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection

There is a risk when the subjects of photographs become a symbol of greater moral principles. Consider the works that were done by the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson or Dorothea Lange, or more precisely, exactly who is being featured in films such as Lange’s cult Migrant Mother (1936).

A photographer and consequently, the photographer’s subjective view gets the acclaim, and the subjects as subjects are rendered indifferent. Human experience is not accompanied by any human-centric context that is essential to build understanding.

While Parke’s photos don’t easily fit into a traditional humanist style, his latest exhibit on display at Monash Gallery of Art – Trent Parke TheCameraa is God, raises some important questions about whether or not humanism is even feasible in photography today.

The exhibition of Parke focuses on the two potentialities of photography, which are at the heart of the humanist tradition of capturing the world, and also to convey a personal view of the world. However, the two aspects don’t sit well together.

A large portion of the exhibition focuses on his spectacular “the camera is god (street portrait series)” dating back to 2013. For those photos, Parke set up his tripod at the part of King Street, Adelaide, in the evening, during rush hours on sunny days for more than all of the year.

By pressing the shutter release button when the traffic light was changed, Parke permitted his camera to capture around 30 images of pedestrians moving quickly.

Trent Parke, No 731 Portrait of a woman at an intersection, Adelaide 2013, from the camera is God (street Portrait Series)”, a pigment print. Trent Parke

In the resulting blurred and grainy photos faces of walkers are diminished to generalized shadowy hues, like a transparent shroud or veil was put on their face. When they are gathered into a huge grid of 66 massive individual portraits, the mysterious faces become a part of a larger story.

This is a reflection on the passing of time in the city and the double sense of anonymity and familiarity that we experience – physical proximity and personal distance that we get when we look at other people in the town.

Trent Parke, No 447 Portrait of a child standing on an intersection, Adelaide 2013 from ‘The camera is god (street portrait series)”, a pigment print. Trent Parke

In one way, Parke is following an earlier generation of photojournalists and documentary photographers who took on criticisms of the objectivity of photography by incorporating their work with a blatant perception of personal identity and narrative. Since the 80s, documentary photography found its way into the world of art.

But his provocative title – TheCamera’s God, is an inverse step from his position as an artist, photographer, and storyteller.

Inspired by Parke’s use of a shutter release hold, The exhibition’s title is incredibly loaded. It is a reference to the 19th century’s belief that the camera’s mechanic vision is superior to human vision and the all-seeing, all-knowing eyes of modern unmanned surveillance systems.

Parke might have let the camera’s auto-processes do the photography. However, the exact editing of his images, as well as their creation, printing, and mounting, all prove that this is the result of a human’s hand and a mind. This means that Parke, as a photographer, is both present and mysterious in this work – much as the faces he captures that he captures in street photography.

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