Posted: 02 Jun 2012 | By: Ben Garrard
The first ten years of the twenty-first century were revolutionary for photography in the same manner as the 1840s, which saw the proliferation of the Daguerreotype, and the 1880s when George Eastman’s flexible film and self-contained box cameras opened the door to amateur photography.
The popularisation of digital photography and the rise and rise of the internet, now in use by roughly a third of the world’s population, once again changes the photographic landscape. Into this brave new world was born Oculi, a collective of Australian photographers, emerging largely from the duelling Australian press houses of Fairfax and Murdoch.
To mark ten years in existence, the group have published a lasting visual document of their work entitled Oculi. Iconic images of some of this still inchoate century’s momentous events, including the Cronulla riots, the tsunami in Aceh and the Black Saturday fires, are presented here at their most powerful — on the page rather than a screen.
The collective originally grew out of concerns about the limitations of the broadsheets, which stifled the power of reportage and documentary photography. Assignments had to be completed in a hurry and the resulting images were often printed the size of postage stamps — or not at all. The internet afforded the opportunity to present more work in a self-curated space and by late 2000 the Oculi website was up and running, showing the photography of founding members Narelle Autio, Warren Clarke, Nick Cubbin, Glenn Hunt, Nick Moir, Trent Parke, Jeremy Piper, Tamara Voninski and Dean Sewell.
According to Dean Sewell, the members of Oculi saw themselves as a movement rather than an agency, aiming “somewhere between photojournalism and art”. Their manifesto was to capture the beauty, wonder and struggle of everyday life without resorting to contrived photo shoots or art-directed aesthetics. Considered observation and an undeniable obligation to social and environmental responsibility were the ethical cornerstones of the collective’s practice.
Though awards and recognition came thick and fast for the Oculi photographers, their dogged adherence to a non-commercial model repeatedly caused consternation amongst the group.
The dominant thinking was that a revolutionary decade called for a revolutionary approach. As other internet agencies and libraries pushed to swallow up intellectual property and monetise vast libraries of stock images, the Oculi collective chased international awards and the recognition of their photographic peers, exhibiting their photography and signing distribution deals in Europe with Agence Vu and in North America with Redux Pictures.
Oculi remained non-profit, driven by artistic pursuits rather than the bottom line, and it is to this that Sewell primarily attributes their success. Maintaining their integrity and independence, the collective desired to be active participants in evolving the visual literacy of their time rather than passive contributors to a global glut of images.
Over the course of the decade members came and went. Trent Parke was the first to go in 2002, joining the renowned international photographic agency Magnum (he remains the only Australian photographer represented by the agency to date). Others struggled to balance busy personal and professional demands with the demands of the collective, or grew disillusioned with the group’s non-profit nature.
Fresh eyes were brought in to swell the ranks. The invitation of young Melbourne street photographer Jesse Marlow signalled the collective’s preparedness to stake its nascent reputation on the work of a relatively unknown photographer, as well as seeking out and nurturing talented Australian photographers. Donna Bailey’s inclusion intentionally marked an acceptance of contemporary photographic art practice to complement the primarily editorial metier of the rest of the group.
Contributing to Oculi in their own time, Oculi’s photographers explore subjects with a patience that press photographers working to deadlines and budgets cannot afford. Nick Moir’s award-winning stormscapes spring to mind; patiently hunted, these brooding images encapsulate well the prevailing Oculi aesthetic.
Challenging and visceral, the stark images in Oculi are marked by an intense proximity to the subject. They are unmistakably journalistic in quality, telling visual stories through garish light and impenetrable shadow, harbouring shapes and expressions; some of which seem familiar, others harrowing, others disconcertingly alien.
Like a prophet from the wilderness, Oculi points to the fringes of our society, to those in the dust, the gutter and the flames, and in doing so may have given us a glimpse of our own future.
The collective currently comprises eleven photographers: Donna Bailey, James Brickwood, Tamara Dean, Jesse Marlow, Nick Moir, Jeremy Piper, Andrew Quilty, Dean Sewell, Steven Siewert, Tamara Voninski and Claire Martin, who joined the collective after the publication of Oculi.
Oculi is available for purchase through the collective’s website at www.oculi.com.au.
A travelling exhibition, Oculi: Terra Australis Incognita, is showing at the Monash Gallery of Art from 27 January–25 March 2012.
Dean Sewell is represented by Charles Hewitt Gallery, Sydney.
Images from top:
Jesse Marlow, Daisy, Don’t Just Tell Them, Show Them, 2007.
Tamara Voninski, Untitled, Metropolis, 2003–2007.
Jeremy Piper, Seeking Refuge, 1999.
Donna Bailey, November 11, Remembrance Day, Singles, 2006.
Dean Sewell, Shipwreck, Aceh, The Day the Sun Rose in the West, 2005.
Steven Siewert, Caravan, Waiting for Wanda Jackson, Rockabilly, 2006.
Tamara Dean, The Royal Hotel, Hill End, 2005.
Andrew Quilty, Untitled #1, ANZAC Day, 2006.