UV sheds light on Australia’s most promising up-and-coming photographers. In this instalment, the APJ speaks with photographer, Jamie Hladky.
Upon reading a list of Jamie Hladky’s works to date, the titles of his series are not at all reticent to paint a picture of the banality we might expect within. “Sandhills”, “Wasteland”, “Spare frames” and “Backwoods” are rounded out by “When We Drove Out of Town to Escape the Bushfire Smoke”. For those most part, none of these belie the reader. “Sandhills” is 1 minute and 47 seconds of footage of sand hills foregrounded by Australian native bush and soundtracked by a howling breeze. “Backwoods” does much to describe the frames Hladky has made of the periphery of small Australian towns. Those locales that seem relinquished to the surrounding bush that would prefer not to have them back. And in “Silver City, Lode of Lead”; we see a thorough exploration of Australia’s most cherished architectural motif: corrugated iron.
In a flood of light that both abstracts and reveals, Hladky’s work exposes Australian vernacular through his foreign-born lens but also weaves into each work a strong sense of autobiography – whether explorative or existential. In addition to the cleverness of his various series mentioned above, works delving far deeper into the psyche of Australia as a nation culminate in “457” — a work named after Temporary Work Visa Subclass 457 – a probationary allowance for Hladky to remain in Australia as he scraped together any amount of spare time and money he had to thoroughly explore a country that had made him feel slightly less than welcome. What emerges is at times a self-portrait of loneliness and at other times a string of metonyms for a feeling of limbo but all the while a democratic approach to the capture of our most iconic landscapes, those parts of the country we attempt to sweep under the rug and brick-clad suburbia somewhere in between.
The APJ spoke to Hladky about his upbringing, the use of flash in his work, his influences and the importance of memory in photography.
Would you please tell us about your background and upbringing?
I grew up in Manchester UK in the 1980’s and 1990’s. I’m half British, half Czech – or European. And Australian. I’ve lived and worked in the UK and Singapore, now in Canberra ACT. I’ve been lucky enough to travel fairly widely over time.
How did you discover photography and what has your path with the medium looked like since?
My dad gave me an Olympus compact when I was around 15 as I had started traveling a little – I took a bus trip to Hungary with a group of friends. I played around with photos occasionally after that, on and off. A long time later I moved to Singapore for work, and started taking it more seriously.
Can you tell us a bit about your focus within photography? Who inspires you? What do you seek to do with photographs?
I don’t really have a focus – I’m a hobbyist really. I wish I had more time for it. That means I can tend to hang on to an idea for a long time. For many years a sense of place was very important in my photos – each one documented a real location like a diary, helping me to remember the places as they were that day. More recently I’ve been inspired by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s Evidence, Andrew Miksis’ DISKO, Alec Soth’s Songbook, and everything by Michael Northrup. All of those use flash and whilst they include freedoms and abstractions, they all carry a sharp neatness around the edges. That soothes the landscape photographer in me, and encourages me to try something else. I’ve never got anywhere with narrative work, which makes Northrup’s huge archive of highly individual photographs feel very reassuring.
Maybe after enough time and enough photos something broader will start to come together.
What does your process look like? Do you go out your door with the intention to photograph or it is more spontaneous?
I try to keep it pretty simple – one setup at a time. I’ve already complicated things enough by carrying a flash and battery pack around. I don’t carry a camera every day. More usually I’ll wait a while then spend a whole week or weekend on photography.
I spent a long time working with 6×9 colour negatives, enjoying the slowness and patience forced by high cost and a large camera. I took a 3-month trip where I travelled across 15 countries by rail with the big 6×9. I ended up scanning 100 rolls of colour medium format when I got home. It took weeks and it broke my patience. I bought a digital camera just to make things easier and that’s mostly what I use now.
In the artist statement for your series “M14 to Hough End Clough” you say “I used my camera flash to help me see”. Which I’m sure might have been quite a literal statement. But also seems to sum up much of your work and the use of flash within it. What does flash afford you in your photographs? How do you use it (in a conceptual sense)?
Northern dialects are poetic and minimal, full of simple hard statements like “help me see”. I miss that. Those pictures are places from my childhood, a very personal, singular nostalgia. I walked from my parents’ house through the suburbs to the playing fields and down the little clough. I walked from the house we lived in when I was born, to the park where I’d fed the ducks and learned to ride a bike. This loop of a few square miles encompassed most of my childhood and had felt like the entire world. I walked every morning for a week or so, before dawn in half-light. The dull, overcast sky and constant spattering of raindrops are my enduring visual memory of life in Manchester. It is dark there in the winter, and I wanted to put those years of carrying a tripod for the 6×9 behind me. It was the first time I’d used a flash with any seriousness and it broke me out of a loop.
Most flash looks very unnatural, and that’s very appealing – you can use it to add emphasis to some part of the frame and that creates abstraction. It’s good to do something different, but you always carry something over from the last thing. I see the obsessive neatness from the corners of my colour landscapes in the handheld B&W flashed pictures. Last year I made a series in Broken Hill where I photographed dozens of suburban houses with a much larger flash, in colour. I was trying to tie threads together from the various visual themes I’d worked on in the past.
On that note; your work has focused quite extensively on outback Australia. Coober Pedy, Broken Hill, Lightning Ridge. What is it about these places that draws you to them?
Those trips are all the logical extensions of my first round of travel. I’m still curious. I spent a lot of the last few years going to mining towns, meeting people and photographing their work. I thought I was working on something about the way people live and work there. It seems that really I was just enjoying the striking visual appearance of the landscape, the equipment and trappings, and taking the opportunity to go underground. I like going to new places and don’t mind driving a couple of days when I have the time. It’s a huge strange country and I’ve never stopped pushing to see as much as I can.
I spent a lot of time looking at your “457” work. It feels incredibly personal and I guess this is very much underscored by knowing the state of limbo you must have felt you were in. What did making this work mean to you? And has the meaning of the photographs now changed given your residency status has since changed? Do you feel like an Australian now or like you’re still a visitor to this place?
They eventually gave me a passport, if that’s what you mean. Even for a white-collar European immigrant there is a feeling of constant pressure, the risk of failure and threat of sudden departure – a sort of limbo. Australia makes it quite clear through immigration policy that foreigners are unwelcome. I responded by travelling widely, trying to take in as much as I could. I spent all of my spare time and money traveling around this beautiful vast country. In the time I was making those landscapes I felt I had tried to engage with Australia by traveling broadly, learning about people, places, history and stories. But then achieving residency is so arduous and undermining that by the time I got through permanency to citizenship I felt nothing about it – it was administrative, the end of a process. Disappointing in a way. But it didn’t matter any more – I had decided to stay.
I don’t go back to the photos in 457 very often. I think collecting them up helped me close out that period of time. I do return to that photo of Uluru sometimes though. For me it anchors the uneven sprawl of the series, and actually gets to the heart of how I was feeling. I’m responding to a stream of tourists getting off a bus to each take one near-identical photograph. It’s a challenge to photograph something that has been subject to such thorough coverage for so long. The picture was a private joke for myself, when my travels and worries hit a certain peak. The first nations people that truly care for that place possess a depth of patience that stretches back thousands of years – and I’m playing a tourist on holiday who didn’t even bother to get out of the car.
After living in large dense cities my whole life, the sparseness of Australia sometimes makes me feel as though there isn’t anyone here. You can walk in and out of abandoned buildings, walk down the middle of the highway, sometimes drive in and out of a town without encountering another soul. I don’t take many portraits, and there are none in the 457 series. The photos are all landscapes or small scenes, each tied to a place. Most of the photos suggest absent humans, but those that actually appear are all outsiders – tourists, immigrants, or myself.
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