Stuart Spence: Yield

Stuart Spence: Yield
Permanent Wave Media

Australian artist and photographer Stuart Spence surrenders to the ‘imaginative possibilities’ of photography, capturing a potent tension between the known and the unknown, through intentional blurs, inconsequential everyday moments, and transient scenes mystified by silhouettes, dark tones and hints of nostalgia.

Spence’s works are currently held in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, The National Library of Australia, Manly Art Gallery & Museum and The Bundanon Trust; and now, a selection of the artist’s photographs illustrate the pages of ‘Yield’.

This publicised ‘coffee table book’ offers more than a photo album of still moments and casual viewing. Spence’s textured and grainy photographs convey a sense of motion: graceful, continual, seductive, ‘creating photographs with ‘open spaces’ which prompt viewers to construct their own narratives which, along with their emotional responses, flow in unpredictable, unrestrained ways,’ writes Ross Heathcote, Curator Manly Art Gallery & Museum. Heathcote questions: ‘What happened before the photograph was taken? What happens next? Moreover, and most importantly, why?’

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Spence’s camera lens is objective; his subjects found at random. Their anonymity renders their actions and purpose unknown – our desire to learn more turns our role from spectator to auteur. Heathcote’s questions echo at the turn of each page. The concentrated focus and detail in Spence’s images draw us into their once individual but now collective narrative, with a storyline that is rewritten each time we pull the book from its protective slide casing.

Heathcote compares Spence’s work to the semiotic views of French theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes, who examined photography and its potential to communicate actual events by holding our gaze without succumbing to mere meaning or beauty. An analogy, according to Heathcote, the artist happily accepts. Heathcote attributes Spence’s ability to yield still imagery and moving narrative to his experimental image-making and use of ‘grain and pixels, focus, movement and speed of the shutter, depth, time and light.’ He concludes with applause, branding the artist ‘a deep curious observer, a creative polymath, a flâneur-with-a-camera.’

Spence softens the praise in a relatively modest introductory text: ‘the last thing that enters my mind when I take a photograph is thought, or at least very little of it, anyway.’ This only confirms his talent to inadvertently capture the perfect scene and document reality, unstaged.

By framing the daily rhythms of our lives; and capturing atmospheres, changing light and movements without prioritising sharpness, these photographs create a reductionism that surprisingly offers us more by way of interpretation. Spence recalls an encounter with a gallery-goer, who while observing one of his works depicting a swimmer’s floating feet protruding from the water, mistook them for swimming chickens.

‘The images of this book are acts of forgetting, of shutting down the monkey mind and allowing whatever the hell looks after this stuff; do what it needs to do,’ says Spence. So, dive in, swim with poultry, and see where the current takes you.