Artist Profile - - CONTENTS - by Owen Craven

Fiona Pard­ing­ton is one of New Zealand’s fore­most con­tem­po­rary pho­tog­ra­phers. Her cap­ti­vat­ing im­ages draw heav­ily on the Euro­pean tra­di­tion of the ‘vanita paint­ing’, where the lux­ury and op­u­lence of the ma­te­rial world is un­der­mined by the im­mi­nence of de­cay.

Pard­ing­ton’s pho­to­graphs are metic­u­lously compose still life stud­ies, which use found ob­jects that are richly lay­ered with their own his­tory, such as re­dis­cov­ered fam­ily heir­looms, taxi­der­mied an­i­mals, na­tive botan­i­cal items or even rub­bish sourced from her lo­cal beaches. Life, death, long­ing and loss are all ex­plored in her pho­to­graphs.

Artist Pro­file spoke with Pard­ing­ton about her work and how her ev­ery­day life is in­trin­si­cally linked to her pho­to­graphic prac­tice.

A lot of the ob­jects and an­i­mals I use are spir­i­tu­ally in­tense – they all have big his­to­ries.

What led you to pho­tog­ra­phy in the first in­stance?

It was to­tally ran­dom, I went to art school and it was the first year and you try ev­ery­thing. I went into the dark room, and there was this red light and it was just beau­ti­ful and I could hear the sounds of the wa­ter. And I like dark­ness. It was just a mag­i­cal chem­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence of watch­ing an image com­ing out of a tab­ula rasa – ab­so­lutely noth­ing.

Then I re­alised pho­tog­ra­phy was a bit of an un­der­dog and I thought “How could this be – this is the most com­pli­cated and fan­tas­tic medium that ex­ists to­day?” I knew that im­me­di­ately, even be­fore I un­der­stood the is­sues that sur­round sub­jec­tiv­ity and ob­jects. I also re­alised al­most im­me­di­ately how it sup­ported em­pa­thy so well, and it was such an in­ti­mate process be­cause you could take your tools any­where.

So while there was this pas­sion for the ma­te­rial ob­ject you could cre­ate, you were ex­cited by the pho­tog­ra­phy’s po­ten­tial?

I had this feel­ing about pho­tog­ra­phy be­ing so much more than any­one could pos­si­bly imag­ine. Now peo­ple are start­ing to un­der­stand it, and the cal­i­bre of peo­ple that are writ­ing about it like [Thomas] Pyn­chon and oth­ers are es­tab­lish­ing its place in art his­tory.

the sub­ject mat­ter of your pho­to­graphs ranges from mu­seum ar­ti­facts to taxi­dermy birds and gen­eral waste you find in nat­u­ral places, which you present as tra­di­tional still life com­po­si­tions. how has your sub­ject mat­ter evolved over the years?

When I was a young person I was re­ally shy so I pho­tographed my fam­ily – my grand­mother, my brother and then my par­ents be­cause I was too shy to pho­to­graph any­body else. Once I’d fin­ished with them I started pho­tograph­ing things that were around me like my mother’s teacup, her shoes and her legs. I think I’ve got in­tu­ition about sub­ject mat­ter and I re­ally trust that in­tu­ition. So I take on sub­ject mat­ter that are ‘over’ – ‘hid­den from plain sight’ is how I like to talk about a lot of the sub­ject mat­ter I use. It’s where you think you know a thing but you don’t know a thing. The ob­jects I pho­to­graph have been dis­carded and their his­tory turned off. In my work, I’m turn­ing the key to turn them back on again.

how is it that you find these ‘in­vis­i­ble’ or ‘for­got­ten’ ob­jects? From where do you source the ma­te­rial?

I live it. 24/7 I live it. I go to a lot of places that have a lot of stuff for me to pho­to­graph. I live in a se­cluded area of New Zealand’s North Is­land with a lot of in­tense weather pat­terns but also beau­ti­ful birdlife, pen­guins and al­ba­tross. Af­ter a storm, I take a quad bike and go look­ing for dead birds and var­i­ous bits of rub­bish that have come in with the storm. My whole life is about that – what’s on the side of the road, or a bird some­body has ran over.

What is it about these dis­carded or for­got­ten ob­jects that ex­cites you to breathe new life into them?

A lot of the ob­jects and an­i­mals I use are spir­i­tu­ally in­tense – they all have big his­to­ries. For me, all ob­jects main­tain their en­ergy from the past and from the peo­ple and things in which they were in­volved.

your life­style and your art prac­tice go hand in hand with each other. Pho­tog­ra­phy is a way for you to im­mor­talise the ob­jects in daily life you find en­tic­ing and en­dear­ing...

Cer­tainly one wouldn’t ex­ist with­out the other. My life and my art are to­tally in­ter­twined.

Well I grew out of my pho­to­graphic prac­tice as a person. I owe most of the good things about me to be­ing freed by my prac­tice over the years. Cer­tainly one wouldn’t ex­ist with­out the other. My life and my art are to­tally in­ter­twined – I can’t even go on a hol­i­day with­out tak­ing my equip­ment, and it’s not be­cause I feel guilty or I have to work, I just can’t not work.

How have you seen pho­tog­ra­phy change in re­cent years with the rise of dig­i­tal cam­eras and the like?

It’s great that you can take pho­tos on the moon or in­side peo­ple’s bod­ies – all these dif­fer­ent ap­pli­ca­tions of pho­tog­ra­phy… It’s a huge moth­er­fucker, pho­tog­ra­phy! I am re­ally happy with the way things evolved. Although I’m very un­happy I’m not work­ing in ana­logue any­more be­cause they stopped mak­ing sol­vent pa­pers that I printed.

Do you still de­velop your own film or is your prac­tice now all dig­i­tal?

It is all dig­i­tal be­cause I can’t get what I want to work with, and I don’t want to make sub­stan­dard work.

You spoke so fondly of watch­ing an image ap­pear be­fore your eyes in the dark room. Do you mourn that as­pect of your pho­tog­ra­phy?

To­tally. I find my­self fantasising about it be­cause I miss it. I love the sound of wa­ter and be­ing in a dark room with a lit­tle red light on. That was my life and so I do feel sad that I can’t do that at the mo­ment. Hav­ing said that, now I work many more hours a day any­where be­cause of the ease of dig­i­tal pro­duc­tion.

Your works are very dimly, yet pre­cisely, lit with great depth of tone and colour. Can you tell me about the im­por­tance of light­ing within your work?

I love my light­ing; I’ve got shit­loads of dif­fer­ent lights. I’m not very good with math’s – I can’t do math’s, and I find it very hard to do num­bers. When I looked at flash me­ters, light read­ing de­vices and cam­era lenses as a novice I nearly wet my­self. I couldn’t un­der­stand what the num­bers were do­ing. In the end I just worked with lots of dif­fer­ent types of avail­able light­ing to suit my needs – set­ting up my lights or sim­ply open­ing the door to let sun­light through.

Your pho­to­graphs bor­row from the Euro­pean tra­di­tion of 16th and 17th Cen­tury to in­ves­ti­gate the ma­te­rial world, life and de­cay. How does this his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ence con­trib­ute to your con­tem­po­rary still life com­po­si­tions?

van­i­tas I’ve al­ways liked art his­tory, so I spent my life look­ing at Car­avag­gio and peo­ple like that. I’ve al­ways felt it was never de­lib­er­ate; it just hap­pened that those tastes have grown into me be­cause of my in­ter­ests when I was younger. I’m su­per old school be­cause I get so

fucked off with cyn­i­cal light­weight fash­ion­istas in art his­tory. And as pho­tog­ra­phers, we were al­ways on the back foot be­cause we were con­sid­ered a lower species. So for me I like the whole sub­ject mat­ter and as a pho­tog­ra­pher I thought I was the per­fect person to look at that.

Your pho­to­graphs have a very pain­terly aes­thetic – at a brief glance, the works could be mis­taken for a paint­ing. Is this an il­lu­sion­ary tech­nique you con­sciously use to draw view­ers fur­ther into the pic­ture?

I didn’t con­sciously want them to end up look­ing as paint­ings, they just did be­cause of a num­ber of aes­thetic de­ci­sions that I made. What kind of pa­per I liked, I’ve al­ways re­ally de­spised colour pa­per and all of that, I didn’t re­ally do any colour un­til I got re­ally good at black and could make it in large amounts. A sim­i­lar time, on­line I found a par­tic­u­lar type of old lens that peo­ple used for wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy a long time ago. It has all these dif­fer­ent types of glass in­side it, one’s for red, one’s for green and the other for blue. When I started us­ing it – it’s long lens was stretch­ing from my bed­room out into the lounge, to the ta­ble with all the stuff of on it. I haven’t been able to take it off my cam­era be­cause ev­ery­thing is not as good to me at all. The way ev­ery­thing flat­tens. I did my black and white be­cause ev­ery­thing was flat, the weighted ob­jects in my pho­to­graphs. I spent a lot of time repho­tograph­ing med­i­cal pho­to­graphs out of old teach­ing books, and it be­came re­ally ob­vi­ous how they had looked at Re­nais­sance paint­ings when pho­tograph­ing peo­ple’s bod­ies. So af­ter that I didn’t feel bad about it. The spa­ces that I set up are imag­i­na­tive – they’re in the world but you can’t re­ally see how they’re in the world. Im­me­di­ately it takes you in­side your head or some­body else’s head. While I’m a smar­tarse – and I know I’m good at what I do – I’m not sure I can trick any­body. Fiona Pard­ing­ton is rep­re­sented by Two Rooms Gallery, Auck­land, and {Suite}, Welling­ton.


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