Narelle Autio, George Street (Angel), 2001. Murry Art Museum Albury Collection. Gift of the Russell Mills Foundation, 2015. On display at MAMA until May 1. Earlier this year a photograph of a man lying on the road with his pants falling down and his hand reaching for a bottle of beer went viral on social media.
The photograph, taken on New Year’s Eve in Manchester’s city centre, was brought to Twitter’s attention by a BBC producer who compared the image to a beautiful painting. That one tweet was retweeted about 30,000 times. The photograph was also turned into numerous memes using Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, Seurat’s Bathers at Asnieres and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.
Despite the hype, photographer Joel Goodman, who works for the Manchester Evening News, was far more circumspect about his achievement, describing it as a case of simply being “in the right place at the right time”. He added that “there are street photographers who regularly make art of these sort of scenes.”
Goodman’s “being in the right place at the right time” echoes masters of photography such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, who believed in capturing the decisive moment and seeing the unusual in the everyday, or Ansel Adams, whose take was: “Sometimes I arrive just when God’s ready to have someone click the shutter.” In a nutshell, it is what some critics have referred to as that amazing instant when life becomes poetry.
Such moments, vignettes of life, are eloquently captured in works such as George Street (Angel) by Narelle Autio, on display at the Murray Art Museum Albury, on the border of NSW and Victoria.
Autio, who was born in Adelaide, completed a visual arts degree before joining Adelaide’s The Advertiser as a photojournalist. After extensive travel overseas, she returned to Sydney in 1998 to continue working as a photographer. In 2000 she began exhibiting her prints, often collaborating with her husband, fellow photographer Trent Parke.
When I visit Albury, I am shown George Street (Angel) by curator Bianca Acimovic, who says Autio’s vibrant images have won her widespread acclaim and an impressive list of accolades. For instance, Autio has twice won World Press Photo awards as well as Walkley awards. She was the first Australian to win the Leica Oskar Barnack Award for her series Coastal Dwellers. She has also twice turned up in Art Collector magazine’s list of the 50 most collectable Australian artists.
In George Street (Angel), Autio captures a moment when a taxi has pulled over on one of Sydney’s main thoroughfares. Into that taxi steps an angel but we can’t see the angel’s face. The street is dark except for the glow of passing cars and a red Christmas tree across the road.
Autio observes daily life with the curiosity and attention to small details of a foreigner in a strange land, says Bronwyn Rennex, director of Sydney’s Stills Gallery, which has shown Autio’s work for the past 16 years.
“Narelle Autio takes a lyrical and whimsical look at the world around us,” Rennex tells me when I ask about George Street (Angel).
“Whatever the subject, Autio’s affectionate observations of daily life have a touch of magic realism. The image is a great example. It allows the viewer to take an imaginative leap out of the everyday.
The light falling on the angel’s wings heightens the feeling of transcendence.
“She could be an angel from a Pre-Raphaelite painting — perhaps not surprisingly as Autio worked in paint before photography. But, unaware of this magical moment, the cab driver brings us back to reality.”
Pigment print, 400mm x 600mm