Worlds be­yond the care­fully framed shots

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

In their re­spec­tive sec­ond books, Gretchen Shirm and Emma Chap­man po­si­tion male pho­tog­ra­phers squarely in the frame as their main pro­tag­o­nists. Shirm’s de­but, a col­lec­tion of snap­shots of a small-town com­mu­nity ( Hav­ing Cried Wolf, 2010), was deftly han­dled and her lat­est ef­fort con­firms she’s just as adept at long­form fic­tion. Though the novel, like her an­thol­ogy, is painted in rather melan­cholic tones, the char­ac­ters are finely etched and well-lit against the som­bre back­drop of events.

An­drew Spruce is a 37-year-old pho­tog­ra­pher whose lenses pro­vide a con­ve­nient pro­tec­tive bar­rier against the world. He’s a spec­ta­tor of life rather than a fully en­gaged par­tic­i­pant: “There were peo­ple who lived inside them­selves and those who lived their lives ex­ter­nally and he had al­ready ac­cepted which of the two he was.”

He may be cog­nisant of his ten­dency to re- coil un­der pres­sure but An­drew fal­ters in his in­abil­ity to forge close at­tach­ments; there’s a de­gree of anx­i­ety and self-sabotage in his in­ter­ac­tions that Shirm draws out in stead­fast, un­flinch­ing de­tail.

It’s a book that’s in­ter­ested in dam­age, par­tic­u­larly that which is res­o­lutely hid­den from oth­ers. In a telling char­ac­ter por­trait, Shirm notes how for his fine arts hon­ours de­gree An- drew pho­tographed a porce­lain teacup. But be­fore shoot­ing the pic­ture he de­lib­er­ately broke it along one side and re-glued it to­gether and ar­ranged the light so it caught the fine break. The fi­nal im­age cap­tured was the just-vis­i­ble crack.

It was the du­al­ity of per­cep­tion that in­spired him. Some peo­ple would sim­ply be­hold an ob­ject of beauty; oth­ers would no­tice its fault line. For An­drew “the flaws were what he loved … To him there was more hon­esty in bro­ken things than in things that looked shiny and new.”

It’s not sur­pris­ingly then, that he is drawn to Ber­lin, with its graf­fi­tied, bat­tle-scarred land­scape. That’s where we first meet him, liv­ing and work­ing with his girl­friend Do­minique, hav­ing left Aus­tralia three years ago in quest of a mar­ket more suited to his artis­tic am­bi­tions.

But he’s drawn back home af­ter find­ing out that his former lover Kirsten has been miss­ing for three weeks. Re­trac­ing Kirsten’s fi­nal known steps, An­drew vis­its her fam­ily — want­ing to un­der­stand what has hap­pened cer­tainly, but also seek­ing re­as­sur­ance that he was not re­spon­si­ble for her ac­tions, what­ever they were.

Time spent with his mother brings to the sur­face his fa­ther’s death decades ago; these me­mories some­how com­min­gle with Kirsten’s dis­ap­pear­ance. In­deed, a sense of loss per­vades the novel and pho­tog­ra­phy is de­scribed as the “beauty of cap­tur­ing some­thing that would never hap­pen again”.

When An­drew meets a girl with a lop­sided face who would make an ideal sub­ject for his lat­est ex­hi­bi­tion, he be­gins to ques­tion his pri­ori­ti­sa­tion of art over the messi­ness of life; it’s far eas­ier to ma­nip­u­late an im­age than to con­front the truth. It’s grad­u­ally re­vealed that the care­fully edited pic­tures are born of a con­trol he

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