Up Close: Carol Jerrems with Larry Clark, Nan Goldin and William Yang

Natalie King (ed.),
Up Close: Carol Jerrems with Larry Clark, Nan Goldin and William Yang.
Melbourne: Heide Museum of Modern Art/Schwartz City, 2010.
ISBN: 9 78186395 501 0
AU$59.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Heide Museum of Modern Art/Schwartz City)

“(Susan) Sontag once said to me that in all of human history, in only one brief period were people free to have sex when and where they wanted -between 1960, with the introduction of the first birth-control pills, and 1981, with the advent of AIDS … in 1981 all that came to an end.” (Edmund White)[1]

Up Close: Carol Jerrems with Larry Clark, Nan Goldin and William Yang, edited and curated by Natalie King, is the catalogue for the exhibition of the same name that was recently held at Heide Museum of Modern Art in association with the Melbourne International Arts Festival, 2010.

As with other excellent exhibition catalogues such as Emma Dexter and Thomas Weski’s Cruel and Tender: Photography and The Real, Bill Henson’s Mnemosyne, Thomas Weski’s Andreas Gursky and Peter Galassi’s Henri-Cartier Bresson: The Modern City, Up Close is a substantial publication that warrants close consideration and critical attention beyond its immediate exhibition context.

This is the first significant exhibition of Jerrems’s work in 20 years since Helen Ennis and Bob Jenyns curated the first survey show of Jerrems’s work Living in the Seventies: Photographs of Carol Jerrems, an Australian National Gallery travelling exhibition in 1990. The selection of Jerrems’s work that featured in that exhibition is also shown here, with some additions. In the interim Kathy Drayton has made the important and affecting documentary, Girl in a Mirror: A Portrait of Carol Jerrems (2005), which curator Natalie King cites as pivotal in motivating her to embark on the four year journey that culminated in the exhibition and this book. The exhibition also includes previously unseen photos and journals that King has uncovered, as well as outtakes from Drayton’s documentary. The most significant change from the previous exhibition is the positioning of Jerrems’s work alongside other key photographic artists working in the late 1970s and early 1980s, who were also photographing their friends and various subcultural and minority groups.

The exhibition and book also introduces a new generation to the work of Jerrems, and provides an opportunity to assess her legacy and reconsider her work in a much broader context.

While the book’s cover features Jerrems’s iconic image Vale Street, the images inside show the broader range of her oeuvre. What is immediately apparent is that Jerrems was a passionate photographer who documented the people of her generation in a time of great social and cultural change. Jerrems was also the subject of other photographers’ work. There are portraits of her taken by Rennie Ellis, Robert Ashton and Henry Talbot as well as several self-portraits. Though there has been a tendency to frame Jerrems as the photographer of singular iconic images, the book makes the point that she often worked in series, such as the series of portraits previously published in A Book About Australian Women, of artists, women’s liberationists, Aboriginal spokeswomen, activists, mothers, children and friends. Other series in the book include the subculture of sharpies, the alphabet folio, the Macquarie university portfolio, and her final hospital series.

In addition to the generous selection of images, the book also features several newly commissioned critical and reflective essays by Helen Ennis, Isobel Crombie, Gael Newton, Ann Marsh, Kathy Drayton, Virginia Fraser, Judy Annear, Anne O’Hehir, as well as an overview essay by curator Natalie King and a detailed chronology of Jerrems’s life and work. There is also a new interview with Paul Cox, one of Jerrems’s teachers at Prahran Technical College, and reminiscences from photographer Roger Scott and Jerrems’s brother Ken. These essays and interviews provide new insights into Jerrems’s work and life.

There are, for instance, new readings of the Vale Street image. Natalie King provides background to the making of the image and explains how it was ’orchestrated over a number of hours’. Included are the contact sheets showing the sequence of exposures that led to the final image. Jerrems’s obvious staging of such images challenges the idea that she was simply a documentary photographer concerned with reportage. Judy Annear’s essay traces the history of Vale Street and when it became an icon of Australian photography, suggesting that it was already iconic not long after it was taken in 1975. It was featured in the 1976 book Australian Photography edited by Laurence Le Guay, and by 1979 was on the front cover of the NGA’s Australian Photographers: The Philip Morris Collection with Max Dupain’s Sunbaker (1937) on the back.

In a related essay Kathy Drayton analyses the image Mark Lean: Rape Game. Mark Lean was one of the young tattooed adolescents in the Vale Street image, one of a group of young sharpies that Jerrems taught and photographed. Drayton interviewed Mark Lean and Jon Bourke for her documentary so she gained greater understanding of Jerrems’s relationship with her subjects and their view of the photographic shoots. Also revealed is Jerrems’s chameleon-like personality and how differently others remember her. Drayton speculates on the reason why Jerrems was preoccupied with the theme of rape that is explored in this image, and suggests that it was “a vulnerable aspect of the photographer’s persona, conflicted by the competing and contradictory demands urged upon women in the name of liberation during the 1960s.” (p. 147)

One of the most insightful essays in the book is written by Helen Ennis who discusses the moving images that Jerrems made when she was very ill in the Royal Hobart Hospital. This was to become the final series of images before her untimely death. Ennis describes these images as “more ours than hers” (p. 150) because Jerrems died before she had a chance to print them, or decide which images she would have exhibited, or how she might have reflected on them. Ennis also singles out the mirror self-portraits, describing “the complex layering of reflection and representation” (p. 153) and questioning what these images tell us about Jerrems, and asking where Jerrems herself exists between “her reflected and photographed” (p. 153) self. Ennis challenges us to reconsider these images and how we respond to them, particularly in the conclusion of her essay when she says that these images “extend no invitation to the viewer” (p. 153)

While the book is predominantly focussed on Jerrems’s work, there is also a selection of images from the work of her contemporaries Larry Clark, Nan Goldin and William Yang, with an essay on each photographer and a brief biography. They all photographed their immediate circle of friends and associates, as Jerrems did, and produced work that has been equally described as raw, confronting and illuminating of the social and cultural milieu of their time.

I was, however, surprised that, apart from Russell Storer’s essay on William Yang, the essays don’t compare the photographers. What is also not made evident are their possible influences on Jerrems’s work. For example, Larry Clark’s marvellous Tulsa series, which dates back to 1963, had been exhibited at Photographers Gallery in Melbourne in 1979, where Jerrems’s own work had previously been shown.

Raymond Bellour in an essay titled ‘Concerning ‘The Photographic’, describes the photographic as something that “exists somewhere in-between; it is a state of ‘in-between-ness’: in movement, it is that which interrupts, that paralyzes; in immobility, it perhaps bespeaks its relative impossibility”.[2] This shifting status of the photographic, between the real and the constructed, between the still and the moving, is something each of the photographers has intimately explored, as they all worked across series, and went on to make their own films.

Jerrems made the short film Hanging About (1978) and there is also her unfinished film School’s Out (1975). William Yang made the marvellous documentary Sadness (2002). In an interview in 1995 Larry Clark told Paul Schrader that he “always wanted to make the teenage movie that I felt America never made—the great American teenage movie, like the great American teenage novel.” (p. 178) Clark made that film, Kids (1995), and extended its definition with Bully (2001), Ken Park (2002) and Wassup Rockers (2006). Nan Goldin’s slide show The Ballad of Sexual Dependency was exhibited in galleries, museums, cinemas and clubs, and Goldin also made the films I’ll be Your Mirror (1995), Dire Aids (2000), Contacts (2000) and Sister Saints and Sibyls (2004). In her essay, Juliana Engeberg describes Goldin’s images as ripped “from the celluloid of Fassbinder and Cassavetes” (p. 200), situating her work in a deeply emotional cinema. That each of the photographers felt compelled to tell their stories in celluloid is something that warrants further exploration. This book brings their work together for the first time and is an important step towards that investigation. It is a historically important, and surprisingly revealing, publication on so many levels.

Anna Dzenis,
La Trobe University, Australia.


[1] Cited in Natalie King (ed.), Up Close: Carol Jerrems with Larry Clark, Nan Goldin and William Yang. Melbourne: Heide Museum of Modern Art/Schwartz City, 2010. p. 224.
[2] Raymond Bellour, ‘Concerning ‘The Photographic’, in Karen Beckman and Jean Ma (eds), Still Moving: Between Cinema and Photography. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008, p. 253.

Created on: Tuesday, 16 November 2010

About the Author

Anna Dzenis

About the Author

Anna Dzenis

Anna Dzenis is a Screen Studies lecturer and researcher who has taught at La Trobe University, Victorian College of the Arts and RMIT. She teaches screen literacy, screen criticism, world cinema, film history and theories of visuality. She is a scholar of photography and cinema and brings these two disciplines together in her teaching and research. She is co-editor of the online journal Screening the Past, and has published essays in Senses of Cinema, Screening the Past, Lola, Real Time, Metro, The Conversation, 24 Frames: Australia and New Zealand, The Oxford Companion to Australian Film, and The Routledge Encyclopaedia of Films.View all posts by Anna Dzenis →