While assembling a portfolio of photographs in 1952, Henri Cartier-Bresson borrowed a quote from a 17th-century cleric.
“There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment,” read the line by Cardinal de Retz. Applying this idea of a decisive moment to his own photographic style, Cartier-Bresson wrote, “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression.”
Sydney-based artist Justine Varga also stalks the decisive moment through her photographic practice, but her hunt is slower and subtler, her quarry a different beast. Instead of stunning her prey with the split-second blast of a shutter button, Varga sets a patient trap with analogue, often camera-less, photographic methods. The moments she pursues are hard to seize, liable to slip free of ambush. But, like any good hunter, Varga knows the importance of occasionally capturing something and letting it go – it’s the hunt itself that is the sport.
“For Cartier-Bresson,” she says, “the decisive moment is that instantaneous moment that you capture, and you’ve almost got to hunt it and wait for it. But I’m thinking about all those moments before that instant and the moments afterwards as well.
The centrepiece of Varga’s new solo exhibition at Hugo Michell Gallery, Memoire, is a C-type photograph called Marking Time, 2016. Despite the bold assertion of the title, the work circles around the notion of time and its expression, maintaining only the slipperiest of grips. “I was marking down the time,” she explains, “but lost track of time, even though I was trying to somehow hold it.”
Varga started working on it in October last year, during a transitory time in her life when the days just ticked away. She worked on it from home and then she worked on it from Europe. She worked on it in Paris, where on one Friday night a flustered waiter came to her table and explained that the city was under attack. She kept working on it from the city in mourning, kept working on it as she kept travelling throughout a continent on edge. Once she got home, she worked on it a bit more.
The end result, after months of marking a sheet of film, is turbulent and restive despite its static form. Frozen in one spot are moments of joy and moments of horror, global events and personal incidents, all of it bookended by the everyday of work and home. The decisive moments are at once too few and too many, too big and too small, to catch.
“It speaks of duration but also of endurance,” Varga explained in an artist statement, “of longing but also of doubt, of mind but also of flesh. Through it we can gain access to a complicated experience of time and memory that is otherwise impossible to represent.”
Much like her photographs, Varga’s interest in analogue photography processes came about as a steady accumulation, as marks slowly notched one by one over time. While in Year 8, Varga’s teacher identified a spark of interest and offered her full access to two dark rooms. By Year 11, she was undertaking an HSC Intensive Studio Practice at the National Art School, where she would go on to study.
The school had an indelible influence on her development. As part of the program, she had to study not only photography but also a broad range of fine art disciplines, particularly drawing. She recalls an exercise wherein the students had to make a drawing and erase it immediately, the idea being that “it’s the process of making, not the final product, that is of the most importance”.
“That very much is my approach to this day,” she says. “When you approach making like that, you can feel it in the work. I think that’s why a lot of people connect with my work, because it’s not just appearances and surface – there is more going on through the act of making.
“I don’t make work with a set image as to what it’s going to look like, because my work is very much tethered to time and experience and what happens within that period. I don’t have a desire to just create an image – it’s more about the process of creating.”