Tamara Dean is known for her photographic works that document subjects who are often engaged in some quiet interaction with the natural environment. These actions recall a rite of passage, or ritual, the essence of which is private and agreed upon by a small cohort. Dean’s cinematic sense of light bears strains of Australian Gothic without the genre’s omnipresent threat of violence. Earning her stripes as a documentary photographer for the Sydney Morning Herald, she turned to photography as an art form in 2005. Since then she has exhibited regularly in Australia and abroad including London’s National Portrait Gallery and a slew of international art fairs.
Recently Dean has moved toward installations and participatory works, with her photographs at the forefront. In …Stream of Consciousness, 2018 a lone figure plunges into a void, caught mid-jump he seems to soar. The youth is captured in sharp chiaroscuro and is projected onto a pool of water. He wouldn’t be out of place on the vault of a Baroque cathedral. Questions of spirituality and innate human nature are linchpins of her practice, with nature as a frequent witness or protagonist.
VK—You grew up in Sydney – what was it like in your immediate surrounds?
TD—Until the age of seven I lived on the edge of a nature reserve in Chatswood, Sydney. There was a eucalyptus tree that came straight up through our back deck, and I recall the time each summer when it would be encased in a deafening layer of thousands of cicadas. The sounds, smells and beauty of the bush are embedded deep in my psyche. It is where I feel most at home.
VK—What was the first photograph that you took that you were thrilled with?
TD—That would have to be a portrait I made of my youngest sister, Hannah, when she was aged 10 in Lane Cove National Park. Her hair was wet after I asked her to go into a stream and she was looking directly into the camera. There was a sense of strength in her eyes, of her being wise beyond her years.
VK—Looking at your CV, you have travelled a lot. What are some of the places that have stayed with you?
TD—I am fortunate enough to have spent quite a bit of time travelling in Australia but my favourite place is Hill End. I have done many artist residencies there and love the thriving community. It has a unique mix of artists, farmers, miners, and many other unique and varied individuals. It is a town that holds a special place in my heart.
VK—Landscape, particular Australia’s ancient and raw environment, tends to evoke our sense of the numinous. That sense is also present in you work. How do you interpret or understand that inclination to experience spiritual awe in nature?
TD—I can only speak to this personally. Once I enter the bush, I shift into another place inside myself. The smell of the earth and leaves, the sounds of the forest, and the play of light through the foliage, all come together to create an elevated sense of reality for me. It makes me feel more alive and more capable of being in the moment. I drift into what I could only describe as something akin to a daydream. I am mesmerised by the micro and the macro. My senses are heightened. For me, this is the closest to what I would consider a spiritual experience.
VK—Over the years you have explored the ritualistic and risk-taking elements of young people. The bush offers a kind of escape from the boundaries and fences of school and home, as well as from the observation of adults. What do you find so potent in youth?
TD—In terms of stages in life, that time in youth where independence is being forged is particularly potent. It’s most often the first time where you are entirely responsible for your own safety and also the consequences of your choices. It’s a time where you can discover who you are apart from your family unit. There is a sense of freedom and of feeling invincible that comes with this age that can become dulled as we move into later stages of life where there are more responsibilities. There is a sense of pushing life to it limits.
VK—Is the nudity in your work also a kind of removal of a final layer of protection or a boundary?
TD—By placing unclothed humans in nature I am representing a shared sense of time between our ancestors and our future: a universality of human existence. I am depicting a space where we can imagine ourselves as primitive beings and yet still find a place in the here and now, to remember where we came from and reflect on where we are going.
VK—You have two bodies of work at two locations for the Adelaide Biennial – Stream of Consciousness, 2018, at the Art Gallery of South Australia, is an immersive installation in which you have combined a single photograph reflected in water, combined with a specially developed scent and a soundtrack to recreate a river scene. What was your rationale in having the photographs come ‘off the wall’, so to speak?
TD—I wanted to build on the experience of depicting the natural world in my work. When I enter a natural environment there is so much more to the experience than just what I see. I wanted to create a space that takes the viewer further – it’s an immersive, reflective experience, both symbolically and physically.
VK—How do you feel about working with video?
TD—I have not had the chance to work with video although I can see many possibilities that the medium could open up in my work should the opportunity arise.
VK—In Our Nature, also at the Biennial, is a series of photographs that chronicle the seasons along with the corresponding stages of a human life from childhood through to old age. Nature is not just a noun, it is also the way things are in the world, material cause; in another understanding it’s the way people behave. How else do these ideas interact in your work?
TD—I am quite interested in the instincts we possess as humans that have developed over years of evolution. These parts of our psyche are often overlooked as skills we possess in contemporary society. I think it is important for us to remember these parts of ourselves.
VK—What are some of the challenges of photographing people in natural surrounds?
TD—Certainly in the case of In Our Nature it was the weather. I had intended to photograph people in the gardens over the four seasons. Each image was planned to depict the gardens and human figures in such a way as to represent the season and the stage of their life.
My hope was that at least two of these seasons would have been mild, if not hot weather in which to photograph.
Thankfully all of the people who modelled for this series were incredible generous and pushed themselves through the discomfort of the shoots to create these works.
VK—Your work, Elephant ear (Alocasia odora) in Autumn from that series is the hero image for the Adelaide Biennial. What has the experience been like for you?
TD—It has been an incredible experience. I have never felt so supported as an artist before. It has been an absolute life highlight for me.
VK—What are some of the works in the Biennial that resonated with you?
VK—What is something that you have read or seen recently that changed or influenced your outlook?
TD—A book called The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben – a beautiful insight into the ways trees communicate and their ability to nurture and support each other within their eco-system. It’s a new framework of understanding the language of trees.
Divided Worlds: Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art is on until 3 June.