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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Peripheral vision

by Aimee Board, 20 January 2020

Adut Akech, 2018 Charles Dennington
Adut Akech, 2018 Charles Dennington

Following your mfa at Sydney College of Art you studied for a time in Berlin. Can you tell me more about your foundation years and the early influences on your practice?
I started out studying illustration and design at the University of Western Sydney, but I kind of didn’t get along with my drawing teacher. Then in my foundation year I did well in photography, so I just switched to it, and found I was crazy about it. I was obsessed! I was always in the darkroom – I found it much easier to engage with, and that it was more stimulating, because inevitably there were so many collaborators. And I also (before studying) did a year of ceramic art; we were life sculpting the figure, which was quite different from life drawing.

So you had that real foundation in form and light? What were your early influences?
It’s funny, yeah – years later I went on to Sydney College of Art for Masters. A couple of my really close friends were going on exchange, so I started doing Masters so I could do the same thing. So we all went together at the same time. I studied at UdK in Berlin [Berlin University of the Arts – one of the oldest and largest art schools in Europe], under the guidance of the amazing German sculptor, Manfred Pernice. He had a particular affection towards materials, everyday found objects, or other ephemera you might look past. In terms of influences, I tend to love individual pictures and artworks rather than delving too deeply into individual artists’ archives. Having said that, artists like Man Ray, William Eggleston, Bill Brandt and also Giacometti were strong influences early on.

1Woman with a broken shoulder, c. 1958-9 Alberto Giacometti. 2Composite of faces II, 2013 Charles Dennington.

It’s interesting that you include the sculptor, Giacometti, among your influences – can you elaborate?
Yeah, I love Giacometti for his distortion of his figures. I’m really interested in the way the figures kind of reduce to being really scant and ‘half-present’. It’s similar to ideas that appeal to me when photographing portraits that are obscured – as though you’re looking at something that’s on the periphery of what you’re looking at. And Giacometti’s sculptures are so interesting because they’re meant to be viewed at a certain distance. Like all the little daubs of plaster that have been cast and become bronze, they all interconnect at a certain viewing distance. Like the grains of a photograph, or like the details of a photograph – ideally looking at it a certain way or from a certain angle – and it all aligns and comes together. I’m really interested in not only his use of viewing distance, but his distortion of the figure to the point where you feel like you're indirectly looking at it, or you’re kind of supposed to almost absorb the sense of that presence.

1Two portraits III (detail), 2013. 2Leanna in garden, 2005. Both Charles Dennington.

So, conceptually, this feeds into this idea of connection and disconnectedness that you explore in your artistic practice, particularly in your Korora series where we see deep shadows impressed on the figure. You talk about these shadows forming their own language system?
Yes, it’s almost just about considering the elemental nature of authorship that the artist is able to exploit to create and communicate when using raw materials. In Giacometti’s work, even though his sculptures haven’t been carved, you could almost mistakenly think he started with a dense block of material and carved a figure out of it, but then he’s just gone a bit too far and carved it a bit too much and it’s gone a bit too skinny. And I really like how with photography you can mask things out; you can mask out shadows, and it’s almost like you’re carving out from a block. By intervening with introduced shadows and other elements you’re more intimately creating and authoring your pictures. Inevitably when I’m in this frame of mind I like to consider that I’m photographing a presence by obscuring it and putting in a field of contradictions of hard shadows and bright highlights ... and they’re almost broken off and floating in these dark voids. I just think that’s really interesting – to create almost a constellation or a field of forms that interconnect, and then create something so abstracted.

I’d like to tap into your interest in the peripheral and this sense of weightlessness in your work.
A past exhibition of mine was titled Peripheral Canopy. That title was a reference to a feeling of seeing a face, likeness or figure on the edge of vision, and purposefully not looking at it directly. I was interested in exploring what could be garnered from a presence if it were only looked at in an abstracted way, and felt in other ways. How the initial impression of a person on the periphery could be intuitively kind of absorbed. Portraits I’ve made with that in mind have been obscured with shadows reducing them to fields of isolated highlights where I’m trying to recreate a sense of something I’ve seen in my imagination. Under a dense tree canopy back home at the property where I grew up in Korora near Coffs Harbour – it was there where I spent so much time, and I began imagining apparitions amid the dappled light which were hard for me to define.

We often see outsider settings and spaces on the perimeter in your work. Can you elaborate on how your choice of environment places emphasis on the figure?
I feel as though there’s a certain balance to settings which feel non-idyllic or nondescript – they become kind of neutral texture in a picture. They also come from being a kid hanging out in vacant lots, smashing up a burned out old car, skateboarding and just fiddling around!

How does your conceptual practice feed into your commercial work?
In my personal work and to an extent in my commercial pictures I work with the malleability of reality. I let colours shift, and over or underexpose film so it gives a distressed, otherworldly look to the gradation of colours, or distorts the grain and details. In my commercial work I like working with a deadpan way of taking pictures in that the communication of the images can be clear, with ‘everyday’ scenes. That deadpan mode (or what it means to me) has only recently entered my personal work as a new way of seeing. [It’s about] documenting something significant to me with as much straightforward clarity as I can achieve. I try to get away with aspects of my personal work entering my pictures for brands and editorials, which can be fun to play with. The two ways of working kind of coexist in an awkward kind of a way. It’s a fun internal dialogue in that I can inject a little of my personal language into my commercial work without it necessarily being noticed.

1Yar, Adut and their baby sister Akuol, 2018. 2Adut Akech with family (from left: Kim, Adut, Yar, Bior and Alakiir), 2018. Both Charles Dennington.

And how does that conceptual approach to the figure and ground in your art practice feed into the images of Adut Akech in her suburban home environment? Can we draw a parallel between the two?
Yeah, I suppose it’s sort of like I’ve got two very awkwardly different streams of work, kind of co-existing! Even my works and my commercial work: it’s a very awkward existence, the two. They intermingle every now and again but they don’t necessarily speak to one another. But having done pictures that are kind of abstracted and harsh, and those sort of portrait pictures that I’ve been doing since probably about 2005 or so, on an ongoing basis ... I think through doing that I’ve become attracted to doing something a bit more deadpan and a bit more literal with the light and the way it's been shot and colour-graded. Something a bit more from documentary, a bit more real and straight. That sort of thing is kind of popping out too because of how artificial the other pictures have been.

1 . 2 . Adut Akech 2018

What else do you remember about your shoot with Adut?
There was a quite serious creative planning lead-in time with that particular Vogue story. I think we had about a month or more of pre-production and – even though Adut’s such a superstar with all the shows and amazing shoots she’s doing overseas – we had the luxury of getting her into the Vogue office to talk to her in-depth her for an afternoon – Jill Davison [Vogue creative director] and I. And so we were able to figure out what we would do for the shoot in greater detail. We knew we wanted to do a story about her and her family and her upbringing. We were really lucky enough to interview her and ask her what she loves to do, what she did when she was at school, what her hobbies are, what her family are really into – like her sister loves boxing. And based on that we were able to just create a list of scenarios, little vignettes that we could prop out with a prop stylist and create little narratives to work with. It’s a way that I hadn’t worked before – talking to the talent in-depth before the shoot. It’s usually just a series of pictures of a model in great fashion, shot in an atmospheric setting, looking off into the distance or gazing into the camera. I started thinking in terms of subject matter for the first time. As in when your subject matter includes autobiographical content or other storytelling aspects the series of images inevitably becomes more loaded with meaning and grounded in a real context. It was such a massive privilege to work with Adut Akech Bior and her family in that capacity. It was so kind of her to let us into her life like that.

Related people

Charles Dennington

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.