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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.

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In our nature

by Tara James, 19 January 2022

Introversion from High Jinks in the Hydrangeas, 2020 Tamara Dean
Introversion from High Jinks in the Hydrangeas, 2020 Tamara Dean. © Tamara Dean. Courtesy of the artist and Michael Reid – Sydney + Berlin

Highly acclaimed contemporary artist Tamara Dean’s intuitive, luminescent images reveal the fragility and vulnerability of both humans and the environment. After thirteen years spent honing her technical skills as a documentary photographer at the Sydney Morning Herald, Dean is now focused on telling her own stories and her work at its core explores the relationship between people and the natural world.

‘I almost always have someone in the photograph, and that person for me is the way into the story I’m trying to tell,’ she says. ‘I suppose that began at the Herald. I noticed that environmental portraiture was where I found that I was making my strongest work, where I was able to take a photograph of someone that spoke of a bigger story.’

Passage, willow forest (Salix) in autumn from In Our Nature, 2018 Tamara Dean
1 Passage, willow forest (Salix) in autumn from In Our Nature, 2018 Tamara Dean. © Tamara Dean. Features dancers from the Australian Dance Theatre. Courtesy of the artist and Michael Reid – Sydney + Berlin

Connection to nature is a major narrative within Dean’s photographs. In her series Instinctual (2017) and Endangered (2018) humans are presented as custodians of the earth and highlight the need to protect the environment. For In Our Nature (2018), figures symbolised as animals or plants connected to the landscape in images such as Sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) in autumn, Fallen willow (Salix) in autumn and Passage, willow forest (Salix) in autumn depict the fragility of our world and humans within it. ‘I’m always trying to make the point in my work that we are nature and nature is us,’ Dean says.

Sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) in autumn from In Our Nature, 2018 Tamara Dean
1 Sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) in autumn from In Our Nature, 2018 Tamara Dean. © Tamara Dean. Courtesy of the artist and Michael Reid – Sydney + Berlin

The winner of numerous awards – including the 2020 Goulburn Art Prize, 2019 Moran Contemporary Photographic Prize, 2018 Josephine Ulrick & Win Schubert Photography Award, 2018 Meroogal Women’s Art Prize and the 2011 Olive Cotton Award – Dean is also a three-time finalist of the National Photographic Portrait Prize (NPPP) at the National Portrait Gallery.

Dean says that entering photographic prizes has had a major influence on her career and is an important process for photographers. ‘I would say that entering competitions when I was an emerging artist, or young photographer, really helped me build my confidence to just have an opportunity to put the work up on a wall and among company that I might not have found myself in, certainly in those early works. That was really great for my morale.’

Now an established artist, Dean was excited to be a finalist in NPPP 2021, Living Memory. ‘I just really enjoy having that dialogue, even at this point in my career, I enjoy putting a work up and feeling a connection and link to the arts community.’

Neil Gaiman, The Sandman, 2013 by Tamara Dean
1 Neil Gaiman, The Sandman, 2013 by Tamara Dean

Viewing Dean’s finalist images in NPPP across the years reveals her continuing evolution as a photographer and storyteller. Her 2013 finalist work, Neil Gaiman, The Sandman, is reflective of her ongoing narrative of humans within a constructed landscape. The photojournalistic-style portrait depicts the author in a ‘graphic post-apocalyptic looking alleyway’ selected by Dean to represent the imaginary worlds he creates in his books.

The girls, 2017 by Tamara Dean
1 The girls, 2017 by Tamara Dean

The Girls, a NPPP finalist in 2018, explores the relationship between young people and nature in contemporary regional life. Photographed by Dean while she was in Cootamundra holding workshops at The Wired Lab, the work shows three strong female protagonists at ‘a local quarry on the outskirts of town, a place where local teens cool off in the heat of summer’. She notes of the shoot: ‘They were just so brave and, and just full of, I don’t know, beautiful energy. I was struck by their fearless, playful, adventurous spirits, a result of them growing up on the land.’

The Goodall boys, 2021 Tamara Dean
1 The Goodall boys, 2021 Tamara Dean. Courtesy of the artist. © The artist

During the constraints of lockdown, when travel and interaction with subjects became limited, Dean turned her eye and camera to the immediate beauty surrounding her in her own personal circle: her family, her friends and their children. One of the resulting photographs, The Goodall boys, was a NPPP finalist in 2021.

‘One thing that this last year has reminded me is that I don’t have to travel far to find beauty in my environment, and inspiration to create photographs,’ says Dean. ‘It is there in my home, when I walk out on our property, and within the people and places I am surrounded by. These boys, they just live life to the fullest and very close to the land. I was following them around as they showed me the places they would go around their property.’

The Goodall boys is reminiscent in its method of creation with Dean’s first body of work, the portrait-based series Friends. ‘Friends was created as an informal series, and it was just a really simple observational and intimate series,’ she says. ‘It enabled me to see a sense of intimacy I was able to capture within my photography, and the quieter moments within my immediate circle.’

Leap of faith #2 from High Jinks in the Hydrangeas, 2020 Tamara Dean
1 Leap of faith #2 from High Jinks in the Hydrangeas, 2020 Tamara Dean. © Tamara Dean. Courtesy of the artist and Michael Reid – Sydney + Berlin

The seismic changes in the world during 2020 and 2021 have signified a change in practice and approaches for many photographers, and have led Dean into her most recent body of work High Jinks in the Hydrangeas. Shown in 2021 as the first solo exhibition at both the Southern Highlands’ new gallery Ngununggula and the new Michael Reid gallery in Chippendale, the series turns the camera inwards on Dean herself as the figure in nature. While primarily figurative, High Jinks in the Hydrangeas serves as a universal portrait of sorts, a psychological symbol of humans interacting within a landscape. As she noted in her artist statement for the series: ‘Here I am the figure, I am the photographer, I am the director, it is my narrative. This series is the culmination of everything I have learnt as a photographer. It’s the woman I’d like to be.’

The power and resilience of women underpins her work, and Dean represents strong women of all ages in her images, including herself. ‘I’ve selected the people I photograph based on the strengths that I see in them. I suppose that is an interesting link to the work that I’ve made now in that I’ve used myself. Maybe I’ve known that that’s what I look to portray, so I’ve had to delve into myself to find my own strength in this body of work.’

There is a certain mystery in portraiture that doesn’t show the face. It can almost be more powerful in allowing the viewer to form their own narrative without relying on facial expression as a directive. Dean sees strength in both approaches.

‘Recently, I’ve been less focused on being able to see the identity of the person because I’m using the figure as a symbol of humanity, and taking it a little bit away from the person themselves,’ she says. ‘But, for instance, in The Goodall boys, having that engagement with the young boy in the middle, I find that you as the viewer can either engage with the person looking to the camera, or you can bring yourself into the mind of the person who’s in their own world. They become like a portal for you to enter that narrative in some way, in your own mind.’

Related people

Tamara Dean

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