Craig Tuffin

The photographer with the superpower lens for the extraordinary.

While he may not be a household name, Craig Tuffin is a well-known identity in photography and teaching circles. Alongside two decades of practice as a commercial photographer, his work with nineteenth century photographic techniques and processes has led him to be a popular speaker on the topic. His photographs have been collected by numerous institutions including the Getty Research Institute, the National Gallery of Australia, Tweed Regional Gallery and the State Libraries of New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland. Since 2011 Tuffin has won numerous photographic awards and been exhibited worldwide from New York to The Netherlands and China. He is a five-time finalist in the Olive Cotton Award for Photographic Portraiture and in 2021 received a Highly Commended acknowledgement from judge Michael Cook. This is Tuffin’s first solo exhibition of large-scale colour works.

So named for its “superhero” subjects, Tuffin’s exhibition The Supers opened in November at Tweed Regional Gallery & Margaret Olley Art Centre. Comprising a selection of eight images created over the past two years, Tuffin’s large-scale colour photographs are displayed in a narrow hallway space that does not lend itself so well to viewing the works from a distance. The selection of images however – part of an ongoing series – can be engaged with as sequence of individual stories that come together to shape a fascinating and solid show.

Threading these short episodes together is Tuffin’s representation of what a superhero might look like if we accept the suggested premise that “everyone has the capacity to perform phenomenal acts.” Perhaps the portrait that most patently recalls Tuffin’s rich experience in nineteenth century photography is the striking THE SUPERS #1, 2020. The portrait depicts Luther and Tayvonne Cora who identify with the Yugambeh language group of the Bundjalung nation.  After photographing Luther’s uncle, Mark Cora, for an an earlier body of work that employed traditional photographic processes, Tuffin posed the idea of this portrait to Luther, an Indigenous cultural leader and an experienced performer, choreographer and dancer.  

Using a red velvet curtain as a backdrop, Luther poses seated in a wooden armchair. Adorned with body paint and wearing bare feet and dreadlocks, he is accompanied by Tayvonne, a young Indigenous woman in a Supergirl costume. The image brings together the tropes associated with colonial portraits of Indigenous people and those of powerful colonial men. Subverting these ideas in this image, the Indigenous man adopts a powerful role while the defiant and confident looking Supergirl might represent the future of Indigenous youth. As in each of these works however, multiple narratives are sought and actively encouraged. 

The remaining seven works have been shot in constructed indoor and outdoor settings, each focusing on a popular superhero. Not all viewers will recognise Deadpool (Marvel Comics), Yoda (Star Wars) or a male version of Harley Quinn (DC Comics), but this doesn’t detract from the show’s visual impact. Placing these characters in scenes heavily laden with symbols and personal references, Tuffin’s filmic approach employs theatrical light and dark imagery, dramatic shifts in tone and perspective, and seductive compositions to draw the viewer in. 

In THE SUPERS #6, 2021, a male version of Harley Quinn emerges from a dark pine forest holding a powerful torch which he shines directly in front of his body. It is an image that Tuffin says is representative of the character’s gay “coming out.” Although the figure of Quinn is small against the forest backdrop, his Harley Quinn outfit is reinforced with purple hair, pierced ears, black lace-up boots, and a gold-buckled belt. Like a still from the Hollywood movie, it seems that having cleared a way through the darkness, our quotidian superhero has finally found light ahead.

Tuffin often employs puns and games in his images. In THE SUPERS #4, 2021, and THE SUPERS #5, 2021, he suggests a game called “Pick the Superhero: he or she may not be the one you think!” In THE SUPERS #4 a character dressed as Deadpool sits nonchalantly in the back of a Land Rover Defender as white smoke billows from under the raised bonnet. A second man in a flannelette shirt and country-style hat leans against the inside of an old-school phone box, casually revealing a hint of his Superman costume. Likewise, familiar characters from the Star Wars franchise appear in THE SUPERS #5. A chubby Darth Vader dominates this domestic scene as he stands at the kitchen bench with a bottle of spirits in reach and more stacked on the shelves behind. Meanwhile our classic hero and Darth Vader’s probable charge, Luke Skywalker, plays on the floor with other Star Wars figures. Luke’s height measurements at various ages are scratched on the kitchen wall and a variety of cryptic props and clues abound. In both cases Tuffin’s images are charged with perplexing storylines, compelling the viewer’s interest. I feel as if I am caught in the middle of an unfolding scene that comes without explanation and is brimming with possibilities.

As much of the work for this series was completed during the COVID-19 pandemic and periods of lockdown and isolation, Tuffin often found himself working within confines close to home. Members of his family were also employed as subjects in the work. In the foreground of THE SUPERS #2, 2020, Tuffin’s then-pregnant partner, Kahlia, stands under a chandelier and resembles a resilient Wonderwoman. The eye is then drawn to the artist – revealed as a small, concerned figure seen lit up through the doorway of a background room. Numerous props including the specific time on the clock, a small ambrotype on the wall, and various art books have personal significance for the artist and his partner. A single bulb in the chandelier represents the child they lost in an earlier pregnancy.

Similarly, THE SUPERS #3, 2020, features five-year-old Louie, the son of a friend. Dressed as Superboy, he stands against a pile of detritus spot lit by daylight streaming through the roof of a ruined warehouse. While it is equally conceivable that we are witnessing a courageous kid in an epic scene from Hollywood sci-fi, the real-life Louie is deserving of superhero status for a different reason. Having suffered a stroke as a two-year-old, a subsequent series of events caused him to lose his voice box. Tuffin notes that the Superboy costume (one that Louie has worn for the last four years) is an emblem of the boy’s bravery and persistence.

Australian musician Paul Kelly is quoted to have said, “I don’t know any ordinary people,” indicating that all the characters in his songs were extraordinary in some way. In The Supers, Tuffin adopts a corresponding idea. Employing a wealth of technique, his absorbing images succeed in portraying the notion that everyday people can and do indeed possess superhuman strength.   

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 58, 2022.

The Supers: Craig Tuffin
5 November 2021 – 1 May 2022
Tweed Regional Gallery & Margaret Olley Art Centre, New South Wales

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