Tamara Dean

Tamara Dean’s photographs capture moments of transition that can happen in a split second or over a lifetime. Beautifully crisp, still, dreamlike scenes set against the grandeur of nature, from the Australian bush to upstate New York, convey what for Dean is fundamental – an appreciation of being alive in a world as majestic and awe-inspiring as ours. The young people that inhabit her photographs create fleeting moments from broader narratives, illustrating both the vulnerability and indestructibility of people in nature, and importantly, the paths of discovery taken to conquer these feelings.

Your work is concerned with the relationship between humans and nature, particularly young people. While growing up, did you spend a lot of time in nature?
For the first seven years of my life I lived on the edge of a nature reserve which led me to develop a deep love for the Australian bush. Through high school all I did was draw and photograph the bush – trees, rocks, it was a complete obsession. Within a year of leaving home I moved out to Bilpin – to a property 10km down a dirt track on the edge of a national park. I’ve always sort of looked for those places.

You focus on rites of passage that teenagers create in nature. Why do you think it’s important for young people to have those experiences?
I guess I’m borrowing from my own experiences. Certainly when I was in my late teens and early 20s I was searching for rites of passage, and I didn’t feel like there was anything that I could find in society that could help me push myself to become a stronger and more independent person. So for me, that involved going to festivals in remote locations, doing things like sleeping alone under a tree with only the stars above me. I kind of made my own challenges that way. In my work now I’m going back to that time and representing it in a symbolic way.

Do you think a lot of young people still do these things now?
Absolutely. Go to any small town and there will be a place that’s local knowledge – like the rock that the kids strive to jump off when they get big enough. With my last series, The Edge (2013), I would make contact with the local kids and ask them to take me to a place that is significant to them, and have them engage with that place in a way that they felt represented those rites of passage that they make for themselves.

So you seek out those scenarios rather than planning what you want to photograph beforehand?
It is a bit of both. I have a concept or narrative in mind beforehand but I also encourage spontaneity and engagement in the process which can be led by the people I am photographing.

Was there a shift in how you portrayed these scenes between Only Human (2011) and then in The Edge?
Only Human was about our fragility as humans, and how as humans we are so vulnerable in the natural environment. With the rites of passage idea, you’re not afraid of death. You’ll jump off something in the face of death because you feel indestructible, and that’s a very particular part of being a teenager – this freedom to challenge yourself and explore your limits, both physically and emotionally.

Is the idea of ‘ritual’ becoming less common?
Totally, I don’t think people see this kind of thing as a rite of passage ritual. That’s why I want to put it out there – that these are significant rites of passage that we engage in. I guess I’m trying to put value on these experiences. There’s so much talk about drinking and alcohol being a rite of passage – and yes, that plays a part, but I think there are these other things that we intuitively seek out that could be seen in a different, more significant way.

Do you go into your shoots wanting to say something specific about gender?
It’s really important to me to portray women and girls in a way that shows their power. If there’s nudity, I try to show that in a way that speaks of power but in a non-sexual way, it’s more about being proud, comfortable and in control of your own physicality.

Do you think young people’s relationship with nature has changed a lot with the rise of technology?
Yes and no. I did a residency in upstate New York with 30 artists from around the world, and I interviewed them all about how they felt about nature – why they went there, what they do there, and if it was spiritual. The majority of them said that it was a spiritual experience – but not as an ethereal experience – more that they were able to disengage with technology and arrive in the moment.

The work I made from these conversations, The Artists (2013), was pivotal in bringing that conversation about technology to my work, and I wanted to delve a bit deeper into that. It took me on to create my installation about arriving in the here and now.

How do you personally find that disengagement with technology? You’ve got a massive Instagram following; that’s an interesting link.
That’s new – it only happened two months ago. It was crazy! It’s been a mostly positive experience, people comment on my photos in different languages and in symbols I don’t understand – it’s such an amazing reach across the world.

I’m as guilty as anyone as being addicted to my phone, I have an internal battle with it. But I go to nature to take photographs – so in a way my practice is a conduit for that fundamental act of going to those places.

Here and Now (2015) is a major immersive installation – how did you move from photography to that new realm?
I’ve always wanted to create a sense that the viewer could almost walk into my photographs. So for me that move into installation was quite natural because it still has that photographic element but it creates an experience around the work. Here and Now is an infinity room, six metres long on either side. It’s really dark, with a soundscape of bellbirds and cicadas. The other valuable element was that I collaborated with a scent designer Ainslie Walker to make a scent for it that was imbued into the space. I wanted a scent that people wouldn’t see as a perfume – instead it triggers a memory or a sensation, and in a subtle but powerful way takes them to that place in nature.

Your images are inspired by 19th-century painting, but they’re also very cinematic. How do you address narrative in your work?
Narrative is integral to my work. In the works I am looking for a moment that isn’t resolved, which creates a cinematic reference because you go “OK, there’s a bigger story”. I deliberately look for the narrative beyond the image. The series This too shall pass (2010) was set in places that were in transition. I included symbolic references to decay, or time having passed, or history, or there having been a story that has happened before the photograph and that will continue happening after the photograph and this is just a moment within a broader story.

Is there a point for you where the natural world becomes otherworldly?
I guess I’m still in a constant sense of amazement at being alive in the world. And I’m really aware of death, so I have this sense of constantly trying to arrive in the moment and realise what I’m in. It’s kind of a fundamental urge to appreciate being alive.


Courtesy the artist and Olsen Irwin Gallery, Sydney

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