Looking at a photograph while its subject looks at you in real life is an unnerving experience. I’m at the NGV’s new show which covers two decades of Melbourne artist Polixeni Papapetrou’s photography, most of which features her daughter Olympia Nelson. I catch a young woman’s eye and realise it’s the model herself, now in her early twenties.

The exhibition, Olympia, opens alongside Bleached Gothic, a retrospective from Sydney photographer Petrina Hicks. Both are tender, personal and accomplished shows. And both are haunting, feminine and surreal.

“She has this mystery about her,“ the late Papapetrou said about her daughter in a 2013 Australian Story interview (see the transcript here). “That’s what’s so disarming when I look at her through the lens, that she can look back at me and unnerve me sometimes. She has this very powerful, intense gaze that is profound. It comes from somewhere else. I don’t have it, my son doesn’t have it, my husband doesn’t have it – but she does.”

Though it feels strange to take in images spanning a person’s entire life while the living embodiment of that work stands a few metres away, Nelson’s presence reminds me that these are collaborative works, created by both photographer and model.

In the immense body of work compressed into just a few rooms, these photographs tell numerous stories, from the fantastical to the political, as well as the overarching story of Nelson’s childhood. We see the push and pull of the artist and muse relationship between mother and daughter, and how it shifts – subtly at first – as Nelson grows up.

Early images are full of cute innocence. Papapetrou repeatedly references Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland, trading in the same sense of childhood wonder and candy-coloured absurdity. As Nelson enters adolescence, she owns the frame more. Miles From Nowhere and Wild World capture Nelson, aged about 11, lying on a beach chair in the desert gazing back at us, and sitting in the sand, her eyes averted.

But it’s not all so cute. Like many childhoods, Nelson’s only gets more complicated as it goes on. A nude image of her at age six infuriated then-PM Kevin Rudd. Nelson, aged 11 at the time of the controversy, fired back. As a teenager, she poses in T-shirts with slogans such as “Ask me again when I’m drunk” and “Sexy bitch”, her expression obscured by a mask. She knows we’re looking at her, but it’s not a one-way relationship. Nelson stares back.

There’s plenty of macabre and unsettling imagery here, too. On a sunlit hillside, a mother and daughter dressed in period costumes and hideous goblin masks prepare to be photographed by a goblin-like father figure. A trio of pig-faced girls gather hay in a field. Even the 19th-century kitsch-inspired images have traces of the uncanny, with Nelson posed in gothic scenarios, her eyes hidden by masks. The masks allow the models to hide their identities and free up their behaviour. Without a face from which to gauge emotion, it also gives them a cold, poker-faced ambiguity.

In the next room, photographer Petrina Hicks demonstrates a similarly complicated relationship with her muse.

Hicks also obscures her models’ faces – behind veils, seashells, and a thick coating of white hair – and photographs children. She often works in reference to animals, capturing her human models alongside chimpanzees, snakes and birds. And Hicks has photographed her long-time muse, model and singer Lauren Dawes, for 16 years.

Dawes is also present at the launch of the exhibition, and also sees me looking at pictures of her. She has albinism, which is what first drew Hicks to photograph her. Dawes is a striking presence, and Hicks is interested in capturing beauty in the atypical.

“It’s all self-portraiture in a way,” Hicks says of her work. “I’m always tying to a resolve a problem, and I’m not sure what the problem is. Lauren is kind of an avatar. We’ve become close over the years. She understands my deal.”

Dawes has lived with the stigma surrounding albinism all her life. She’s primarily a singer, and comfortable with being looked at. And she likes being photographed.

“She enjoys seeing different interpretations of her,” Hicks says.

Dawes is a natural model, giving a little and holding a lot back. Hicks photographs her in static, sculptural poses, often stone-still, often with something brimming with life for contrast. She cradles a dozen bruised peaches, brings a perched bird close to her face, and contemplates a python wrapped around her arm.

Hicks’s light, sparse photographs capture time in frozen, breathless moments. Children hold animals in their arms. A nude figure reclines across crumbling vases. The artist captures beauty in gentle, unassuming ways. In a couple of slow-motion, subtly looping short videos, a tongue gently licks the moisture from a flower, a thin line of saliva dripping and glistening between them. A butterfly perches on a woman’s mouth, its spindly legs sticking to her pink lips. The videos sit right on the border between beautiful and repulsive, sensuous and icky – but they’re close and intimate at the same time.

With both models present, I’m tempted to talk to them, to discuss some of these ideas of looking and being looked at. Would they hold some secrets I can’t access just by looking at images of them? They would, I decide. But something tells me the images are enough. To talk to the muses would break the spell.

Olympia by Polixeni Papapetrou and Bleached Gothic by Petrina Hicks are at NGV Australia until March 29, 2020.

ngv.vic.gov.au