There is something unsettling about these photographs. Set against an opaque white backdrop, they seem neither here nor there. At a glance, the simple, unadorned domestic objects they describe – a milk carton, a yoghurt container, a highlighter, a flashlight – seem normal enough, but on closer inspection, there is something amiss. There is a rough-hewn edge here or there, a solidity and materiality that aren’t quite right.
“I always thought that there was some level of truth to the process of photography,” muses Max Creasy. “But I got to the point where I came to realise there no objectivity in the photograph. The whole thing was just a construct.”
It may seem an odd statement coming from a photographer. But the Sydney photo artist’s take on the photograph flies in the face of much of our accepted wisdom on the form. His ‘constructed still lifes’ – which he showed as part of his Reflections exhibition at Melbourne’s Centre for Contemporary Photography in mid 2011 – don’t merely question photography’s credence as truth-teller, but disables its chief devices.
Creasy’s objects are in fact plaster casts – analogues – sculpted, painted and finished so as to look so close, yet so far, from their actual referent. “They’re so similar to the real thing, but they’re not the real thing,” says Creasy. “The whole project is about photography and what we understand it to be, but the actual photography is very much the last part of the process… It’s painting and sculpting and arranging the lighting in a particular way, then finally, taking the photograph.”
Indeed, even the shadows the objects appear to cast are a ruse. On closer inspection, they are drawn and rendered in with graphite. The fall of the light – one of photography’s defining cues – is eschewed and deleted. “I came to realise that I could create this light in the studio that was completely invisible, completely shadowless,” he says. “That’s when I realised I could pencil or paint in a fake shadow…there is no essence of time in the works because there’s no freezing of light. This faux, fake light is a kind of strange constant.”
Creasy’s works become representations of representations – without a clear beginning and end. Any notion of the photograph as a kind of index to its subject is cast aside. “It’s really about questioning your own understanding of representation,” he continues. “Is a photograph just a picture? Or is it some sort of representation of reality?”
It’s a distinct shift for the 34-year-old, who originally hails from Adelaide and has completed commissions for John Wardle Architects and the Australian Pavilion of the Venice Architecture Biennale. While architecture was a focus of much of his early work, he’s also made a name for his strangely mute urban landscapes. “I always liked the idea of the viewer in the relationship,” he offers. “I was working on these cityscapes and that were really, essentially about nothing – photographs of nothing – but the detail in them would allow the viewer to read them and make something of them.
“It was tied into this idea of trying to make them as objective as possible,” he continues. “I still had this kind of documentary idea that there was some level of truth to the process. As a photographer you get attached to the idea that there’s some sort of truth to your images… But the more I worked in that kind of mode, the more I just came to realise every part of the process was completely subjective. The whole thing was just a construct.”
It was a revelation for the photographer. He began to shift his practice toward the studio setting, shooting still life food arrangements in a way that the image resonated “not as a piece of food photography, but as having potential architectural elements”.
His constructed forms emerged as a logical extension. “For me it was almost about sliding between those these different definitions,” he says. “It’s about skirting the fine line between questions of what is a photograph and what is a painting and what is an object.”
That said, he hasn’t given up on photography as he knew it. “I don’t think that I was naïve or anything like that, and I still love to still just take photographs with a 5”x4” camera.
“On a personal level, working in this new context is a bit of a conceit, but on a artistic level it’s really exciting.”