Beginning with a 8mm camera in hand, South Australian photographic artist Alex Frayne has been involved in film and images from his earliest school days. He continued his passion for the medium throughout school and completed a Bachelor of Arts at Flinders University. He has made short films, a feature film (Modern Love) and his still photography work has earned acclaim, most notably the Adelaide Noir and Theatre of Life series and books. Images from this body of work are held in collections in Australia and overseas.
'Frayne's eerily still urban landscapes have been likened in their classical framing and pervasive sense of strangeness in the familiar, to the work of Stanley Kubrick and Jeffrey Smart.' - Simon Caterson, Australian
In this interview, Alex shares with us some of his photographs from his new book 'Landscapes of South Australia' (Wakefield Press) that is due to be released very soon. This new book is a comprehensive photographic homage to his big and beautiful, timeless and daunting back yard. Alex's honest artistic approach to show the landscapes as not only ancient and massive, but dry with marginal farming opportunities and a kind of rusted beauty that speaks of resilience and the triumph of human spirit.
Tell us a bit about more yourself. How did you become interested in photography?
I think from the age of 10, I have had cameras around me. My mother bought me an 8mm movie camera in the early 90's and from there I moved into 35mm while studying film-making at Flinders University. Indeed my pedigree in film-making looms large in my photographic work, despite photography being my primary 'form'. Though born in the UK, (my Australian parents were studying there in the 70's) I have lived the majority of my life in South Australia and currently reside there.
Tell us more about your project 'Landscapes of South Australia'. What was your motivation to make it a book?
The idea for a series dedicated to landscapes has its genesis in my early career in filmmaking. One of the assets of South Australia is the plethora of wide open landscapes of incredible diversity we have here. I had always intended to shoot the landscapes either as part of a film or as part of a photographic series. Having a rural upbringing also played a part; I saw the world around me and wanted to depict that world in a way that was artistic. To achieve that, I needed to suffuse the work in honesty and integrity. It meant that I needed to eschew all the notions and stereotypes that existed about landscape photography and South Australia. I needed to create a 'tabula rasa' so that the work could not be linked to pre-conceived notions of South Australia, or movies, or tourism or tropes that float about in my visual memory. This process of "erasure" is key to starting a new project, I feel.
The new book 'Landscapes of South Australia' is a large, hardcover 216 page art tome which will be in shops for Christmas. I've been working on it this year with the designer Nick Phillips. Wakefield Press are publishing it, they've been very patient and loyal across this and my previous two books, 'Adelaide Noir' and 'Theatre of Life'. Michael Bollen is the boss at Wakefield Press, he works tirelessly at the helm.
Your photographs tell a story and they have this special quality of light and richness of colour...all the quality of cinematography. Is storytelling actually a big part of your photography?
Yes colour and light and composition. These are the tools I use. Composition, specifically comes from my cinema heritage, as in the French phrase "mise-en-scene" which means "the arrangement within the frame" or the spatial geometry that exists within a frame. In terms of storytelling, yes, there is an element of that in photography, but I think it's not front-of-mind for me when shooting. For me, more important are notions of mood, tone, dreams, sadness, joy and revelation. People may ascribe a story to a photo, but that's their business. It will inevitably be different to my notion of the story.
Do you have a favourite quote/lyric/saying that especially resonates with you?
Being a jazz nut I can't help but quote the great Miles Davis, who once wrote : "The real music is the silence and all the notes are only framing this silence." I think this applies to photography. It relates to using space, negative space and keeping the frame uncluttered.
Where do you find your inspiration? And do you have a favourite place to shoot?
I love to shoot ghost towns or rust-belt places. I think Woomera and Tarcoola top the list here, because of the decay that is imbedded in the beautiful and remote areas where they are located. The juxtaposition of these 20th Century places set against the wilderness that eventually saw their demise is fascinating, photographically speaking. These places were all part of various "industries." Woomera was once a Space-Race outpost with cutting-edge technology and a rocket range. It was the place for the Anglo Australian cold-war rocket testing site. Tarcoola was a gold-rush town on the Trans-Continental Railway Line. Tarcoola is actually a proper ghost town - nobody lives there, as in NOBODY. It's difficult to reach, but rewarding, photographically because you are seeing how things are, how things were, and you're enveloped by an outback landscape that has existed forever.
To the south, you're in the Gawler Ranges, on Barngala land, inhabited for 60,000 years, with trees like this one, standing there against time and space.
In general, describe your style? Do you mainly focus on landscapes although I love your series "The Overseers of Street" where you shoot street portraiture. As a photographer sometimes you can get pigeonholed into a certain genre...what are your thoughts on this. What are some elements you always try to include in your photographs?
I think my style is free-flowing and improvised, a bit like jazz...It's unrestrained and unencumbered and low-tech. I shoot only analogue formats, my camera gear is probably worth less than 2 grand...but of course there are expenses in film stock and processing (but I develop my own black and whites.) I shoot 120 film and 35mm. So I create my own 'music' through my art, I really don't think too hard about genres and such...if my heart desires to shoot a street portrait series, I'll go and do it. My second book was a portrait book, 'Theatre of Life'. What I don't do is ask permission from anybody to do what I do. I don't sit around wondering what friends and colleagues or powers-that-be might think. That's not jazz, that's art by committee. Elements I include in my work are whatever elements are required to yield an emotional response; and that response is more important that format, sharpness, camera brand or film emulsion.
Do you have any favourite artists/photographers? Who do you think has mostly influenced your style?
My favourite artists are the ones you've probably never heard of. The grass roots artists. The community artists, the rural artists, the art teachers in public schools, the amateurs and the older artists who've had to work in a factory their whole life and who have kept doing their hobby art. These people often they write to me asking if they can paint an image of mine to improve their technique. As far as major artists of influence I'd include Steinbeck, Miles Davis, the guitarist Allan Holdsworth and the noir-fiction writer James Ellroy.
Are there any books that you have read that have inspired your creativity and that you would like to recommend to us?
Yes I'd recommend anything written by James Ellroy, particularly his LA QUARTET series. He is the most photographic writer I can think of. It's fiction, for sure, but it has a visual pallette in the words and phrases, he's like Jim Thompson on steroids.
What motivates you to take photographs? Do you ever have any struggles in photography?
It's the same struggle that confronts most artists and that is the struggle of perpetually having to create new work that gives voice to the ideas that are always percolating away underneath the surface. The motivator can be variety of things. It can be artistic, commercial or in the best case, both. The motivator can also be boredom. If that is the case, taking photos is a sure-fire remedy.
Describe what you love or hate about the camera you use? Does the equipment you use help you in achieving your vision in your photography? Do you have a preferred lens/focal length?
I only shoot film, though have used digital for some night work. I shoot with three cameras: a Yashica 6x6 124g medium format camera; a 6x9 Fuji camera also in medium format; and I shoot a Nikon FE 35mm camera for everything else. I love all these cameras in different ways, they're all film cameras, and if handled properly yield images that produce sparkling, element images that digital can never reach. Film has an emotional undercurrent in the image, it just looks better to me. For monochrome I usually shoot Kodak Tri-x, and I develop at home in a HC110 developer. My favorite lens is the 4 element Tessar 80mm lens in my Yashica. Film can also have challenges. In a story that I've told many times, I once took my rangefinder Fuji 6x9 camera up to the Riverland. I shot what I considered to be my some of my best work. Unfortunately, I'd forgotten to take the lens cap off - a mistake that can easily happen with rangefinder systems. A day later the lab called to tell me the developed slide film had "no density." That's a mistake you only make once.
Have you ever been involved in the artistic world before photography?
Yes I've been around art since forever. I had great teachers all through school and Uni, and I am surrounded by great people in Adelaide in all the allied arts. Adelaide is the arts capital of Australia - my old Latin teacher would say..."quod erat demonstrandum," Adelaide is the Athens of the South.
What are some of your goals as an artist? Where do you see yourself or hope to see yourself in five years?
I think a goal is to continue being curious about the world! Without that, there is no anchor. I'd like to continue collaborating with other artists as I do from time to time and to continue working on my aesthetics. I think the notion of aesthetics is really wound up in how you view the world, which is really about how you understand your own place in the universe. This could take five years or fifty!
Are there any special future projects that you would like to let everyone know about?
Apart from the immediate project and book 'Landscapes of Australia', I am also working on a project with theatre director Catherine Fitzgerald, it's called called DRY, and it recently received major Commission Funding. It's a play, and features some of my images as projections. It's slated to tour in October 2021...definitely worth a look, Catherine's a top notch director.
“When I am not out photographing, I (like to)…
...I'm usually on a sand-belt golf course somewhere! I play golf off a handicap of 8...and if you think photography is a tough caper, try playing golf... It's an impossible sport."
Thank you Alex!
All photos © Alex Frayne
Interview by Melanie Meggs