An interview with Trent Parke

Interview with: Trent Parke

From 'The Camera is God' © Trent Parke

Your most recent series, The Black Rose Diaries, seems to be an ever-evolving body of work, which you have spent the last six years making. Could you explain a little about the project and perhaps how it came about?

The Black Rose Diaries initially started as a Magnum project. Each year my agency, Magnum Photos, gathers for the annual AGM in either the New York, London, or Paris office. Most of the ‘new generation’ of Magnum photographers are spread out all over the world and don’t rely on the offices as was the case in the past. The AGM is the only time we see each other. As a result we hardly know much about each other or where we come from.

Alec Soth, Jim Goldberg and I were already good friends and after writing to each other about this, I came up with the idea of working on a project on the theme of Home . Along with Alec and Jim, I asked nine other Magnum photographers to be involved. For the past few years we have relayed stories and photographs to the group selected. My work from this evolved into The Black Rose Diaries.

The Camera is God is only one component of The Black Rose Diaries. Could you explain how that series functions within the larger context of the Diaries?

It’s difficult to explain properly until the work is released. I haven’t shown any of the work leading up to The Camera is God section. Visually it will hopefully make sense when all seen together. It currently consists of 12 books and two sets of cards. (This may change as I am editing right now.) The Camera is God is one book.

Symbolically, the Black Rose suggests death, or the overcoming of a long journey. It is the search for absolute perfection, as the Black Rose does not truly exist. It is also referred to as black magic.

While traveling on a road trip through Victoria, I was approached by a man who appeared somewhat out of the blue, outside the motel room where we were staying, He gave me a cutting of a plant to take home with me. Even though I said we wouldn't be home for weeks, he said it didn't matter. 'Just plant it when you get home and it will grow.' He then announced this plant as the Black Rose. As a result, an intertwined and seemingly connected series of events started to take place. I started to record these events/narratives in the diaries.

The entire series has been made up from several thousand photographs, written stories, video and two road trips around the country over the six-year period to date. It’s been a very intense project, writing and making photographs on a daily basis. Everything single event, no matter how big or small, could be important. A lot of it is based on chance and coincidence, as one idea leads to the next.

It has been difficult in many ways especially with a young family to support. Seven years by the time it’s finished of continually sinking money into film and trips etc, is hard without any of that money coming back in. It’s also been a challenge to maintain a continuum of thought over such a long time from start to finish.

From 'The Camera Is God' © Trent Parke

While The Camera is God is technically street photography and contains the familiar dark undercurrents of your previous bodies of work, it is quite a stylistic departure. Do you feel the standard ‘street photography’ tropes have become unable to best embody the message you are trying to convey and was this why you decided to approach this series differently?

I have always been a storyteller and I am always working towards the book as the final work. It’s very hard to tell a story with those types of single stand-alone street images. I am interested in ideas. I am not interested in doing the same thing over and over again. The reason I take photographs is to make discoveries for myself. Always trying to piece together the puzzle, that’s where I get my rush. Once I find the answer I am looking for that’s usually it for a project, the excitement and energy is gone. I move onto something else, or away from that subject matter until I can view it with fresh eyes again.

Every one who has seen The Camera is God makes the same comment, that it is a departure from previous work. But they haven’t seen the other six years leading up to it (That’s a long time when shooting almost every day). Making The Camera is God coincided with the Biennial for which I was asked to make new work. It just also happened to be one of the last parts I was working on for the Black Rose at that exact time. I had not been working on the street for the five years leading up to it, but it was the right fit for that show.

You’ve aptly titled this work The Camera is God, raising questions about the role of the photographer as image-maker and artist. Could you tell us how you came to the title?

To make The Camera is God I photographed on the same street corner in Adelaide, at evening rush hour, every sunny day for almost a year. As people waited at the traffic lights on the corner opposite I didn’t try to control who I captured, but let life, chance and the camera decide. I would push the shutter-release onto hold, which would then take about twenty continuous frames before the pedestrian light changed again.

Later, a relative was flicking through the portraits, who has no idea about photography, and he said ‘So in a way the camera is playing God.' That was it. With personal camera phones and security cameras all over cities now, nothing goes unnoticed. The camera is all seeing. And in creating the final prints I zeroed in on particular faces on the 35mm film, like an enlarged still from one of those security cameras. It was like putting people under a microscope and seeing them at a level of particles and matter. People looked familiar even though they were anonymous, like when you have a dream about someone and you wake up and try to remember them and you can't grasp that hard outline of a person's face. I was trying to capture the transient nature of the street, and indeed life itself. And it usually happens this way. I had been thinking about all these aspects and then bang someone hands you the title when you’re least expecting it. It’s what the Black Rose work is all about really, chance and coincidence.

The Steidl library © Trent Parke

You recently published a new book with Steidl, in Germany, called The Christmas Tree Bucket and simultaneously published older work Minutes to Midnight. We’re interested, how did you find it working with the famous Gerhard Steidl? Do you have plans to publish with him/them again in the near future?

The experience was definitely an interesting one and at times a little frustrating. The frustrating part was the wait. Gerhard had Minutes to Midnight for about six years before it was eventually published. (This probably added to the reason it sold out in a few days.) The first of three trips to Germany (Gerhard’s formula) to make the books was crazy. I made the long journey from OZ, waited for three days in the Largerfeld apartment beside the printing press, and then with about five minutes to go before I was to jump a two hour train ride back to the airport and then a flight back to Australia, I was summoned to the library where we made plans for the books.

‘What paper do you want?’ he asked.
‘That one’ I said. (The most beautiful of course.)
‘Done!’ He said.
‘Soft cover? Hard cover? Slip case? What do you want?’
‘Hardcover. No slip case.’
‘Done!’ he said.
‘Tri-tone printing ?’
‘Done!’ he said.

And that was it, same for both books, all the way to Germany for about three minutes work. He then put me in one of his cars with a driver and said, ‘There you go. Hop,Hop,Hop,back to Australia.’ And the driver drove me at break neck speed to the airport to make my flight in time. (Man they drive fast !!!!!!!) The second visit, a couple of years later, was similar. I waited for a week to lay out the books only to find Gerhard had flown to Paris urgently. He then instructed his staff to cancel my flights and stay another ten days - always a waiting game. But the one benefit of all this waiting is the Steidl library. I could of waited in there a lifetime if need be.

The amazing thing about Gerhard is that he spares no expense. He will make the book exactly how the artist wants it, and you know the printing is going to be the best. He is incredibly quick to grasp and concept a project. He really is a genius. We have already made plans for Black Rose while on press for Minutes to Midnight and Christmas Tree Bucket and he will make the entire Black Rose set (Though this time he assures me it will not take as long!)

Steidl office © Trent Parke

All of your work to date has been shot in Australia, albeit across the country. Other than the obvious, why do you feel particularly drawn to making work only in Australia?

For me it’s all about emotional connection. I love this country, love the people, everything about it. Whenever I travel overseas or have to shoot for Magnum in another country, I find I just make very graphic pictures. They occasionally might be visually interesting but they sit on the surface. I am not really interested in any other country. Most of my projects last for years. I don’t feel I can achieve anything worth saying in a few weeks in a place. I have always been interested in why I am drawn to something and why I eventually push the camera button. Most of it comes from memory, the subconscious and events I experienced growing up. The beach, the outback, the suburbs, I could never leave any of it. So much to do here in Australia, there is just no time for anywhere else anyway.

© Trent Parke

What’s next for Trent Parke – what do we have to look forward to? Are you planning to show The Black Rose Diaries in its entirety any time soon?

The Black Rose Diaries will be shown in its entirety at The Art Gallery Of South Australia as the festival show in March 2015. It is the entire bottom floor and we are right this very moment in production mode. It’s a massive amount of work to say the least - being all new work. After that I am just going to go and collapse somewhere for maybe another seven years.

And lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring photographic artists working in Australia today?

Question everything. Make work that is meaningful to you. Take time.
I have always found that mistakes and accidents usually lead to the best discoveries.

All images used with permission from Magnum Photos, Still Gallery Sydney & Hugo Michell Gallery Adelaide

Interview by Benjamin Chadbond and Patrick Mason

Trent Parke, the first Australian to become a Full Member of the renowned photographers' cooperative Magnum Photo Agency, is considered one of the most innovative and challenging photographers of his generation. Moving beyond traditional documentary photography, Parke’s work sits between between fantasy and reality. Using harsh light and shadows to find beauty in the banal, his images offer an emotional and psychological portrait of Australia that is poetic, dramatic and often darkly humorous.

Whilst working as a press photojournalist during the first years of his career, Parke received numerous awards, including five Gold Lenses from the International Olympic Committee, and World Press Photo Awards in 1999, 2000 and 2005. In 2003 he was awarded the prestigious W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography for his series Minutes to Midnight. In 2013, revered publisher Steidl is releasing two hardback publications of Parke’s work, Minutes to Midnight and The Christmas Tree Bucket. His self-published book, Dream/Life, was awarded second place in the 2000 American Picture of the Year Award for Photography Books.

Parke’s work has featured in exhibitions and art fairs across the globe and is held in major institutional collections, including the NGA, MCA, NGV, AGNSW, Artbank, Magnum London and Magnum Paris.