April 2014

Arts & Letters

Trent Parke’s ‘The Christmas Tree Bucket’

By Sam Twyford-Moore
Steidl Verlag; $100

In 2007, Trent Parke became the only Australian to be inducted into Magnum Photos, the famous co-operative established in Paris in 1947 by a small number of photography greats including Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Parke grew up in Newcastle in the 1970s and ’80s. Though he spent tracts of his early career as a sports photographer, he once said that he has “never been interested in the single picture; the book is the work”. In 1999, Parke self-published his first collection of photographs, Dream/Life, which made particular use of Sydney’s deep shadows, and followed up with The Seventh Wave, in which he and his wife and co-author, Narelle Autio, explored underwater photography. The pair subsequently went on a two-year trip around Australia, which ended with the water birth of their first child, Jem – Parke was there with his camera. The trip also produced another acclaimed book, this one produced by Steidl, the German art publisher: Minutes to Midnight.

Parke has much in common with what the writer and critic Janet Malcolm calls the American “action” photographers: Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Stephen Shore and others, who “followed people on the street, peered into suburban living rooms, hung around fast-food chains, and – with nothing in mind, with none of the elaborate previsualisations of traditional art photography – repeatedly clicked the shutters of their small cameras”. The action photographers were messy, to Malcolm’s mind, which was part of their appeal. Parke’s latest, The Christmas Tree Bucket, is an utter mess, but in many ways his best book.

The title stems from an incident at Parke’s in-laws’ place in Adelaide: during a bout of nausea, he vomited into the red bucket used to support the Christmas tree. This time, Autio captured the moment. Though the book recognisably depicts the Australian festive season, Parke finds new ways to accentuate its inherent weirdness. The publication has endpapers of garish, generic Christmas wrapping, and the clutter of the season rules the compositions: ugly, non-native trees, passed-out children, dogs fighting, a dead mouse under the stairs, and presents upon presents, both wrapped and unwrapped. These are often shot from a low vantage point, and a sense of dread builds. As soon as that dread takes hold, though, Parke plays a prank. His friends and family seem to revel in strange costumes – a lime-green Borat-style mankini, a Star Wars stormtrooper helmet, a full-sized hot dog costume.

Minutes to Midnight was Parke’s attempt at a unified survey of his home country across sprawling, desolate landscapes. With The Christmas Tree Bucket, he has achieved this on an intimate scale – in lounge rooms – and it is no less unsettling.

Sam Twyford-Moore

Sam Twyford-Moore is the author of The Rapids: Ways of Looking at Mania (University of Toronto Press). 

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