Liss Fenwick, Humpty Doom

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Bad News Books (here). Softcover (23 x 32 cm), 112 pages, with 67 color photographs. In an edition of 500 copies. Design by Stuart Geddes. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Liss Fenwick is an artist who works with visual languages to “explore speculative outcomes of failing human-centeredness and eurocentrism.” She grew up in a rural district of Australia’s Northern Territory, in a place called Humpty Doo. When her family first moved to the area in the 1960s, they were the second family to settle there. Today its population is just slightly over 5,000 people. 

Drawing on her family history and upbringing, Fenwick engages with the implications of the contested northern ‘frontier’. Her debut photobook Humpty Doom (published by Wellington’s Bad News Books) offers a personal reflection on this place and its future, “addressing the inevitable failures of settling stolen land.” The book was shortlisted for the 2023 Paris Photo–Aperture First Photobook Award.

As a photobook, Humpty Doom is exciting and effective, even while at first glance, it might seem rather simple. Its bold cover immediately stands out, with the title appearing in an expressive black font; the playful sound of the title and the bubbly shapes of the letters evoke the Humpty Dumpty character, who is typically portrayed as an anthropomorphic egg. The artist’s name is elegantly placed on the spine in a smaller font. Inside, most of the images are vertical, shown the same size with a thin white border, with a smaller number horizontal with more white space below each image. The photobook easily lays flat, making the interaction even more pleasant. An acknowledgement of the Larrakia people as sovereign custodians of the lands and waters of Humpty Doo is placed on the left corner of the opening green flap. 

Fenwick’s photographs are striking, intimate, and occasionally even humorous. Several of the photographs were made while she was a teenager, which she rediscovered in her late twenties and responded to with new images. Together, they depict fire, burnt-out cars, weapons, built infrastructure, termite mounds, and rotting fruit, mixed with earlier self-portraits and snapshots of family. In a way, Fenwick’s evocative series “operates as the antithesis to settler fetishization of the region”, seeing it on her own terms. 

The opening photograph shows a towering gray rock formation with spiky top shot at night – it seems like something from another world, setting the tone for the series. The following spread is a portrait of the artist as a teenager, posing in her pink underwear with a Playboy bunny poster on the wall behind her. It’s a puzzlingly blunt picture, until we learn that Fenwick and her friends would take photos of their bodies to trade with older men for weed or alcohol. This softcore teenage exchange is then followed by a dramatic photograph showing the land with the trees caught in fire, more broadly evoking the crisis of civilization that Fenwick wants to highlight.

In another image that appears early in the sequence, the words “Larrakia Land” are carved into a mahogany tree, locating us with declarative clarity. It is followed by a full spread of a burned-out car in the forest, with the trees appearing distorted while the sky color shifts from blue to pink creating a dreamy mood. Another image features a close up of a blue baseball cap covered entirely with crawling termites; apparently it was placed on a termite mound a decade ago by the artist’s mother. Many of Fenwick’s photographs center on textures of one kind or another, and these details become even more tactile when they are printed on uncoated paper, as they are here.

Throughout Humpty Doom, Fenwick creates associations and connections with her evocative pairings and sequences of images. As we move through the visual narrative, one spread pairs a dog’s tongue (in a muzzle) with a three-trunked tree. In another, the trailing cord of a telephone seems to connect to wisps of barbed wire. And in a third, a young girl seductively poses on a bed, while a barkless tree stands in the center of the forest, shaped like a human. The image that follows shows burnt-out cars abandoned in a muddy pond, their brownish red color matching the nearby dirt with a surreal kind of decay.

Closer to the end of Humpty Doom, there is a studio portrait of Fenwick as a child in a green t-shirt (the same color as the book cover), with the word “humpty” above the Humpty Dumpty character, which is closely followed by a full spread depicting a ripped Australian flag hanging over a fence. The book ends with a photograph of a tree trunk photographed against a fiery sunset, with kids’ arms hugging it from both sides, formally connecting the future generation and the land.

To my eye, Humpty Doom is a small, yet quietly brilliant publication. Its success lies in the clever integration of concept, photographs, printing, and design ideas that all work well together in support of a fuller message. By thoughtfully integrating both form and content, Fenwick has created an intelligently personal and urgent photography project that translates well into photobook form.

Collector’s POV: Liss Fenwick does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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