Trent Parke, Monument

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Stanley/Barker (here). Flexibound, with embossed leather cover, 314×251 mm, with blind stamped end sheets and sprayed edges, 296 pages, with 172 black-and white images, with several gatefolds. Includes a loose metal plaque, but no texts or essays. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Trent Parke’s excellent photobook Monument isn’t a retrospective volume in the traditional sense of the word. While it does incorporate some of his best known images and draws from various photobooks and bodies of work made over two decades (including Dream/Life, Minutes to Midnight, and others), it doesn’t offer a step-wise review of discrete projects made by the Australian photographer, nor is it organized into chronological order or summary form. Instead, Monument is an expressively innovative remix of Parke’s images (including many photographs which had previously been left aside), building an entirely new narrative out of the raw material of his own artistic output.

Taking inspiration from the Golden Record, a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk which was included on NASA’s Voyager spacecraft in 1977 to introduce future discoverers to life on Earth, the entirely black cover of Monument is decorated with various symbols, diagrams, coordinates, measurements, and simplified renderings which have been embossed into the leather; two human figures (one male and one female) offer greetings on the back, while planetary circles track along the spine and a loose steel plate included with the book provides a geographic view of our planet (with Australia featured prominently, of course.) The mysterious cosmic scene setting continues inside on blind stamped end pages (which are presented without translation or decoding), before we eventually reach the first photograph, a starscape. All of these initial design elements point to Monument being offered with a certain kind of across-the-vastness-of-space ambition, a synthesized time capsule-like communication designed to visually document the story of humanity (at least as Parke has seen it.)

One central motif unifying Monument is the concept of a moth inexorably drawn to a flame, which extended to a cosmic level, gives the photobook a decidedly dark, dystopian mood. After Parke moved to Sydney early in his artistic career and began making street photographs in the city, he would return to his apartment at night and watch the millions of moths swirling around the lights of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Of course, as the saying goes, moths are seduced by the light in an almost inescapable way, blinded and pulled in to the point that they are easy prey for predators like birds and spiders, eventually ending their lives smashed into hot bulbs or candle flames. The photographs included in Monument represent an edit of Parke’s archive driven by this kind of engrossing, entrancing, inescapable light, as he has seen it in the streets, on the sidewalks, across people’s faces, in the sky, and elsewhere. In his atmospheric visual world, humanity is hauntingly drawn to the light just like the moths, with similar possibilities for sputtering flameout.

Parke brings us into his world via a telescoping series of pinprick images that move down from the scale of the stars to the scale of swarming moths in the sky, and on to car headlights in the streets, street lights overhead, lights on the bridge, and a flash of lightning across the darkness. And like the swirling motion of the moths, we are drawn in closer and closer, with Parke ultimately depositing us among the dense throngs of people on the streets of Sydney.

Across the next section of spreads, Parke wanders the busy streets, using light to single out pedestrians here and there amid the enveloping urban bustle. Seas of heads (and a few fluttering pigeons) give way to misty silhouettes, frieze-like arrangements of bodies and their cast shadows, and fleeting views of details caught between the passing pedestrians. Blurred faces sweep by, momentarily interrupted by a man looking into the light with his arms raised, a pair of white haired ladies amid the darkness of the street, a drooping tulip in a handbag, and a man puzzlingly sitting in a garbage can. Individuals are highlighted for a split second again and again as though singled out by blinding spotlights, the light cast across their heads, legs, or the rising smoke from their cigarettes. Parke variously explores motifs of looking (with various people turned in the same direction), spirituality (in the form of a man with a crown of thorns, a woman with an ecstatic expression, and other people with outstretched arms), reflection, split shadowing, things lost, and isolation (via individual people waiting at crosswalks, deep in their own trance-like thoughts), and light connects all of these ideas, each image an attentive observation of the criss-crossing rhythms of the city and a compositional (and perhaps existential) fight between extremes of light and dark.

After the relative crispness and clarity of these pictures, the moths make a return, and Parke starts to get more intentionally expressive. The insects flutter though the air, gather on a light globe, and then drag long exposure trails through the night, twisting and turning like jagged ribbons of barbed wire or DNA. These skittering improvisational lines then become increasingly dense and overlapped, soon piling up into thick orbs of radiating light. An anonymous falling man filled with this light, his arms and legs outstretched (reminiscent of Sarah Charlesworth’s ominously falling figures) tumbles through the darkness, seeming to signal that we have reached a point where control will start to break down, and indeed it does, with light that flares and blinds with more force, sparking droplets of rain (and fountain water) that dapple and veil our view of the streets, and shadows that elongate into surreal exaggerations.

Over the next set of spreads, Parke’s photographs become increasingly distorted and blurred, the light of the city swept into shifting ephemeral ghosts, fogs, and duplications. Reflections double up, highlights drift and wander, pedestrians shimmer and disappear, and passing buses and cars are transformed into slashes of bright light, like zig-zagging lightning bolts. The moths and the falling man reappear intermittently, sometimes in reversed tonalities, reminding us that we continue to fall toward the light that will eventually extinguish us. As the pages continue to flip, the urban world of Sydney breaks down before our eyes into a relentless procession of impressions, interruptions, and passing glimpses, the people and their stand-in shadows becoming decelerated approximations, the fabric of the city seemingly tearing.

In the last third of Monument, Parke leans into this process of visual disintegration more fully, encouraging the grain of his images to come forward. His melting light now becomes even more fluid and watery, pushing the edge between representation and abstraction. The blurs get more frothy and squiggled, the elongations stretch and bend across the frame, and the crowds on the sidewalks liquify and decompose into jumbled hints and masses. After a selection of bright horizontal stripes that blast across the pages, the grain starts to take over, with faces dissolving into mists of dots. These last images are particularly disquieting because humanity literally vanishes – individuals evaporate and fly off into the darkness, not so much crumbling as dispersing back to their constituent elements. This fragmentation process continues until we can hardly even recognize that these clouds of light were once human, and in the final few spreads, Parke then comes full circle and connects these fogs back to the pinprick starlight of the cosmos where we started.

What’s fascinating and wholly impressive about Monument is how thoroughly Parke has used his own documentary work to create an entirely new artistic narrative, taking disparate projects and photographic ideas (made across many years) and transforming them into a single integrated statement. He’s allowed himself to reinterpret his own images with a more experimental edge, stepping back from the role of witness and interpreting the reality around him with more and more freedom. As the moths flutter and the tumbling man spins out of control, Monument offers an innovative reappraisal of Parke’s aesthetics. Not only is Monument filled with dozens of stand out single images, the entire photobook experience, from the design and construction of the book object to the precise sequencing of the pictures, has been executed with innovation and care. What Monument powerfully reminds us is that while a curatorially or scholarly driven retrospective assessment can certainly teach us new things about an artist and the developmental arc of his or her work, a risk-taking artist-driven reinvention of that very same career can bring a different kind of freshness to the process. Monument is boldly and thrillingly unexpected, forcing us to reevaluate a photographer we assumed we understood.

Collector’s POV: Trent Parke is represented by Magnum Photos (here), as well Hugo Mitchell Gallery (here) and Michael Reid Gallery (here) in Australia. Parke’s work has little consistent secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option or those collectors interested in following up.

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