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Fiona Sweet was in a bookshop flicking through one of David LaChapelle’s photography books when it struck her that she wasn’t aware of his work ever having been shown in Australia.
As the new Artistic Director of the Ballarat International Foto Biennale, she was looking for a headline event, so she did some quick research and discovered that her hunch was right. The acclaimed American commercial photographer, fine-art photographer, music video director and film director hadn’t had a solo exhibition here.
“That was it really,” says Sweet. “I knew that it would be attractive to arts and photography lovers, and that others who might not go to art exhibitions would be interested, so it ticked all the boxes really.”
LaChapelle is known for his striking, irreverent, slickly staged images, which use a hyper-realistic aesthetic to comment on themes like consumerism, pop culture and celebrity. Andy Warhol gave him his first big break in the 1980s with a job as a commercial photographer for Interview magazine. Since then, his images have graced the covers of magazines such as Italian Vogue, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone.
Over the years, he has photographed some of the most recognised people on the planet including Michael Jackson, Madonna, Muhammad Ali, Whitney Houston, Britney Spears and Hillary Clinton to name but a few.
An exhibition of around 70 of LaChapelle’s photographs, spanning 30 years, will headline Sweet’s first Ballarat International Foto Biennale. The exhibition, simply called David LaChapelle, arrives here after touring South America.
The Ballarat International Foto Biennale was founded in 2005. The core programme of Sweet’s 2017 line-up includes eight other major exhibitions as well as the Martin Kantor Portrait Prize, awarded to a photographic artwork of a significant Australian. The Fringe programme features more than 90 exhibitions at 70 venues around Ballarat including outdoor spaces.
Sweet comes to the Biennale after 25 years working as an art director, heading a branding and design agency called Sweet Creative – “so I’ve always worked with photographers,” she says. In 2015, she co-founded Melbourne’s Acland Street Projection Festival.
She attended the last two Ballarat Biennales and says she was “excited by the ability to engage really easily, immediately and deeply with the festival. You can walk from place to place, and there were exhibitions everywhere. I thought this is really cool. I’ve kept it quite close to the city for my first Biennale. I want to keep it even tighter than the festivals I’ve seen before to ensure that the audience is really engaged.”
Sweet herself is curating an exhibition called SELF/SELFIE which, she says, “explores the whimsical nature of selfies, but also their contribution to the growing culture of narcissism and promotion of conformist behaviour – and the development of the ‘anti-selfie’ on social networks like Snapchat.”
“The beautiful thing about a photographic festival is that people, now more than ever, are involved with photography. So, I thought it would be good to look at the history of the selfie, from photographers who take self-portraits through to the Instagram selfies,” says Sweet.
“We will have a photo booth where people can actually take photos. We also have a hashtag especially for it so we want people to upload photos as they walk around the streets as well. It’s going to be a fun exhibition.”
Emerging young curator Jessica Clark is organising an exhibition called TELL featuring work by 17 Indigenous photographic artists among them Bindi Cole Chocka, Maree Clark, Brenda L Croft, Destiny Deacon, Ricky Maynard and Warwick Thornton. Some of the work is new, created especially for the Biennale.
“I wanted an exhibition that shares stories from an Indigenous perspective. Photography is such a powerful tool that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists are using to reframe Aboriginal history on their own terms,” says Clark, a Palawa woman who went to this year’s Venice Biennale as part of the Australian contingent as an emerging Indigenous curator.
“We’ve got emerging, mid-career and established artists in the show. My aim was to create a nice variety to showcase Indigenous contemporary art and photography, and the possibilities that photography offers,” says Clark.
“It’s very diverse, the conversation. The main thing with the exhibition is trying to highlight the importance of storytelling in the transmission of culture. The stories come from different historical and cultural perspectives and they are all intertwined in the exhibition to weave a narrative of Indigenous experience.”
Michelle Mountain is curating an exhibition of vintage and contemporary fashion photography called Revelry Reverie, which reflects on the work of Bruno Benini (1925 – 2001), one of Australia’s most refined mid-20th century fashion photographers. Alongside his work, the exhibition features contemporary photographers who work with fashion imagery, among them Belgian-born, Berlin-based Noé Sendas.
“He does these beautiful mash-ups or collages. He was interested to be in the exhibition because Bruno Benini is in it so he wanted to mash-up a couple of Bruno’s works. Hazel Benini, Bruno’s widow, was really excited when she saw what Noé Sendas does and gave her consent, which is really good,” says Sweet.
Other core exhibitions include Ich Werde Deutsch (I become German) by Iranian-born German photographer Maziar Moradi, which explores the experiences of young people who were forced to leave their countries and start afresh as immigrants in Germany.
Aaron Bradbrook has curated Rearranging Boundaries, which brings together work by leading documentary photographers and visual activists from some of the most reported on regions of the globe. Themes include war, gender oppression and migration. Local newspaper, The Courier, celebrates its 150th anniversary with an exhibition highlighting significant Ballarat photojournalists and historical events.
And, for the first time, the Biennale will include a free outdoor programme throughout the streets of Ballarat featuring work by Iranian photographers Shadi Ghardirian and Gohar Dashti, which shines a light on gender and social issues in Iran.
The Ballarat International Foto Biennale runs from August 19 – September 17