Photographer Matthew Sleeth with his work.Photo: Eddie Jim
Matthew Sleeth's conceptual photography finds meaning and beauty in the patterns of daily life, writes Suzy Freeman-Greene.
THEY LIE FORLORNLY IN gutters, their steel bones bent, plastic wings misshapen. At first glance, they're merely some dumped umbrellas. But look longer at these photos and you start to feel a kind of sympathy for these bits of metal and plastic captured en masse. It's almost as if they were a species of wounded bird, ill-suited to urban life or strong winds.
The pictures of houseplants have a similar sad appeal. They sit in miserable looking offices, on windowsills and doorsteps: their bright flowers and tropical foliage hinting at dreams of a softer, greener life. These photos are twinned with images of fire extinguishers lurking on walls or in foyers or behind a plane seat. The contrasting subjects speak of very different emotions: a hopeful yearning for communion with nature and the fear that can hover beneath everyday lives.
These images are part of Matthew Sleeth's Pattern Recognition series, which will feature at this year's Melbourne International Arts Festival. Sleeth, a Melbourne artist, has had considerable success overseas. He's represented by galleries in Tokyo, Cologne, Copenhagen and New York (as well as Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane) and recently, America's prestigious Aperture Foundation published a book of his work. During the festival, his pictures will be popping up all over town: on billboards and tram stops; even projected on to a shard at Federation Square.
Sleeth arrives at our interview on a shiny motorbike. I'm early and have already climbed the steep, metal staircase that leads to his studio in an old cotton mill in Footscray. Sleeth describes himself as obsessive and this is a wonderful space in which to indulge such tendencies. Vast and light-filled, with a mezzanine floor, it has a darkroom, a wall of tall shelves and his latest passion: a picture scanner so huge it had to be lifted in by a crane through the window.
"It's big and it looks good," enthuses Sleeth half ironically, as we admire the hulking machine. This drum scanner will reproduce large-format negatives for his next show. Sleeth is quietly spoken but you sense his brain is constantly whirling with thoughts. On my arrival, he launches into a description of the conceptual rationale behind his work and soon I'm struggling to keep up with the rush of words and ideas.
He grew up in Surrey Hills, one of four children. His father, an accountant, was an amateur photographer and some of his earliest memories are of being lifted up in the dark room to watch an image emerge in a tray of water. Sleeth spent much of his 20s living overseas, in Zurich, Dublin and New York, and his photos have been taken all over the world. After a stint in Japan, he and his partner (who have two young children), returned to live in Melbourne in 2006.
Pattern Recognition is a series of grid-like collections of images. Some of the other intriguing subjects include security cameras; planes spotted from afar (ant-sized aircraft in huge, blue skies) and silhouetted figures peering through a wire fence at New York's Ground Zero.
While the links between these topics are obvious, other collections contain more enigmatic material. White depicts tiny figures skiing in a blizzard. Monitors shows a series of surreal, self-help slogans ("play", "don't procrastinate"), which flash on to screens at Tokyo Disneyland as patrons queue for rides. And La Joconde depicts a series of signs at the Louvre leading to the room housing the Mona Lisa. We never actually see the painting, but we feel the weight of expectation that surrounds it.
Each collection of photographs is shown in a grid of nine or 12 or 15 images. Patterns, says Sleeth, are an attempt to impose order upon the chaos of the world. This show also explores ideas about photography itself and the way it has historically been used to order and categorise life.
While his work is highly conceptual, Sleeth also wants to make "seductive" pictures that provoke an emotional response. And many of his images are beautiful, with a powerfully intense feel for colour. A 2003-05 series on campers at the Rosebud foreshore is quietly lyrical, with one especially choice picture of a bright blue panel van parked in the scrub. And his 2004-06 series of 12 Views of Mount Fuji shows the mountain hovering in the background like some lovely mirage, while in the foreground we inhabit a succession of banal urban landscapes including a car yard and an empty cafe.
A gentle humour is also at play. As Alasdair Foster, director of the Australian Centre for Photography, has written, Sleeth coaxes "beauty from the chaos of the everyday ... spiking his images with wit without sinking into the sardonic". Even the abandoned umbrellas snapped on Tokyo streets were approached, says Sleeth, in the spirit of a David Attenborough nature film, "where you come up from behind and look at them in their natural habitat".
Sleeth wants to blur the boundary between "candid" photography (what he calls "the found narrative") and staged images. While many of his images are "found", he may spend days or weeks digitally altering them in the studio. He deliberately avoids discussing how a photo was shot, to erase distinctions between truth and fiction, objectivity and subjectivity.
"I am interested in making a fiction out of what exists," he explains. Though he photographs people and things taken from daily life, he is not engaging in a "humanist, documentary approach - the people in the pictures represent archetypes of contemporary life," he says. "I don't really think that I am telling stories about individuals ... I am more telling stories about how we live."
In his series Pictured for example, (which will be projected on to the shard during the festival), he has photographed various people either taking amateur photos or posing for them. In one image, two giggling young women in a Tokyo cafe snap each other simultaneously on their mobiles. In another, a girl poses for an unseen camera at the gardens of Versailles. The series is a fond exploration of the way amateur photography is used to control and order memory. Photographs, says Sleeth, build up patterns of what we choose to remember and celebrate.
Sleeth's own process is "to do something to the point of exhaustion then move on". Thus he has over 5000 images of houseplants, taken over five years, and a fair few umbrella shots too.
Pulling open a drawer, he shows me his index cards, where thousands of images have been painstakingly categorised and filed. Some are series that didn't make the grade: one on balloons and another called "arses".
"Some ideas fail when you go and test them in the world," he observes.
As I leave his studio at four, Sleeth casually mentions that he needs to get some lunch. It seems rather late in the day, but he hasn't gotten round to eating.
Pattern Recognition will show at the Sophie Gannon Gallery in Richmond and at various public sites around Melbourne, from October 9-25.