By Geoff Dyer
I was introduced to the work of Trent Parke (born in Australia in 1971, a member of Magnum since 2007) by a mutual friend, the photographer, Matt Stuart. He showed me two books by Parke, both self-published. The first was The Seventh Wave (2000), photographs of Australia’s beaches, by Parke and his partner – now wife – Narelle Autio. A more intimate and egalitarian collaboration is hard to imagine. Without the list at the end explaining which pictures are by whom it would be impossible to tell them apart. Much of the action takes place in or under the waves. You don’t look at this book. You open it and plunge in. Whoomp! Immediately, you’re immersed, submerged. They’re like pictures of being born, of people exploding into life beneath the sea, or bursting through the surface and into being. It’s as if evolution has been speeded up and compressed so that the origins of life on the planet turn, in a split-second, to the creation of an individual human life. In the same breath it’s mythic and candid – street photography from Atlantis! In one photograph we get a blurry echo of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel. Here it’s two hands almost touching underwater, one clutching a ball of burning light. In a related picture – included in the Minutes to Midnight series – we see the birth of the photographers’ own son, erupting from the water, dragging the umbilical cord like a lifesaver.
The surface of the sea is a film separating two worlds, that of water and that of air. Though absolute the distinction is perpetually on the brink of dissolving, melting away. People fly through the water as if suspended in a turbulent sky, or float through great clouds of aquatic light. That’s what water is for Parke and Autio – liquid light. Forms dissolve, blur, swim into and out of focus. Quick and silver, the water is a flash-flood of mercury. Part of the attraction of this undertaking, I’m guessing, is that the conventions of perspective and composition are not so much broken as bent out of shape, temporarily suspended. So completely has perspective been absorbed into our understanding of human perception that its abandonment suggests that we might be sharing a non-human or shark’s-eye-view. This lurking sense of danger is also a product of association. When a squid is under attack it emits clouds of ink – which is exactly what we get here: huge oil spills of dense, billowing black, while people dive and bomb through the surface and into the picture frame. They’re like human depth charges, or flash-bulbs exploding. As the shockwaves pass through the pictures it’s as if they’re in the process of being blasted apart – except it’s all pretty puny in comparison with the massive force of water, the rips and moon-tugged tides. Life on earth, in some of these pictures, looks like it could be ending as well as beginning.