In May 2019, Tamara Dean won the Moran Contemporary Photographic Prize for her image, Endangered. She took Capture behind the scenes of that image, her life, and her career.
Winning the Moran Prize is a remarkable achievement for any photographer, but it was a very special highlight in Tamara Dean’s career. “It’s something that I had had a go at every year for the past twelve years,” she explains. “I’ve entered the Moran every year since it began in 2007, and I’ve been a finalist nine times, and highly commended twice, so there have been a fair few images that I’ve put forward.”
Winning with Endangered is an “extra bit special” too, she adds because it has a lot of personal value to her. “It talks about some of my most fundamental concerns and loves – the environment and the experience of being alive. To be able to have an image that speaks to something bigger than myself is wonderful because I’ve always tried to use symbolism to tell a more universal story about being alive, and this image articulates my concern about our planet and the effects of climate change in a way that has made the judges respond.” Not only that, it was shot underwater, and to make the image Dean had to get over her fear of the ocean. “I have a healthy respect for the ocean, but it’s definitely not my natural environment,” she admits.
The image came about from a trip to Heron Island to which Dean was invited for a weekend in September the year before. She was part of a diverse group of people gathered together to learn about the effects of climate change in general, and on the Great Barrier Reef in particular. While there, her impetus to make this special image began to grow. “I had created a work a number of years before called Shoaling, which was a photograph taken from above looking down on a body of water with a whole lot of bodies swimming around in a way that looked like a school or a shoal of fish,” she explains, “and I had always wanted to create how that image would look under the water. But my opportunities to have a lot of nude people swimming underwater at once had always been very limited, so while I was at Heron Island I took the opportunity to ask people who were there if they would let me do some tests to see if my idea had legs.”
The shot turned out well, so “on the strength of the images that came from the smaller group I was able to find the confidence to shoot a larger group of sixteen people who were able to put their own personal discomfort about nudity aside and put themselves in the water to create the message that I wanted to put out to the world – that as humans, we are part of our environment; we are not a separate thing. We are mammals in a sensitive ecosystem and it’s very important that we acknowledge that because it’s an integral part of seeing the importance of protecting our environment.”
Dean has a very distinctive photographic style that she has developed from two career streams, one as a photojournalist. She studied photography in art school, but took a lengthy detour immediately after graduating before coming back to it when she accepted a job at the Sydney Morning Herald. Over fifteen years at the Herald, Dean moved from photojournalism into documentary photography where she was able to be more directorial in her work, she explains, in terms placement of people and the way that she navigated her shoots. While she was at the Sydney Morning Herald, she also started establishing her art practice as a separate entity to her Herald work, creating images for Ocula magazine and working out a way to allow both of her photographic styles to flourish independently. “I found that the easiest marker for that was to use a medium format camera for my personal work and my Sydney Morning Herald camera for my other work. It was a way for me to delineate my direction because the medium format camera would slow down the process so immensely it became a very different kind of shoot.”
An opportunity to regroup
Dean’s transition into art photography came about after she fell pregnant. “It was a bit of a return to my initial journey. When I had my first child it became incredibly apparent to me that I could no longer work the way I had. It was no longer possible for me to throw myself entirely into other people’s worlds when I was doing photographic stories and having them shown via Ocula. I no longer had all the time in the world to tell people’s stories. Plus, being on maternity leave gave me pause to think about where I started, and what I actually wanted to do. When I was working on the Herald and for Ocula, I was sort of surging forward without any time to reflect and my maternity leave gave me time to reflect and remember where I really wanted to be. What I really wanted to do was create narratives in my photographic work, but narratives that were more personal, and that’s the kind of thing I started to create with my art practice.” Her income now comes entirely from selling art. She is represented my Martin Browne Contemporary in Sydney and sells her work through his gallery.
Photography, she says, is an incredibly intuitive process for her. “While the bodies of work I create are separate in that there’s a set series, they are quite organic in that they flow into each other. I was recently looking over a decade of work and I do see it in a chronological fashion. They feed or seep into each other.” With Endangered, which she cites as an example, the catalyst was going to Heron Island and learning about what was happening in the environment. “That absolutely gave me the impetus to tell the story, but it was also a return to values I’ve always held deeply. When I was young, I was protesting about mining and deforestation. Going to the island reminded me of my roots and made me want to use my photographs to communicate my deepest values.”
The nudity that features as a regular theme in Dean’s work has a symbolic purpose linked to this aim. “It’s stripping the human body back to a sense of an animal, a creature, a mammal. It takes all of the things that we clothe ourselves with that, I feel, create a barrier in our minds – a trick that allows us to think we are separate from nature.” For Dean, nudity represents stripping back physically, but also stripping back the psychological barriers that humans build between themselves and responsibility towards the environment.
Keeping it simple
While her images are richly layered with meaning, her craft is incredibly simple. “The majority of work I create is with my Hasselblad H5D-40 camera. But because the Endangered series was shot underwater and I had bought an underwater housing for my Canon camera, I used my 5Ds. It also offered me the ability to be able to photograph in a slightly darker environment.”
Dean also paints, or as she says, “I try to.” This is an aid to her photography in small ways. “Paintings have always inspired my colour palette in my photography, so there’s quite a strong relationship between painting and my work.” Mostly, though, it is a creative outlet and an opportunity for repose. “With my photography, I tend to set up my shoots in blocks, so there is a lot of time between my shoots when I am planning them, but I’m not actually on location,” Dean says. “Painting is a beautiful counterbalance to the photographic process that generally takes a long time for me. It also gives me the immediacy of putting paint to canvas, and I enjoy the meditation on colour.”
The rewards of awards
Dean says that winning awards is “an incredible validation of the work I’m doing,” although acknowledges that the financial benefit is always helpful to her as a full-time artist. “There’s never a time when that’s not going to be helpful, but the cache that comes with an award, the acknowledgement that the work I’m doing is being valued, counts for a lot. I’m often working on my own and I live out in the country, so it brings to me the feeling that I’m part of a bigger community, even though I’m making work separate to the city pace. It validates my place in the art community.”
Dean’s place in that community has also been confirmed, on several occasions, by invitations to arts residencies, including the very prestigious New York Art Omi International Artists Residency. “I was so lucky,” she recalls. “I got a phone call out of the blue from Susanna Sweeney, who put me forward for it, alongside the Art Omi Australia Committee. I didn’t apply for it.” The month-long residency was held in the small town of Omi, in upstate New York. “They had invited thirty-one artists from all over the world,” Dean says. “What is quite unique to the residency is that in the middle of it, for about a week, they invited art professionals from New York – curators, gallery owners, critics, writer – for studio visits, each lasting an hour or two. I’d gone there thinking, ‘Oh my god, they’re going to tear my work apart’. I was terrified.” Of course, this didn’t happen, she laughs. “Instead, I was able to have deep conversations about the work I was doing and get a different perspective because I was looking at it from an Australian perspective and they were seeing it from an American viewpoint, so it was a very interesting interchange of ideas. I was also able to collaborate with another artist – Bahar Behbahani – with whose work I had seen previously in one of the Australian biennales on Cockatoo Island. She is an Iranian videographer who lives in New York, so it was wonderful to work together on a project.”
The question, “Which of your pieces of work are most important to you,” stops Dean in her tracks. Eventually, she chooses Sacred Lotus in Autumn, because she feels that she has never seen a work like it before. “But then I feel the same way about the Endangered image that won the Moran Prize,” she adds quickly. “I’m equally proud of them for different reasons,” she states. “For Endangered, I pushed myself into a place where I was very uncomfortable, being in an environment with reef sharks and other creatures I’m not used to being around, and not feeling confident in the water. There were a whole lot of personal challenges I had to overcome to make those works.” Creating works she has never seen before is what Dean is most proud of, she states. “You can often see really strong references to other people’s work in photographs, while I’ve always been inspired by the Pre-Raphaelite painters, and I feel as though Sacred Lotus in Autumn gives a nod to them. It’s in no way like a painting I’ve ever seen before.”
Adapting to change
Answering the question as to the changes she has seen in the market during her career poses no problem for Dean. “Certainly, in the editorial market, there has been an obvious downturn in the number of publications as well as the way that photography is valued by those that still exist. That’s clearly not a good situation. In the art world though, I see it as a really exciting time, and I feel as though my work is valued more than ever. That’s why I turned my focus towards my art photography. Timing featured more than planning really,” she says. “My art work took off at the same time as a shift in the market. I’m happier where I am.”
As for advice to the next generation of photographers trying to make their way in the business, Dean is very clear: “Take lots of photographs, and, most importantly, find your style. There is so much photography out there in the world, the most important thing is to find your voice, and the best way to do that is to take photographs to the point where you are able to identify what your style is, and build a body of work around that.”