By Sean Davey
Gilbert Bel Bachir
Australian National University, Canberra
Until 14 December 2014
I fondly remember sitting with Gilbert Bel Bachir on numerous occasions in his different apartments in Sydney about ten years ago, smoking rollies, drinking strong black coffee and pouring over his seamlessly never ending piles of meticulous hand printed, gelatin silver, black and white photographs (all of which were made in the apartment that he was living in at the time). I often thought that Gilbert lived in numerous darkrooms that also served as lesser-important abodes. I would end up staying for hours with Gilbert, looking at his masterful prints and rattling on about photographers who I had just discovered, only to learn that they were anything but new to Gilbert. I learnt a lot over the few years that we were in touch; the main thing was always to have confidence in my own feelings when making photographs.
Gilbert is a photographer’s photographer, he makes pictures in and from life, but more than that, his pictures come from personal responses and reactions to people, places, events, relationships and experiences that he encounters and that are part of his life. And this series of photographs Looking Through Glass, is no exception, with the photographer amassing images over a four year period while riding busses in Sydney, arguably Australia’s photography capital city.
I must admit that I was surprised when I first learned of this series of photographs, which was first exhibited at King on William Gallery in Sydney in 2012. The square format was indeed no surprise (Gilbert has employed a 6x6 camera for numerous projects over the years - his work in Kiribati & China are well worth investigating), the surprise came in the form of vibrant colour and the informal approach that embedded these images with movement, motion and blur. The pictures were all made from the inside of moving busses, looking at, through and out of side windows. The title of this exhibition describes Gilbert’s process of making pictures from the vantage point of a passenger on public transport, but it is also interestingly questions the act of photography itself, in that nearly all photographs made these days are indeed made through glass.
Through this series Gilbert explores the act of looking itself as something that we should consider with importance. Photographers explore their surroundings though the glass of their employed lens(es), one that is usually clear and unobstructed. In this series however, our views of Sydney’s streets are filtered though different bus windows, including stick-on vinyl advertising signs, scratched graffiti, peeling plastic and spray paint that sits between us and the view of what is being photographed. The view we sense we are looking at is obstructed, however these obstructions provide us with another layer of information that adds to our reading of the final images.
The close focal point of the photographs in this series is important to consider; this deliberate decision places us in the seat next to Gilbert as he moves though the city from one place to another. There is no firm connection to the outside view in these images, rather the focus is predominantly set to the bus window itself and the markings that adorn each piece of glass. From this perspective we are limited to what we can see of the outside and instead are forced to consider the windows themselves as being worthy of our attention; the cracked plastic, the raindrops, the black vinyl adhesive; the streetscapes themselves become backdrops to the temporary markings that are closest to his camera. As I was looking at the exhibition, a couple entered the gallery and after a quick peruse, one of them exclaimed, “Well, isn’t this refreshing.” Indeed it is.
Gilbert has stridently pushed his own boundaries as an artist with this series while holding strong to his conviction as a documentary-style photographer (accepting and photographing the real). I haven’t seen images quite like these before (admittedly I do not have an encyclopaedic knowledge of photographic history) but I sense the strong feeling of confidence that Gilbert has imbued in these works.
Looking Through Glass is a fine series of photographs, well worth seeing. The exhibition recently showed at the Drill Hall Gallery in Canberra (the show ended on 14 December).
Images © Gilbert Bel Bachir 2012