The Camera Is My 3rd Eye > Ruth Maddison06.06.2013
Regional Arts NSW and Sydney gallery, Artspace have announced Ruth Maddison as the recipient of the residency offered at the end of this year. She talks to Estelle Pigot about her work as a regional photographer based in Eden on the NSW South Coast, and sharing the view through her lens.
“In 1976 I was living in a group household that included two photographers and Circus Oz members. There was a darkroom set up in the house and I was encouraged by Ponch Hawkes (friend, photographer and house member) to use her camera if I wanted,” Ruth recalls. “She took me upstairs to the darkroom and showed me how to process and print. It was love at first negative. I had my first commercial work 6 months later and my first solo exhibition after 3 years.”
The photographer moved from Melbourne in 1996 in search of a change that included a house without a mortgage, near the sea and with space to work from home, and found Eden. She found less distractions from her work which she describes herself as being “completely devoted to” (read; obsessed by) and found that the move out of a city environment opened up her practice beyond the portrait and documentary genres.
“I feel like a camera is my third eye and I am constantly ‘framing up’ – whether I have a camera with me or not.”
Ruth says that these days her themes traverse “pretty much everything” but what she most cared about are untold stories that reveal something about the shared human experience rather than the headline-snatching tales that drive wedges between people.
“What I explore most is our everyday lives lived in our communities. I care about untold stories that show us our common humanity,” she explains. “More and more, newspaper headlines seem to separate us rather than unite us. That approach to ‘news’ is very politically reactionary and makes me feel helpless as an individual.”
Her work also explores themes of decay, death and mortality using botanical material and personal objects, “I think of all the work I make as documentary, because I am documenting the passage of my own life via the images I make.”
Over the years, Ruth has been the subject of a number of documentaries and interviews which examine her life in Eden as a practicing artist. It seems the public is as fascinated by her seachange as she is. She has often talked about the challenges and frustrations of being a creative working outside a city, and the stark contrast of these two environments. It’s a subject she claims she could “fill pages” discussing.
“I had only ever been a city girl, so moving certainly opened my eyes to the parallel universe of living in a small regional town,” she explains.
“By the time I moved to Eden I already had a long, established career that included a wide range of freelance work, major commissions, exhibitions, and lecturing. This history provides me with an enormous range of contacts on many levels which I can still access and is enormously important. But the biggest frustration for me is the absence of a professional peer group to move ideas around with – mine and theirs – and for critical feedback on a regular basis.”
Ruth’s practice has evolved with the technology of her craft. She describes the change from analogue to digital as a “major move” but one that was inevitable. Her dependence on equipment (“laptop, large screen, massive printer, scanner, main camera”) poses the constant threat of a technology fail; “Since coming out of the darkroom into the lightroom, if anything goes seriously kaput it’s a major production involving carefully packaging up and driving hundreds of kms to the city for the equipment hospital.”
Ruth’s camera has been trained on the teenagers living in Eden, the subject of a lot of her work . Since living in the town, she has been particularly interested in documenting local youths’ experiences through interviews paired with her photography, capturing the unique voice of the town’s young people. The town has a history of commercial fishing and timber mills, and the photographer asks questions about what it is like to grow up in a place like Eden and what the youth see as their future.
She has also exhibited a mixed media project called, There is a Time, which brought together stills, video, light-boxes, dried botanical objects, printing images on fabric and incorporated sewing to present a multi-layered exploration on the Monaro Plain.
“Living here has also opened me to looking at landscape and ideas of what lies below; literally and historically,” she says. “Making all of that work was exciting – new problems to solve – and I am particularly keen to use sewing again. ”
This year, Regional Arts NSW partnered for the first time with Woolloomooloo gallery, Artspace, to create an opportunity for a regional artist to complete a 3-month residency at the gallery.
CEO of Regional Arts NSW, Elizabeth Rogers, collaborated with Artspace director Blair French to bring about the residency, to address the lack of opportunities for regional artists to benefit from the city art scene. “There are so many existing opportunities for city-based artists to go out into regional areas for career-developing experiences,” Elizabeth says. “But this residency is unique in that it supports a regional artist with dedicated time in Sydney, cultivating their creative practice, in order to accelerate their arts practice and career.”
For Ruth, she already feels energised as she looks forward to the residency in October. “A residency is incredibly energetic and productive and stimulating. It’s a powerful thing to have that concentration and devotion to the task that a residency provides.
“I was hanging out for something like this, because after 15 years in Eden I was just starting to feel like the isolation was becoming counter-productive.” She plans to take advantage of the time in Sydney to build new professional networks and fully immerse herself in the cultural exposure that the city can offer.
“I always feel like my practice moves along in some permanent ways after a residency is completed. I hope to move my current project ideas along, hopefully start something new as well, see as many exhibitions as I can, do some workshops that will help skills development, and be a contributing member of an artist’s community for 3 months.”
This fully-funded residency opportunity is offered in association with Regional Arts NSW and sponsored by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.
Regional Arts NSW congratulates Ruth Maddison and will be documenting part of her residency later in the year. To see more of her work visit South East Arts’website, here.