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SouthWinds - The Mystery of the Mistral

Award winning film director and photographer, Paul Harmon and his author wife, Sylvia Johnson, returned to Sydney about a year ago from Sablet, a small wine making village in the Provence region of France. They decided that rather than stay in the city, they would investigate life in a regional area.

Paul talks to Robyne Young about the influence of his time in France on his work, the decision to move to the Southern Highlands, and the part a vibrant and welcoming arts scene, including Creative Table, has played in mounting his first photographic exhibition.

Paul, you have a background in film and television but in talking about the exhibition name photography as your first love. When did you first take an interest in photography?

I remember using my father’s camera in about 1963, so I would have been about eleven. We lived in Collaroy Plateau in Sydney and I’d go out and take photos of the backyard. I was really just flirting with the form. Because my photos were of this backyard itself and didn’t have people in them, my father said they were rubbish. To him a real photo had a person standing in it – so I basically stopped taking photos for quite a long time.

What is it about photography you enjoy in comparison to your work as a director?

Partly, I like the solitariness of it and with the subject of the photos I’ve taken for my first exhibition, the contemplative nature of it. I did consider other types of photography but that, as my work did when I worked in film and television, would involve other people. This … this is just me and whatever time I feel I need to capture the image.

You’ve talked about ‘knowing’ you wanted to explore the beauty of the south of France, but that the photographic approaches you first tried seemed clichéd. What was it that made you finally use the long exposures you have in the photographs in this exhibition, South Wind?

We were driving along a mountain road and I saw a field of grasses swaying in the Mistral – the famous wind of these parts and they just called out for a time exposure. My first shots were a journey of discovery – a kind of discussion between my camera, the wind and time – and they were hit and miss. Gradually, I became better at seeing this dance of the landscape – of understanding how, with certain types of wind, different elements of the landscape would react differently over time. Some of the photos reveal a kind of wild fury and others a beauty that remind me of the critical role photography played in informing the impressionist painters of the late 19th century.

It was the juxtaposition of these differences – emphasising the ‘still’ against ‘movement’ – that I wanted to capture. Typically the exposures were thirty seconds long and the results never stopped surprising me.

Speaking of surprise, moving to the Southern Highlands, has brought about some pleasant surprises for you in terms of the work and the supportive artistic environment you’ve discovered since moving. Can you tell me about these?

One is that I’ve been able to continue the photographic journey and there are photographs of the Southern Highlands included in the 22 works in the exhibition. The other is the great welcome I’ve had from the artistic community. There’s not the enclaving of high art that seems to dominate in Sydney. There’s a sense of community and values that are real here.

I’ve had my first taste of a gathering of Creative Table at Biota and its founder, Hamish Ta-mé, who will open the exhibition, has provided some great advice on mounting and promoting the exhibition.

It’s been a fantastic experience to let this part of myself come forward and have this wonderful honesty of who I am.

South Winds, an exhibition of 22 framed limited edition prints using archival inks and printed on textured cotton rag paper, from 2- 31 August at the Pop-Up Gallery, The Milk Factory Gallery, 33 Station Street (rear), Bowral. Launch – Sunday, 3 August 2pm-4pm. During the exhibition, Paul Harmon will be at the gallery on weekends from 10am-4pm.

For more information about Creative Table and its 10000Paces project click here.