Justin F. Kern (JFK) is a lanky bloke with a loud laugh and eerily spider-like limbs, which, until recently I had only seen wrapped around a camera when the man was attending weddings, ceremonious birthdays and other noteworthy occasions. Watching him during these functions, as he leapt, dived and squeezed himself into a range of necessary positions for the ‘ideal shot’, it was easy to tell that he had a good eye for framing, aesthetic and that most elusive of qualities – the human element. This final ephemeral ingredient is always the defining factor in taking a ‘technically good’ photograph into the realms of magic. Having said that, working with a bride and groom, or beaming flower girl, it often seems that anyone with a big enough lens at these ‘special occasions’ can be taking these kinds images ‘filled with meaning’ – so what is the difference between a photographer and an amateur having a good day?
The debate goes back to the beginning of photography – just ask William Henry Fox Talbot, a pioneer photographer of the 1800s, or looked at another way, a very rich man with spare time and money up his sleeve to spend on a hobby. Was our dear Talbot, now revered as one of the grandfather’s of photography, a professional or amateur? And if he did become a professional, there must have been some time when he was still practicing as an amateur, training his skill – yes? Once again we return to another age old debate: the question of the artist or creator as genius vs hardworking and persistent labourer. The institutions of the ages have perpetuated the myth that artists, for instance, occupy a space almost of sainthood – in their ability to create something worthy of ‘holy’ reverence, objects which become relics in the museum space that should be determinedly conserved over the years as some meaningful production from the ‘artist’s hand’. The conceptual, and often historical, meaning of the work often has less relationship to the work itself than it does to the contemporary reception of the work. Though it may be sensually ‘uplifting’ (or not as is the case-in-point of postmodernism) to view a beautiful artwork it does not necessarily tell us much about why it was important historically.
Returning to our modern JFK, we begin to ask ourselves, why does the work of this young Australian, at the beginning of his experimental photographic career, intrigue us? The answer is emotive, as all good answers to intriguing visual imagery should be. There is a combination of heartstrings being pulled on in these images. In those of the outback I feel the connection to Ansel Adams, and joy at my own country’s landscape bursting so in outrageously celebratory colours. In the images of the pipes, emerging man, and light drawn onto the playing fields I appreciate the humour and irreverence brought to a visual plane and it’s representation of a country’s spirit. The fire images – at once beautiful and terrifying in their meaning, and the city lights that dazzle – all add to a multi-faceted portrait of our country that encapsulates many landscapes, experiences and moods.
What would I like to see from our JFK? More. I cannot to wait to see how his work matures, most importantly as he educates himself in other photographers and artists of Australia, and the globe, and uses their work to inform his own. I want to see many more faces of our nation and how they might be represented in increasingly complex ways. Most of all I want to see how he develops this theme of humour balanced with the land and people – ephemeral spirit emerging from within that which is actually seen – what I would call the visual equivalent of ‘reading between the lines’.
And what would I like to see from the rest of Australia? JFK, and other photographers like him, not only on gallery walls – but with a crowd standing around appreciating what the images have to offer them and their story.