Out of Austria



A woman sitting on an archaic three-legged chair, cradling Arum lilies in her arms. Four porters approach, if they advance much more they will exit their frame of reference. They will step out of a make-believe Africa of snow covered mountains, and endless savannah (with hint of bananas) onto weed-cracked cement bounded by a ruined wall. Out of one frame and into another. High up there is a darkened doorway, perhaps a way out of the picture altogether? Although first reactions may tend towards wry amusement, echoing perhaps visits to the seaside where you can poke your face through a hole to be photographed as a bronzed muscleman, a bathing beauty or a beach wimp, the painted backdrop has a long tradition in photography and derives from both theatre and painted portraiture. It has often used to increase the formal impact of a portrait or to re-create a ‘natural’ landscape (complete with real plants and other artefacts) when photographing anthropological subjects. The backdrop has one paramount characteristic. It is intended to be read by viewers of the resulting photograph as real, an illusion maintained by careful framing and social agreement.




In Out of Austria the model for the background is the lid of a 1950s children’s board game. The fact that the porters are painted in the same style and detail as the landscape reduces them to signifiers and contrasts, in the original, with the detailed rendering of the white, blonde, moustached, gun-carrying adventurer in a safari suit. Here it highlights the figure of the artist. He is looking at us, she is not. Thus the style of the backdrop and its placement (framing) breaks the photographic rule of implied consistency.


It hovers between being integrated into a unified pictorial illusion and indicating that it is, itself, part of the subject matter. The violation of the rule reveals a rule of violation, the negation of the personal identity of the porters. They are reduced to strong dark bodies with a grin. The epitome of the ‘good native.’ It is an illusory world which the figure in the foreground is contemplating; but it still has a strong presence in our Western culture. It is formally linked by the wooden perfection of the artificial, painted flowers, the red colonial helmet and the African-style gown echoing the colonostalgia and ethno-fashion aspects of consumer society. However, the dress has other stories to tell as well. We are certainly used to having company logos on our sports wear, emblazoned on our cars, printed on our jackets and even underwear and endlessly repeated on the surface of handbags and other items of clothing. We function as mobile billboards in the belief that it confers prestige or is, at least, fashionable. Here, there is an unsettling incongruity. The logo confers no kudos and seems both formal and improvised simultaneously.