Perth photographer Liz Looker’s exhibition The Spirit and the Flesh is the outcome of a two-month artist’s residency in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Inspired in part by The Spirit of the Woods, an early 20th century American photographic exhibition by Looker’s Swedish ancestor, Charles Haag, Looker, collaborating with dancers from the GotenborsOperans Danskompani, “set out to catch, through her lens, the spirit of her subjects; to connect so as to see beyond the flesh; to see and capture their energy and core”.
The resulting photographs are strange and deeply moving. Long exposure times track and distort the movements of bodies emerging from the darkness.
They are fragments of linear narratives possessing the integrity of the still image. If these were paintings, one could imagine them as products of a surreal atelier presided over by Caravaggio and Francis Bacon.
Looker is herself a former ballet dancer. She understands the expressive potency of gesture and ritual. An award- winning photographer who refuses to be categorised, and who works across different genres in the commercial and fine arts realms, she values above all story and the creative freedom to articulate that story in new and surprising ways.
“It’s about meeting people and hearing their stories and connecting to them,” she says. “The photograph is a beautiful memory of that. I don’t like imposing ideas or concepts. It’s not about being a creative person. It’s more about sitting quietly and watching and thinking.”
She says she wanted to work with dancers because they already understood how to express themselves physically and through emotion.
“People who were constantly pushing themselves to explore and to understand their own humanity, their own physicality, but also understanding what’s beyond the body that’s delivering their work,” she says.
Looker says the experience of photographing the dancers was bigger than she expected. “In terms of people saying this was transformative, this was cathartic,” she says. “I imagined some artistic outcome, of course. And that it would be a pleasant experience. That technically I would be able to create something that would look like art. But it was deeper than that.”
Transformative not just for the subjects but for Looker herself.
“I didn’t expect that either,” she says. “Each of the people who came to me in the studio were talking so honestly about being a woman, or about loss, or having a miscarriage … about their relationships, their dreams … and in those conversations it triggered a lot of things I had experienced in my life.”
Her studio had, in effect, become a catalyst, a safe space, for these intimate exchanges, for this honesty and openness that can sometimes be absent from our day-to-day transactions.
“Maybe we don’t allow ourselves enough space for all that,” she says. “But here we had this beautiful open space for those conversations. And I wanted these people to feel heard and understood. It’s so important for human beings to feel understood. And they did. And I did.”