Last night I was shown some low-resolution pictures of a current exhibition on an iPhone. Even on a tiny screen in dim light, I knew they were something special. These four dramatically lit, meticulously staged portraits were the work of Melbourne-based photographer Keren Dobia.
They were just the tip-of-the-iceberg – part of a 15-subject ongoing series, now on display at fortyfivedownstairs gallery in Melbourne’s CBD. Each portrait is displayed with a profile, penned by writer Tracey Seath, offering insight into the diverse creatives and their intriguing practices.
Keren studied photoimaging at Melbourne Polytechnic (then NMIT). She has been working on this personal passion project on-and-off since 2015, alongside other photography work, and teaching Photoimaging courses at RMIT and Melbourne Polytechnic. She shared more on I Am…
How did you come to practice photography?
I have always been interested in the visual arts and have been lucky enough to have parents who have been very supportive since I was young. My Mum enrolled me in art classes and I grew up making things, painting and drawing; it was inevitable that I would fall into the visual arts in some form or another!
I continued my passion for the arts well into high school, but it wasn’t until my cousin Nathan came to live with us from France that my photography interest began. He brought home some prints he had made in a darkroom at school and that sparked my interest. A few years passed, I went on to study fashion design at university, but realised I enjoyed photographing the clothing more than creating the garments. Photography became my passion soon after… learning how to use an SLR (both film and digital), then all the postproduction. I quickly realised photography allowed me to combine my love of all visual arts mediums into the one. I was soon making costumes, styling my images, lighting, and creating final edits in Photoshop!
‘I Am.’ is your first solo exhibition. Was there a particular moment or experience that inspired you to begin?
The idea for I Am started with arctic and polar photographer Joshua Holko in 2015, when he commissioned me to create a cinematic portrait. The image involved me designing and making a set: a cold, snowy scene. My dad helped me to build the interior of an old icebreaker ship, I painted it, paper-matched finishings, brought in fog and snow machines, and created that dramatic portrait. I realised I could create such scenes on a small budget, and still have them look the way I imagined in my head.
About a year passed, photographic work and teaching took over and the idea went to the back of my mind until I met The Richardsons. My friend Tom had broken down near our house on a 40-degree day and needed to pick up his wallet from his parents in order to have his car towed. I offered to drive him. With a little push, Tom encouraged me to meet his parents. I knew they were creative but didn’t really think much of it till I stepped inside. First I met Valerie Richardson (The Artist in my current series). I commented on a very large painting in the entryway, she was chuffed as it was a painting she had done of herself many years earlier: a self-portrait wrapped in a quilt she had made from men’s ties. I suggested, if she didn’t mind, we create a version of her painting as a photographic portrait, drawing on her love of the Old Masters. She excitedly agreed.
Tom then took me through the house into his Dad’s garage, I don’t think I was prepared for the mountains of old film canisters I was going to see. It was like we had stepped back in time. We were surrounded by rust film canisters, old film lights, a cutting table, memorabilia from places and films John Richardson had worked on. Three days later I was at their home again photographing John and Valerie for what would become the beginning of I Am.
The shoots occurred on location, and you built sets, as well as did the styling and art direction(!!), can you tell us a little about what was involved in capturing this series?
With the bulk of this series, I created scenes within an artist’s home or workspace, rather than shooting in their space as I found it. They allowed me to explore their personality further by adding to or creating a scene from scratch using their art and trinkets.
The process for creating these images is time-consuming, I make initial contact with the creative I am wanting to shoot, we catch up and have a chat – it’s important I get to know them before I solidify my ideas. Once an idea is decided upon we set aside a day to create. Then comes the moving of items in and out of the frame, ensuring all elements used to tell their story and show their personality.
My focus for this series has been to share the story through a single image, but also to do it ‘in-camera’ as much as possible. Combining long exposures and flash allows me to create these highly-detailed and dramatic images. I shot with the Nikon D850 and D800, 24mm 1.4 lens and 24-70mm 2.8 lens, and Elinchrom lighting.
My partner Linton has been an important part of that process often behind the scenes moving lights, helping me set up and pack down the spaces we have created. The exhibition is supported by Nikon Australia, Kayell Australia, Epson Australia, Canson, and the Spliceboys.
What has been the most amazing part of this project?
The best part of this project has been the wonderful creatives I have been privileged enough to meet and photograph. I started by reaching out to people whose work I had admired for a long time, and then I found that if these subjects enjoyed the process, they would recommend others they thought would also be great! We have a huge community of creative here in Melbourne, and Australia many of whom never get their work seen.
And… the series continues! I am hoping to travel the exhibition around the country and eventually publish a book. I think the body of work will broaden into a more diverse variety of portraits of Australians. I love to challenge myself to create new images and feel that expanding the series beyond creatives will provide me with that challenge.
‘I Am’ By Keren Dobia
Until Saturday, December 1st
45 Flinders Lane
Saturday, December 1st, 1pm