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In conversation with Vivian Cooper Smith.

Could you start off by speaking about your current exhibition at Galerie pompom?

‘A light without stars’ is an exhibition of work I have been developing over the last couple of years. I’ve been re-photographing physically manipulated photographic prints for the last 8 or 9 years but through the work on this exhibition I was able to expand the studio techniques and also find a conceptual underpinning which I’m really excited about. For a while I’ve been thinking about how photography can be used to question the very process of seeing and meaning making rather than only providing pictures of the world. Through my research I came across Karen Barad’s diffractive methodology which although located in science gave me a new way of looking at the apparatus of photography. By intervening and disrupting the process of taking a photograph I could create photographic images which I think challenge the presumptions we bring to a photograph – how we expect a photograph to be. These photographs don’t reveal their subject or point us to a specific place or thing. They are disoriented. In fact, the subject matter doesn’t really matter at all. I’ve used examples of photographic standards such as landscape, still life, portraiture and abstraction to construct photographs that I think speak more about the act of seeing than they do about what we can see.

The process involved for this series is very interesting as there is no digital intervention, could you expand on this?

I should clarify this so there aren’t any misconceptions. The visual effects you see in these works like the overlay of images, the kaleidoscope patterns, rainbow and other artifacts are not digitally derived. They’ve been created by a series of studio techniques that are laughably basic but really effective. Working with a set of small printed photographs I’ve re-photographed them using a variety of props and processes that included handheld lights with coloured gels, crystal balls dangling in front of the lens and moving or overlaying the prints during a long exposure. I did however use a digital camera to record these actions after which the images were processed digitally. This part did include some colour and contract enhancement and other basic editing. I’m not hiding the fact that some digital photography was included but want to stress that the manual studio processes are what created the effects.  

What led you to this unique creative process?

It was a process of research and studio experimentation. For example one day I picked up a broken piece of a chandelier that I had in the studio and photographed through it. I really liked the effect and so started experimenting with similar objects. I’m always trying out new ways of image making. I used to crumple my prints before re-photographing them, then I tried cutting them and now I’m moving my prints. It’s a continuum – one leads to another.

Do you ever worry about people copying or appropriating your work/style?

No I don’t. I’m not the first person to try out the things I do and I won’t be the last. I’m always working hard on trying new things anyway which helps. I’m also more interested in the questions I’m asking of photography than the particular techniques I use. They always come second and if I need to move on from one I will (like I did with crumpled prints). What I hope is that there is a consistency of purpose through my whole practice despite the differences in techniques. 

Is there something about your work that you rarely get to speak about that you would like to share?

Despite the overt graphic style and use of strong colour this work is very personal for me. It’s my response to the challenges and questions of life.


What are you currently reading?

Humankind by Timothy Morton.


Do you have a favourite tshirt?

My tshirts are almost always plain and not very special but I do have one favourite one that I sleep in which is now more holes than it is shirt. It’s grey and non-descript but it fits the best of all my shirts and I can’t throw it away just yet.


Why do you choose Melbourne as your city to live?

I came here from Perth because I felt like it had more opportunity for me to develop the kind of life I wanted. So far my hunch was right even though things have taken a lot longer than I had anticipated. 

What inspires you?

So many things. I listen to a lot of music, everything from free jazz to contemporary psychedelia. My work is always inspired by travel and the land I encounter. I love exercise and sport too – I find the mental application needed to succeed in professional sport motivating.   


What are you currently working on?

I am working on a collaborative photographic installation called Interference Pattern with Rebecca Najdowksi – an American photographer currently based in Melbourne. We are showing it at the Perth Centre of Photography in late March. It is building on some of the ideas from A light without stars but is situated specifically in landscape and with a looser, freer approach to making and exhibiting.


How are you hoping your work will evolve in the future?

I have some ideas but as yet no path through the mist.

Vivian Cooper Smith's A Light Without Stars now showing at Galerie pompom until the 4th of March.

Vivian Cooper Smith, Interference Pattern #2, 2017, digital c-type print, 150 x 107 cm

Vivian Cooper Smith, Interference Pattern #1, 2017, digital c-type print, 150 x 107 cm

Vivian Cooper Smith, Joan, 2017, digital c-type print, 80 x 60 cm

Vivian Cooper Smith, Landscape #1, 2017, digital c-type print, 72 x 100 cm

Vivian Cooper Smith, Landscape #4, 2017, digital c-type print, 72 x 100 cm

Vivian Cooper Smith, Edward, 2017, digital c-type print, 80 x 60 cm