At Glasshouse Port Macquarie, until February 6, is a retrospective exhibition of photographic prints featuring the work of Australian social and environmental artist - Sophie Howarth.
I first met Sophie at a gallery in Sydney, in 2014. She was standing among the vast poetic landscapes and intimate colourful portraits of hunters, horses and eagles in her exhibition Soaring-The Golden Eagle Festival of Mongolia.Her work had the flavour of a National Geographic photographer (but she wasn't).
You could see that she worked in the classic traditions of humanist photographers, with a deep appreciation for the alchemy of people and place.
She spoke to me about feeling at home among the Kazakh people. She said that she recognised the place, felt she belonged. She'd even thought about moving there to live.
I raised an eyebrow, not from doubt, but because this was the same woman that had created the Sophie Howarth Photography Rock Archive, one of Australia's most popular rock music photography collections.
How disparate could the subject material be?
Straight out of art school and into the pit, Sophie was the official photographer for Australia's iconic Big Day Out music festival. She got among the crowds, behind the scenes and travelled with the bands for two decades. She even wrote a book about it, Peace, Love & Brown Rice: A photographic history of the Big Day Out.The first book ever written about the festival, it's filled with photographs, quotes, and notations - an insider's perspective.
Her visual style was ahead of her time. Back then she was blurring and radically cropping scenes in-camera, writing on her photographs, and using collage.
As a way of seeing and interpreting documentary projects, her style pre-dated the liberated expressiveness that mobile camera phones and text apps heralded.
If you're like me, and you know the era and the music, you'll have seen Sophie's photographs. They featured in countless magazines, on posters and as album artwork.
That she survived all the fun of show biz in one piece, and with her curiosity for people and crowds intact, is astonishing.
Sophie's interest in photographing indigenous people and traditions began toward the end of the nineties when she was invited to join her mum and some of her mum's friends on Bondi Beach. There she found herself photographing the Sea of Hands, an event organised by ANTaR-a group working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and leaders on rights and reconciliation issues in Australia.
Taken by the experience and the cause, Sophie packed up her kit and joined ANTaR as they travelled by bus around Australia 'planting hands' for reconciliation. Her story and photographs from the expedition were published in Rolling Stone Australia.
Soon came an invitation to photograph the inaugural Garma Festival, followed by another to photograph singer Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu and the Saltwater Band (on their Top End community tour). Later, came her trips to Mongolia. But it was the Sea of Hands where Sophie's focus segued from a fascination with the tribalism of popular culture into immersive observations of ancient cultures.
Sophie would be the first to say that her career has never been calculated. Just pick up the camera and work. She's certainly been too busy to think too far ahead, and she seems always to have been driven by heart.
Today her work can be seen in public galleries around Australia, but never before like the show at Glasshouse. Curated by Bridget Purtill, Behind the Lens shows the breadth of Sophie's subject material and styles. It includes a recent collaboration with Poets and Thieves (an offshoot of the illustrious Melbourne label Hoponit).
Begun during COVID lockdown 2021, the Poets and Thieves project reinterprets Sophie's rock music images as a limited-edition collection of artisan textiles that evoke the nostalgia of the festival experience and a blazing moment in music history.
From Nirvana to Saltwater to Soaring, there's an underlying theme to Sophie Howarth's art. It's about passion, poetry, a belief in self and people, and the impulse to create.
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