Port Moresby/Second Contact. By Sean Davey.Huw Davies Gallery, PhotoAccess at the Manuka Arts Centre. Until May 24.
Sean Davey is a serious Papua New Guinea-phile. He has visited Port Moresby 15 times since his first visit in 2005. His attraction, at least as revealed in Port Moresby/Second Contact, is places and people known and familiar to him, not in a cultural "other". His images are about people; people interacting with one another, with their environment, with their place, and, in some instances, with the camera, the photographer, the auteur. The range of images is concentrated in Port Moresby and Davey's intimacy with the daily life of the people and (some of) the places depicted is clearly demonstrated in this exhibition.
Within the 26 works (although many are multi-partite) the strongest impression is the artist's connection with his subject matter. There is in much of the work a joyful spontaneity, an immediate response to particular people and places. There is also a nostalgic character, a feeling of time and events passed, perhaps related to the black-and-white format but perhaps imbued by the artist as an acknowledgment of his connections with "Port Moresby". Certainly for me the possibilities of coming across Davey's images in some grey-papered family photo album are insistently (and purposefully) present.
The photographs consist of contact, edition and unique prints, mostly silver gelatin. Some are framed, some wall mounted and others displayed on shelves or as an artist book. Sizes also vary and include works six by seven centimetres up to 30 by 40 centimetres.This variety adds visual interest and induces close(r) examination by viewers. The overall installation is an astute example of how to avoid sameness within a selection of effectively similar images. The artist, who installed the exhibition himself, obviously understands not only his own work but the dynamics of the physical layout of the PhotoAccess gallery spaces and the need to elide these with the conceptual premises of his exhibition. It is an effective and aesthetically seductive display.
In one sense viewers are invited to accompany the artist on his objective tour (over a number of years) of Port Moresby and his subjective introduction to friends and others. Through the arrangement of images, Davey intersperses the personal, the subjective with the objective. This is clearly iterated in the first gallery where a captivating, singular image, Cool story, reveals the artist's understanding of photographic history and the concomitant impact of the "one-off" opportunity to capture the unique frozen moment.
Running at right angles to Cool story is Port Moresby spin. This compilation of 20 abutting images places the viewer in the same place as the artist/photographer, documenting from the moving vehicle as it drives through the places depicted. The notion of "moving through" (the "spin") is cleverly identified by the articulation of each image right up to its neighbour in linear progression, a series of stills, with the artist as editor.
As a visual stop to the linearity of Port Moresby spin, Davey places Kelly, another singular image, directly opposite Cool story. There is a look in both these images of the photographer as sociological document maker in the light of, for example, Walker Evans (whose work Davey admires). However, this is subverted here and indeed generally throughout the exhibition by the deliberately chosen differentiated formats, and by the familiar/familial tone that characterises Davey's approach to his known and loved subject matter. There is nothing didactic in Port Moresby/Second Contact.
Michael's room is displayed on a wall shelf in the central gallery. It is an open(ed) folded piece presented as a discontinuous narrative, showing different aspects of a "room", at once intimate and objective. The intimacy shown is in no way vicarious, it is an intimacy of comfortable acquaintance, someone's "place" known to the artist and simply that.
Port Moresby/Second Contact is a visual diary of Sean Davey's ongoing relationship to a place and its inhabitants. It encompasses much more besides that but the immediacy of the projection of the artist's deep relationship with his subject matter is paramount. Davey's sympathetic understanding of the aesthetics impost of a gallery space has resulted in a particularly well-conceived and well-presented exhibition.