Roberta Thornley

A Photographic Portfolio


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It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black . . . (Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood)

Although the cinematic quality of her photographs might evoke the dark sensuality of Bill Henson or the surreal narratives of David Lynch, the place to begin with Roberta Thornley’s work is in the ‘everyday’ world. There is no narrative linking her works. Rather, they are discrete images about the simplest and yet most evocative of ideas; for example the coldness and fragile beauty of bare feet on wet concrete in Mother. Contained within each work is a sense of the efflorescence of life and the wet, dark, decaying extreme that is part of its cycle of disintegration and renewal. Her work has an underlying element of unease, as if each image marks a crucial connection between beauty, desire, and the ‘bible-black’ of melancholy.

In spite of its being carefully staged, Thornley begins each photographic session with little idea of the result. The final photographs are an outcome of the process of working with the object or model (often a friend or family member). Spell was taken at the end of a long session when the exhausted model was resting. The physical and emotional fatigue of that moment is echoed in Rosie. Taken after hours of posing, drenched with water, she is blank, resigned, exhausted. It is these moments of letting go, of truthfulness, that we intuitively respond to in the portraits. They elicit what Roland Barthes calls the photographic ‘shock’ that is not so much about ‘traumatising’ but about ‘revealing’. (1)

The impetus for Couple, with its two stacks of white plastic chairs, was Thornley’s interest in the notion of ‘events’ and in people hiring things for functions. Thornley hired 70 chairs for a week to explore the idea, moving them around her garden until, like the portraits, the final image was the result of the process. This image and that of the slowly deflating and dusty balloon, Catch, reveal moments that exist at a point of change; where an object or a person might be one thing or the other. It is the precarious balance that fascinates Thornley.

Thornley is a recent graduate of the University of Auckland Elam School of Fine Arts and at the age of 25 she has already generated a consistent body of work. She has a clear sense of what her photographs mean and where she wants to take them, with each new series becoming more refined and more simplified. The strength of Thornley’s work lies in her having, quite remarkably, and in a very short period of time, claimed her own ground.

1. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Vintage, 2000, p.32.

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