Since completing a Bachelor of Design and Visual Arts at Unitec in 2013, Delena Nathuran’s personal practice has meditated on objects close to home, carefully considering their links to human existence in the past, present, and future.
After successful showings at Pearce Gallery, and Studio One Toi Tū when it was known as Artstation, and with two group shows being a part of this year’s Auckland Festival of Photography, Nathuran, the Eden Arts School Awards finalist, sat down with me to discuss her most personal body of work to date, the emotional event that compelled it, and her primal need to channel her own emotions through photography.
D-Photo: The title of Happy Medium Photo Co stands in stark contrast to the devastating event that brought the series to light. What inspired this work, and do you plan to expand it?
Delena Nathuran: Happy Medium came about after a fire at my mum’s rural property in Swanson. As a family we lost many heirlooms that were being stored in a large garage which was gutted by the fire. The only way I knew how to deal with my feelings was to start taking photos of the remains, so that they weren’t lost forever. I was at University at the time this work was made, so I produced a book dummy — but it still sits in the back of my mind as an unfinished series. I would very much like to revisit the book and self-publish it.
What is the relationship between the photos recovered from the fire, and your pieces that essentially document the event?
The series has three elements. My own documentary photos, archival family photos — that luckily were not in the shed — and some negatives and photographs recovered from the fire, some of which I had taken many years ago.
When I first made the work I showed it in a group show and only used the documentary fire photographs. But when I came to play with the images in book form, the project needed more layers and a deeper story. That’s where the family element was introduced, using the old photographs allowed for a story to be built and gave the objects a life and place that were essentially part of a family history.
Many photographers consider the camera a tool to showcase their personal view of the world, whereas you turn inwards and use the medium to reflect your meditations and inner experiences. Do you believe that your decision to shoot on film rather than digital supports this practice?
For some reason unknown to me — just instinct — I feel more artistic shooting film. Of course I love digital, and use it commercially, but my fine-art practice is different. I love the tactile nature of film, the craft of it. Coming from a family history of women who sewed and knitted, I have always been drawn to craft, so film offers that in a medium I enjoy. Because of the cost involved, I also find myself slowing down when I shoot film, thinking more, considering my exposures — it’s all about the process when you shoot film. The sound of the shutter is my favourite. I shoot work that is quite personal, and I think my love of analogue supports that as I grew up shooting film.
What made you choose to pursue photography over other art disciplines?
From an early age I just liked to document things, and a camera was the best tool for that. I loved the excitement of picking up photos from the local chemist, as a child that was the best feeling. My dad bought me my first SLR when I was in high school, and I was hooked. I love all art and mediums, but photography allows me to fulfil the need to leave a trace, a record. I want to have a suitcase of photographs to leave to my children. I grew up knitting and doing crochet with my grandmother, so I love craft in general and the process of making things. In fact, I’m dying to do a pottery course.
How do you plan to further explore the intersection of your use of film in your fine-art works with the original film photos from the fire?
I love photos, printed photographs that is. It’s the tactile nature that I love, to feel the paper and to hold it. They have a magical quality I think, and the history they hold is very special. I’m exploring the idea of using old family photos again in a new body of work. I’ve been rummaging through our old 1970s suitcase of photographs, most of which my grandfather developed in his backyard shed. I’m keen on manipulating them in some way, creating something new with the images, even collaborating on new ideas with the people in the photos. These objects are reliable, they’re present, but they’re also a link to the past. I’m very sentimental, so I guess I see photography from a fine-art perspective as being something I want to create as an object as well as a photograph.
You work mainly within a square crop. Is this purely an aesthetic choice, or is it important in relating your works to one another?
The square crop is dictated by the camera and film. It’s just the camera I’ve been using from when I studied. I’m actually on the lookout for a new film camera, so perhaps the size will change. It could be refreshing to shoot with something new. I do love things that are not popular though, so the six-by-seven format has been great.
Your subsequent series Trash Vortex differs to Happy Medium Photo Co in many ways. The exploration of an environmental issue, and the use of methods such as collage and digital captures in a studio setting, are quite a deviation. How did this series come about?
I had watched a documentary called Death by Plastic in which a turtle — which underwent a necropsy at Kelly Tarlton’s — was found to have 224 pieces of plastic inside it. I was horrified and, being a bit of an environmentalist/animal lover, I started to investigate the issue. What I found was astonishing, and the project really took over and formed on its own accord through circumstance from there. I was on the Kingsize Scholarship programme and needed to photograph in studio and, being a natural-light girl, I found that challenging. So I decided to take in the bags of plastic waste that I’d collected while volunteering with Seacleaners, and see what happened.
At the same time I developed some film that I’d shot on the volunteer boat, and something went wrong along the way. I had damaged negatives, and I was pretty upset as a lot of time and energy had gone into those photos, but instead of throwing them away I began to experiment with pushing the scans to get whatever information was there. Hence came the background images that I layered with the digital studio photographs of plastic waste.
It was a different outcome, but I love to experiment with different forms. Looking back at my first year of university, my visual diaries are full of influences like Hannah Hoch and David Hockney, so I think the collage is a form that I have had an interest in and will use again.
What do you shoot with, what’s currently in your camera bag?
In my final year of university I purchased a Canon 5D Mark II. I use a couple of Canon lenses — the 24–105mm and a 70–200mm. I would love to buy some primes when I have the budget and upgrade to a Mark III. For my fine-art work I shoot mostly on an RZ67 using 120-colour negative film. I also have an old Canon 35mm, and I have shot a couple of large-format eight-by-10 transparency images, which was amazing. However, I don’t have a large-format camera — definitely a wish-list item.
Lastly, where would we find Delena at 7pm on a Thursday night?
Most Thursdays we would be arriving home from my daughter’s swim-squad training, followed by two hours of feeding, cleaning, homework, and organizing children. Around 9pm I get some me time — to catch up on emails, work, or projects — with a glass of wine, or if I’m too tired I’ll crawl into bed with a book and a cup of tea.
This article was originally published in D-Photo Issue No. 66. Missing this issue from your collection? You can pick up a print copy or a digital copy of the magazine below: