Australian artist Gee Greenslade has made a career of thrashing wildly at the boundaries of photography, willing to give anything a try in the name of art, freedom, and fun
As one of the newer practices in art history, photography is built on innovation. The jump from the earliest forms of capturing light to the chemical playground of the darkroom, the revolution of digital photography, and the ubiquitous presence of social-media imagery; even the most conservative photographer plays their part in the radical evolution of the photographic. Some artists, like Adelaide’s Gee Greenslade, can’t wait for the future — they’re past the forefront, pushing, playing, breaking, and redefining what photography can be
Gee’s photography credentials make her sound like your run-of-the-mill professional high achiever. She’s worked for years as a retouch artist and commercial photographer, been named Australian Illustrative Photographer of the Year and South Australian Professional Photographer of the Year, picked up nods at the International Loupe Awards, and competed in the World Photographic Cup.
But dig a little deeper and you’ll find an artist who is anything but conventional. A self-described geek, Gee’s combined studies in information technology and photography have resulted in an unpredictable practice that worships at the altar of technological limit-pushing. At first blush, her portraits display all the skill of a conventional beauty photographer. But look closer and the mad computer scientist emerges, kicking out the foundations of what you thought you knew about photography.
“The perception was that you’d take a frame and be done; now we’re really unsure of what our images are,” the photographer says with unmistakable glee. “We’re a little bit confused. Is it the digital file? Is it the print? Playing around with the meaning of photography really opens things out, and it’s inspirational.”
She traces the roots of her joyfully anarchic approach in photography to a free sampler CD affixed to a PC magazine purchased in her youth. Among the cutting-edge trial software on the disc was a programme that would define the beginning of Gee’s artistic career: Adobe Photoshop 3.
Her high school, strongly into information technology, provided an encouraging space to explore digital art, and she also took darkroom photography as an elective. But the two practices never merged in the artist’s young head until she matriculated.
“I originally enrolled to do drama at uni, but, at the last minute, I realized [that] that was definitely not what I wanted to do and switched to an arts degree, specifically to do photography,” Gee remembers. “It was then that it all came together, when I was doing the darkroom and multimedia simultaneously.”
Like any photographer with the gall to walk the digitally adventurous path, Gee has run into her share of negativity from stuffier photography fans, who view this kind of manipulation as abhorrent. Both a student of history and a darkroom practitioner, she’s always ready to go head to head with the haters.
“Think about the people who first fixed a photograph in the darkroom — they were doing something nobody had ever dreamed of; they had to be kind of bat-shit crazy to do that,” Gee enthuses. “When art became a thing in photography, we started to put images together; we were dicking around with darkroom chemistry; we were dropping our negatives on the floor and scratching them.”
Embracing that pioneering spirit and expanding it through modern technologies, Gee has concocted a nebulous style that is challenging, changeable, sometimes heavy, but always infused with a sense of excited playfulness. And she encourages even the stodgiest of purists to pull down the walls restricting our ideas around creativity — there’s much to be gained when you stop playing by the rules.
“What I get out of it is this really great freedom,” she says. “There is so much wonder and joy in this world that is happening right now, in how people are approaching photography. We’re at a place where we are starting to not take ourselves so seriously, and that’s super exciting.”
So, how exactly does one redefine what photography can be? By definition, there’s no set path to follow, and Gee has approached the task from a multitude of angles. She shares some of her madcap experiments with us, hoping to infect other photographers with their weird energy and wild innovation.
Getting glitchy ‘Glitch art’ is a subgenre that is gaining in profile. In involves incorporating the small malfunctions or errors native to the digital world — software bugs, image corruption, audio blips — into an artwork. The randomly generated squares, jagged lines, static signals, and aberrant colours take on a unique aesthetic of their own.
In her series Don’t I Know You, Gee introduced glitches into her portraits by such means as pulling out memory cards before they finished loading, kicking scanners mid scan, and manually changing the code of image-file data.
Creating the works in this manner was partly an exercise in pure fun, but it also had a more serious biographical element; Gee’s partner had been diagnosed with throat cancer, and, while she’s fully recovered now, at the time, it turned the couple’s lives upside down.
“It was a really scary, weird time, and so my work mimicked that,” she says. “I was putting these randomized elements in there because that’s what life does, just throws random things at you.”
Wired for sound The relationship of sound to photography is generally as soundtrack to a video piece, but Gee has taken to exploring how the two relate on a foundational level.
One of the Don’t I Know You works, Pretend It’s Real, features a model wearing headphones with the cable running off the bottom of the frame. When this piece is hung for exhibition, the cable emerges in physical form and connects to an actual pair of headphones. Playing in the headphones is the image data transformed into sound data, so you can actually hear the picture, which Gee describes as sounding like “aeroplanes and heartbeats and farts and bleep-bloops”.
“I love that her face is this pensive moment, where she’s on her own and not really interested in what you’re doing,” she says of the piece, “and then when you pick up the headphones you are kind of invited to join her space and hear what is going on.”
The artist’s sound experiments don’t end there. Gee has recently wired up her piano to control Photoshop via music: “If you play low keys, it makes things darker and more ominous; if you play higher chords, it makes things brighter.”
Model behaviour Not all of Gee’s experiments are so high-tech; sometimes things are more arts and crafts than computer science. In the whimsical We Could Have Moved Mountains series, little stick figures contemplate nature and the great big universe around them.
The photographer sculpted these tiny people herself out of wire, expanding foam, painted twigs, and by playing shadow puppets. The resultant series is a mix of digital and physical ingenuity: some are constructed in Photoshop, some are photographed whole, and some are shot as silhouettes.
Beyond being very charming on the surface, these images explore an important personal struggle Gee was undergoing: examining the role that religion played in her life.
“At the time, I had a lot of really heavy church influences,” she explains. “I grew up within the church, but I was not really on board. I was raised by Catholic influences and at the same time [had] heavy atheist influences — it came to a point in my life where there was this push and pull.”
She used her tiny worlds as way to grapple with what was truly important to her. What came out was a series dedicated to discovery, the wonders of science, and a tribute to the likes of Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, who had helped shape her understanding of the universe.