Skip to content

Shadow catchers, installation view, Art Gallery of New South Wales

Poetic reflections on Shadow catchers

Peer through the looking glass with six poets

The Art Gallery of NSW and Red Room Poetry, as part of the Sydney Writers Festival, invited five poets – David Brooks, Joelistics, Melinda Smith, Saba Vasefi and Ali Whitelock – to respond creatively to the artworks in Shadow catchers, an exhibition of photographs and moving image from the Gallery’s collection. A sixth poet, Maddy Godfrey, was selected following an open competition in which members of the public were asked to respond to a particular work, The photographer’s shadow 1935 by Olive Cotton.

The project was originally conceived as a series of live performances; however, following the temporary closure of the Gallery and cancellation of the 2020 Sydney Writers Festival due to COVID-19, the poetic responses are now being offered online.

The poets, their poetry and the artworks

Read and listen to excerpts from the poems, alongside images of the artworks.

The project and its transformation

These poems were meant to be performed in situ. Across two Sydney Writers’ Festival events, the six commissioned poets were going to read their work at the Art Gallery of NSW. The staging of the event was critical to its conceit – for each of these poems were written in response to selected photographs featured in the exhibition Shadow catchers. The performances were meant to occur in proximity to the photographs, for they enact an intimate exchange between word and image. When – due to COVID-19 – the Gallery closed temporarily and the Sydney Writers’ Festival was cancelled, we had to pivot and adapt. These poems were written for an event that will no longer take place, about a show that sat dormant for months; a ghost exhibition in an empty Gallery. But all that’s fitting really, for this is a show about shadows.

Shadow catchers examines the way we interact with photography – the way we use it to both narrate and navigate our experience of the world – by invoking metaphors that relate to doubling and replication. Here, mirrors, echoes and body doubles become stand-ins for the photographic image and expose how slippery photographic representation really is. Like mirrors, photographs can reflect the world but also recast it.

The works in this exhibition demonstrate that photographic doubling is never straightforward. It is mischievous and malleable; it can transform and trick even as it tells the truth. The poems presented here are reflections on reflections; reflections on the very act of reproduction that is mediated by the camera. But, like the photographs they derive from, these poems are slippery. They carry their own agendas. The poems don’t describe the photographs – they don’t simply translate the pictorial into text – but transform them. They offer their own echoes.

These poems will not be performed in the presence of their image counterparts – so that we may contend with the nuance of scale, of texture, of tone in real time – but they still sit in dialogue. If you can, visit the Gallery, see the show and perhaps read the poems in the space. Encountering the two together, you might find the flicker of resonance and recognition, but also something else. The shadow of one form playing off another.

Isobel Parker Philip
Senior curator of Australian contemporary art and curator of Shadow catchers

Full poems are available on Red Room Poetry website

Video is available on YouTube

Red Room Poetry Sydney Writers Festival