New York based Australian artist Sam Shmith digitally composes photographs to create images that are unsettling or comforting, depending on your point of view — or nationality.
As a four year resident of New York City, Shmith is attracted to the American inclination to “sugar coat” as he describes it; to shut out the unknown and the dangerous, whether it’s cocooning themselves in climate controlled spaces or dressing up the ordinary with sentimentality.
As a UK born Australian however, he’s an observer of American ways and this is reflected in his new suite of 13 photographs that opened at Arc One gallery in Melbourne last night.
The show Cherry Springs is not an ironically cheesy title for his show but the actual name of an open air planetarium in a State Park in Pennsylvania. Shmith took photos of the night sky there that were later composed within his photographs of clap-boarded upstate New York towns.
An open air planetarium is officially called a “dark sky preserve” in the US; a necessity in the heavily populated north-east of the country where views of the stars are limited. This is where amateur and professional astronomical photographers gather on a disused air-strip to take photos and camp nearby overnight.
“The set up is very safe — very Americana,” Shmith says.
The views of the night sky look spectacular in Shmith’s images, taken with his “ordinary Canon”, but in real life he says the night sky has nothing on stargazing in sparsely populated Australia.
But he doesn’t pretend to be an astronomical photographer and the use of these images is only one element in the creation of his works that happen in his imagination and on his computer.
“Some of the images in these works were taken up to 12 years ago,” he says, struggling to recall the name of the suburban enclaves seen in some of the images, or how long he set the exposure for his star photographs.
The seven images in the show that feature suburban habitation recall the heavily styled works of contemporary American photographer Gregory Crewdson, which in turn appear to be inspired by the narrative paintings of Edward Hopper.
“He takes photos in towns in upstate New York but in his the threat seems to come from within rather than beyond,” he says. In a press release for the show he refers to “apeirophobia” — the fear of the infinite which he says is reflected in the American habit of “anaesthetising” the unknown.
Not that Shmith is concerned with investing his images with a narrative. He certainly doesn’t create them with a story in mind. “I think that’s up to the viewer if they want to.”
The exception might be four of the works on show that pay a tribute of sorts to pioneering American test astronaut Joseph Kittinger who travelled 31 kilometres to the edge of the astmostphere in 1960 in a balloon and then free fell to earth.
Shmith’s works imagine Kittinger driving across the desert to his launch site, falling through clouds from the sky, and back in cosy suburbia.
A number of the works in Cherry Springs are printed on aluminium. “When you look at the image it seems that the light is coming from within the surface rather than reflecting it,” he says. Invest that with any narrative you like.