Trent Parke: Dream / Life

© Trent Parke ‘Untitled’ [detail] 2001 from the series ‘Dream/Life’

I like chance


This article is a little different from the majority of the interviews on Talking Pictures. It was published in the Dutch magazine FOAM in 2005 and has an essay rather than question-and-answer format.


Trent Parke leans forward intently. “If I know exactly what’s going to be on a film then I can’t be bothered processing it!” His gestures seem to engage his whole body. Long and lithe, he is like a coiled spring; his shoulder-length hair swaying about his face as he stares intently at you to confirm you really have understood precisely what he is saying. “I like it when I see something unexpected on the negative. I think: ‘how did that happen? I’m going to go back and work on that.’ I will go out with that effect in mind for the next three or four weeks … just working away at it until I get it right and come up with the image that best represents that little moment.”

Trent Parke is one of Australia’s most innovative and original photographers. The only Australian in the celebrated Magnum collective his work has already received wide acclaim in Europe and North America. In 2003 he won the prestigious W Eugene Smith Award for humanistic photography and he won World Press Awards in 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2005. His reputation [at the time of writing] is based on three extended bodies of work: ‘Dream/Life’, which explores life on the streets of Australia’s largest and most cosmopolitan city, Sydney; ‘The Seventh Wave’, made with his then partner (now wife) Narelle Autio, which looks at the Australian predilection for having fun at the beach, shot mostly from under the surface of the sea; and ‘Minutes to Midnight’, a dark, sensual and apocalyptic vision of contemporary Australia that premiered earlier this year at the Australian Centre for Photography. The first two bodies of work have already been made into books and the third is due for publication shortly.

In an image-saturated world, it is easy to assume we have seen it all. Yet Parke’s images have an uncanny power that never quite lets you settle on a simple closed reading. “It’s not enough for me just to be out on the street and shooting people – I need to be trying to push the medium of photography as well. I want to create new and interesting pictures rather than stuff that has been seen before. It’s a multi-layered thing. I don’t feel I’m clever enough to be able to set images up. I’d rather see them happening around me, grab them and let chance play a part in it … And when the photograph works it has a kind of epic quality.”

© Trent Parke ‘Bats’ 2003 from the series ‘Minutes to Midnight’

Parke’s images are synthetic. Not in the sense of artificial or false, but in the deeper meaning of that term that points to the fundamental mechanism of all life, that new and complex things are born of existing simpler ones. And while his form is that of traditional black and white documentary photography, his sensibility is rooted in the kind of tough melancholia found in the music of bands like Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead. “Those sorts of bands and their music videos have been a great influence. There is this Icelandic group called Sigur Rós and their music is just very sad and melodramatic. They have this kind of dark dreamy quality and I suppose that is what I am trying to evoke in my photographs, although I am not really conscious of these influences when I am taking pictures.”

© Trent Parke ‘Untitled’ 1998 from the series ‘Dream/Life’

‘Dream/Life’ began when Parke, at the age of twenty, moved from his hometown of Newcastle, New South Wales, and came to live in Sydney. “I left everything behind – all my childhood friends and my best mate – and I just felt this sense of complete loneliness in Sydney. So I did what I always do: I went out onto the street and used my Leica to shoot how I felt at the time. I’m always trying to channel those personal emotions into my work. That is very different from a lot of documentary photographers who want to depict the city more objectively. For me it is very personal – it’s about what is inside me. I don’t think about what other people will make of it. I shoot for myself.”

© Trent Parke ‘Moving Bus, Sydney CBD’ 2003 ‘Minutes To Midnight’

What resulted was ‘Dream/Life’ a vision of Sydney quite unlike any other: brooding, vivid, complex. “I wanted to present a truer version of Sydney – with lots of rain and thunderstorms, and the darker qualities that inhabit the city – not the picture-postcard views of Sydney that the rest of the world sees. I also wanted to make images that were poetic, but I actually found the city to be quite ugly in terms of the amount of advertising and visual crap that clutters the streets. I found I could clarify the image by using the harsh Australian sunlight to create deep shadow areas. That searing light that is very much part of Sydney – it just rattles down the streets. So, I used these strong shadows to obliterate a lot of the advertising and make the scenes blacker and more dramatic. I wanted to suggest a dream world. Light does that, changing something every-day into something magical.”

© Trent Parke ‘Untitled’ 2005 from the series ‘Dream/Life’

“I went out shooting every day – it became like a drug to me. I loved the ‘rush’ of getting out amongst all the people and I just needed to get the images on film.” This sense of urgency is deeply embedded, and Parke traces it back to the death of his mother. “Mum died quite suddenly one night from an asthma attack. That was it. It was all over. It was the turning point in my life that left me desperate to grab hold of everything while I can. There is no certainty of tomorrow.”

© Trent Parke ‘White Man’ 2001 from the series ‘Minutes To Midnight’

He turned this restlessness to advantage – constantly on the move looking for the next image. The central business district of Sydney is quite small by the standards of European cities and, while shooting ‘Dream/Life’, Parke would circumnavigate the whole area several times in a single day. “I am pretty frantic as a person – I never sit still.” He laughs and grips the seat as if to stop himself from flying off. “That’s how I approach street photography: watching everything. If I think something might happen, then I will hang around. But most of the time I’m rushing from one corner of the city to another, just looking for stuff. I also don’t like to stand still because you attract attention to yourself. I’ve never been pulled up on the street and it is simply because nobody ever sees me. I’m there and I’m gone. If you spend too much time in a place you tend to start affecting what’s happening around you. And I just want to capture things as they are without influencing the action in any way.”

© Trent Parke ‘Untitled 3’ 2000 from the series ‘The Seventh Wave’

Parke began his career as a professional cricketer, and he would take pictures of his fellow players and the places they went when competing away from home. But, while photography began as a hobby, he soon realised that his life could take him into either profession – cricket or photography – and for a while he pursued both, working on a regional newspaper to make enough money to allow him to play cricket and travel. In 1992, he was offered a job at the Daily Telegraph (Sydney’s largest circulation newspaper) and soon the pressure of the work meant he had to choose between cricket and full-time photojournalism. He chose the latter and, because of his background in the sport, was assigned to travel with the Australian cricket team. In 1994 he moved to The Australian, the country’s only national daily newspaper.

“I started bringing back pictures of players taking catches above the ground and shots the editors had never had before. You see I knew the game. In sports photography, if you wait until you see something happen, then, by the time you take your shot, the moment has passed. You’ve got to be watching things as they are building in front of you so that you get into position ahead of time. Ten years working as a sports photographer really gave me that extra edge when I was shooting on the streets because I could sense all the elements of a picture while they were still forming around me.”

© Narelle Autio ‘Trent hanging films, Fraser Island’ 2003

Parke met Narelle Autio in 1999. “Our eyes met over a light-box at the newspaper and that was it.” Parke recounts with a typically matter-of-fact romanticism. “And as soon as I met Narelle ‘Dream/Life’ finished, because emotionally the reason to make pictures had completely changed. I no longer felt alone.” They went on to make ‘The Seventh Wave’ together and then, after Parke resigned from The Australian to focus full-time on his personal work, they spent two-years traveling in outback Australia. During this time Narelle made a new up-beat body of work about Australians at play and Trent made the dark and foreboding ‘Minutes to Midnight’.

So, does this mean Trent Parke is settling down? “It’s a hard thing to turn off,” he says trying, not very convincingly, to relax into his chair. “I’m always ‘wired’, always awake, things are always rattling through my mind. I suppose I’ve started to calm down a little bit, but in that first ten-year period that I was on the streets of Sydney I was just manic. Insane.”

And if, as they say, the distance between insanity and genius is measured by success, then, on the evidence of ‘Dream/Life’ and ‘Minutes to Midnight’, that distance is very short indeed. And we can only hope the madness will continue for a very long time.

Alasdair Foster

© Trent Parke ‘Midnight self-portrait, Menindee Outback New South Wales’ 2003 from the series ‘Minutes to Midnight’

Biographical Notes

Trent Parke was born in Newcastle, New South Wales, in 1971. Using his mother’s Pentax Spotmatic and the family laundry as a darkroom, he began taking pictures when he was around twelve years old. He began his career as a press photojournalist and in 2007 became the first Australian to become a Full Member of the renowned Magnum Photo Agency. He has received many awards including the prestigious W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography (2003), The Independent Makers and Presenters Fellowship, South Australia (2015) and Best VR Work at The Imagine Film festival, Amsterdam (2018). His work is held in major public collections including the National Gallery of Australia (Canberra), the Museum of Contemporary Art (Sydney), the National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne), the Art Gallery of New South Wales (Sydney), and the Art Gallery of South Australia (Adelaide).

In 1999 he self-published two books, ‘The Seventh Wave’ (with Narelle Autio) and ‘Dream/Life’. The latter was selected by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger for their ‘100 Best Photography Books of All Time’. In 2014 the respected German publisher Steidl published ‘Minutes to Midnight’ and ‘The Christmas Tree Bucket’. His newest book ‘The Crimson Line’ will be published by Stanley/Barker in late 2020. Trent Parke has been the subject of three ABC TV documentaries: ‘Dream Lives’ (2002), ‘The Black Rose’ (2015), and ‘The Art of the Game’ (2018). He currently lives in Adelaide, Australia.

This article was first published in 2005 in issue 8 of FOAM magazine Amsterdam.