The old year was preparing, like an ancient philosopher, to call his friends around him, and amidst the sound of feasting and revelry to pass gently and calmly away.Charles Dickens – The Pickwick Papers
Few will forget the past year. But now we celebrate the festivities of the solstice and, for those with a Gregorian calendar, the promise of a new year. Here are a dozen photographs to mark the twelve days of the holiday season. They look beyond the events of the past twelve months, refracting impressions of Christmas and the New Year through the kaleidoscopic lens of artists from Asia, the Americas, Europe and Oceania. We begin with the first frost of a Belgian winter and end deep in the forests of Patagonia.
Enjoy the ride!
Belgium / France
This is the first work I made for the ‘Future Memories’ series. I was living in Ghent at the time. The day after the season’s first fall of snow, I went for a walk in the Bourgoyen nature park on the edge of the city. Being Australian and unfamiliar with white winters, I was impressed by the park’s monochrome beauty. I began to think about the paintings of Pieter Bruegel, in particular ‘The Hunters in the Snow’ . I was inspired by the way he captured many stories within one canvas and wanted to do the same. That is, create a work that described my experience of the whole walk rather than just one moment during it. As a way to encapsulate that sense of the whole, I had the idea of creating the scene with a continuous horizon that formed a circle.
I think, these days, it is hard to look at any landscape photograph and not have, at least in the back of your mind, an awareness that Nature is under threat: that, with accelerating climate change, it may soon be a thing of the past. The circle suggested a globe, our planet with its uncertain future. I made this image in 2010. Sadly, it has not since snowed like that in Ghent.
I based the ‘Group of Seven Awkward Moments’ series on paintings made by members of the iconic Canadian collective The Group of Seven, along with two of their contemporaries. Here I have used a poster of Franz Johnston’s 1920 painting ‘Fire-swept, Algoma’ as the backdrop. In the foreground, a man is selling Christmas trees. The scene doesn’t have any overt message; it simply depicts two sentient beings silently acknowledging each other in the quiet of a snowy night. The magic is in their breath.
In my parents relationship it was usually my father who was up to no good; smoking in the toilet, betting on the horses and boozing, often all three together. Here he steals part of my mother’s fancy dress kit as he wants to play Father Christmas. The inspiration for this photo came from Laurel and Hardy, my father gives a knowing ‘Ollie’ look to the camera.
Adults wander mesmerised through a dazzling tunnel decorated with Christmas baubles and fairy lights. Transported to a world of make-believe, they obediently file through on their journey to Santa’s Kingdom. In this hermetically immersive realm the only trace of an external reality is the tiny green sign whose glowing monosyllabic message reminds visitors of a world outside.
Taken at Fox Studios, Sydney, during the Christmas period, this image of designer Eamon D’Arcy’s elaborately constructed theme-park environment was the pinnacle of my ‘Leisureland’ project. The series grew to over ninety photographs documenting Australian metropolitan and regional leisure activities pursued in artificial environments designed for sport, play and spectacle.
Republic of Korea
Interrogating western fairy tales such as Cinderella, I have found in each a rigid system of social classes. Each contains tacit messages that if one is to enjoy happiness one should obey the order designed by the strong. This point made in fiction corresponds to the historical reality through which the powerful western nations consolidated their imperial regimes in the countries they colonised or conquered by inculcating their own governing ideology over those whom they came to rule.
In these pantomime images, I play the female role. The prejudice I have felt against me as an ‘Oriental’ male in the western society has created a sense of alienation and of a chaos of identity. It is these personal emotions that I have harnessed in these images, taking traditionally ‘submissive’ female roles as a form of ironic critique. The character I become in costume is not a woman as such, but simply not a man, just as the ‘Oriental’ is defined negatively as that which is not western.
Golden / Anthony Luvera
The front door to Golden’s home was a white tarpaulin. Disguised amongst what looked like a pile of rubbish, this flimsy sheeting opened into a carefully organized space that kept him and his belongings safe. When Golden used the cameras I offered him in the winter of 2003, he documented a home that was loved and cared for.
Looking at these photographs by Golden now, as Christmas is on the horizon in 2020, I am just as struck by the decorations he had put up as I was the first time I saw them. For me, Christmas decorations in the home evoke strong associations with excitement and happy times in my childhood. And while I can’t talk on behalf of Golden, his photographs speak to me about a sense of pride in the space he called home, regardless of how temporarily it would serve him.
Can I explain it to you with plasticine? In the midst of the ‘holiday season’ many suffer… Yesterday, while I was returning from making this image, it was very sad to see several migrant families passing by on their way from Venezuela to Colombia. Kids frozen by the intense cold and rain who nevertheless gave me a big smile when they saw a plasticine doll that portrayed them. In the morning, while I was at the free-way toll-booth there were more than thirty families who crossed through. On the road home to Bogotá that evening, I never stopped seeing families walking, walking… But one image stands out in my mind: a five-year-old girl dragging a toy cart while her mom struggles with a pushchair full of suitcases.
To those many who see only one side of the coin and keep the stigma of migration alive, I invite you to join me on one of the many days I will be taking these roads next year. Let’s greet all the people who live or have lived outside their country of origin, for whatever reason.
Icelandic people call winter the Dark Season. During the Dark Season we spend as much time outdoors as the weather permits; trying to connect with nature and sunlight is a priority. There are bonfires in their hundreds to celebrate the end of the year. They are lit for the Huldufólk, the hidden people believed to live inside rocks, to protect us from bad luck, misfortune, and the havoc they can cause… But in some cases it’s just to clean up the trash.
Gerard & Marc
This was fun to make! We wanted to capture the essence of Australian beach life that grips everyone on a hot day. It’s set in St Kilda – a beachside suburb of Melbourne – during the Christmas and New Year holiday season. The image recreates a postcard-style picture of the 1960s when St Kilda was a rundown seaside resort in disarray – crumbling but inexpensive – a wild bohemian melting pot full of artists, immigrants, subcultures and cool music. It was a period vibrantly expressing itself through fashion, liberated sexuality and cultural diversity, even at the beach.
The Australian beach is a levelling environment, and each person has their own sense of entitlement to a place on the sand, however closely packed together. It’s weird how things change. We made this image in 2011. The social distancing of 2020 makes this image seem outrageously, even dangerously, intimate.
Gerard O’Connor and Marc Wasiak
The summer of 2007–08 was extremely hot with several heatwaves. We travelled back to the east coast for Christmas and stayed for most of the school holidays before taking an extended road trip back to South Australia. On returning to Adelaide and entering the house, we found the tree in this state, standing in its red bucket. The Christmas tree bucket.
Sometime before this – our life in storage – we were bunked down with Narelle’s folks in suburban Adelaide while we tried to find a place to live. That evening I started to feel very odd. I began vomiting, violently and uncontrollably. I grabbed the nearest thing I could throw up into. Narelle and her parents, Laurie and Ann, were sitting in the backroom watching TV. “Narelle” I yelled out, again throwing up. “What?” she said, “You want me to come out and photograph you?”. “Yeah,” I yelled back.
The sudden blast of the flash lit up what I could smell, but couldn’t see. Bright, brilliant, red. Ann joined the crowd gathering to see the show. Another flash. Bright, brilliant, red. Ann yells, “Ooohhh Laurie! He’s vomiting into the Christmas tree bucket!”
And it was there, while staring into that bright red bucket, vomiting every hour on the hour, for fifteen hours straight, that I started to think how strange families, suburbia, life, vomit, and in particular Christmas… really was.
The Chuntás are men who cross-dress as women and dance during the celebration of the Fiesta Grande in the town of Chiapa de Corzo, located in the Grijalva River valley of the Chiapas highlands in south-eastern Mexico. The festival is held every January and it is the community’s most important celebration of the year. The dancers are honouring an ancient noblewoman from the colonial era, Doña María, who helped the villagers in times of famine. The cross-dressing men take on the role of her servants. But there is also a religious context in which Saint Sebastian and other Roman Catholic figures are honoured. The celebration is an outburst of joy that lasts for the whole month. For most of the year the village is very traditional: men are men, conservative and masculine.
‘Allegory II’ is part of an investigation of the traditional Chiapanec embroidery technique, and the more general evolution of the Chuntá wardrobe. In this image I explore the use of ornaments such as the rattle and flower, which visually evoke the pagan-religious iconography where flesh and soul are in constant communication.
At the beginning of 2020, I was travelling through Patagonia when the government, in response to the coronavirus, closed the Argentine borders and imposed mandatory quarantine. I decided not to return to Buenos Aires, but to stay with my daughter and my dog in a tiny cabin in the woods. As the days and months of the hard Patagonian winter went by I created a pandemic diary of my feelings reinterpreted as digital images. It is a journal that traces my transformation and adaptation to this new place – this new identity – through colour and performances in space, created with fire and flashlight. It became an opportunity to rediscover my relationship with the photographic image, the internet and the natural world. All of this happening deep in an enchanted forest at the southern tip of the world.
This article is a Talking Pictures original.