I think coming from a world where you don’t fit in makes you more observant. Both Marc and I came from stiflingly safe suburban backgrounds…
Gerard O’Connor and Marc Wasiak work collaboratively to create large-scale narrative tableaux involving many performers and technicians, costuming, make-up and lighting. The resulting images have a raucous, irreverent grandeur that brings to mind the diverse Western traditions of William Hogarth’s 18th-century satirical etchings, 19th-century history painting and 20th-century cinema.
Photographer Gerard and stylist Marc share an eye for the detailing of character and costume, and the layering of plot, transforming each tableau into a grand melodrama with all the twists and turns, tears and laughter of a classic yarn. Whether it is a day at the beach or the din of battle; an aristocratic garden party or a Victorian funeral, it is all coming unstuck in a deliciously alarming way.
Their images are immediately engaging; full of detail and humour that repays careful scrutiny. But beneath the comedy lies a darker intimation of social, cultural and moral chaos. Drawing on different periods of occidental history they satirise but also critique Western mores and morals: the hypocrisy of the pious; the corruption of the powerful; the violence seething below the veneer of civilisation; the calamities that befall the most rational of plans.
Alasdair: When did you begin your creative collaboration?
Marc: I had just finished studying graphic design and Gerard had graduated from art-school. We began working together; not in photography but in a nightclub. Here, we would spend hours talking about cinema, photography and the things that excited us artistically.
Gerard: I began getting advertising jobs. From the outset, I was interested in colourful, cinematic images. At the time, the use of stylists was still quite new, but I knew Marc would be the perfect person to work with on these projects.
Marc: Once our work was being published we began to attract a cult following of people who revelled in our satirical approach. In the end we found ourselves working almost entirely on images for exhibition.
Gerard: We love every image to have a story. I was very influenced by Steven Meisel’s photospreads in Italian ‘Vogue’ and the artistic flare of Nan Goldin and Robert Mapplethorpe, which was less about documenting a situation and more about creative expression.
What draws you to stage fictional dramas?
Gerard: A fiction can contain a truth. There is always a strong historical and social basis for our images, but then we turn it all on its head. What is fact and what is fiction? The real point is human connection… and that hasn’t changed through the ages.
Marc: We create characters from the past that help us to understand more vividly what might have occurred in those historical contexts.
It seems that you find a satirical comedy in even the darkest and most melodramatic subjects…
Gerard: There is a freedom in laughter. I think coming from a world where you don’t fit in makes you more observant. Both Marc and I came from stiflingly safe suburban backgrounds and couldn’t wait to leave. The inner city was a melting pot of humanity pushed up close; rough, culturally diverse, full of danger … fantastic danger. When a patchwork of people interacts like this it touches on the complicated layers that lie within us all. Nothing is ever quite what it seems… Thank god!
Marc: I find it fascinating talking to viewers of our work. Each person connects with something different in the characters and their situations. Some people notice things others are not even aware of. Life has many layers and everyone has their own perspective.
Gerard: We have always liked the contrasts of the beautiful and the ugly… using beauty to draw the viewer in, then shocking them in finding beauty where they least expect it. Life is not simply how it seems; you can find unexpected good in the shadows.
The first image that really brought you to a wider public awareness was the beach scene. Can you tell me about how that image came about?
Gerard: This was fun! It’s set in St Kilda [a beachside suburb of Melbourne]; a wild bohemian melting pot full of artists, immigrants, subcultures and cool music. It was a rundown seaside resort in disarray – crumbling but inexpensive – attracting all sorts of people. We wanted to capture the essence of Australian beach life that envelopes everyone on a hot day.
Marc: It’s a postcard-style parody set in the 1960s. This gives it its Pop-Art look. It was a period vibrantly expressing itself through fashion, liberated sexuality and cultural diversity, even at the beach. The beach is a levelling environment and each person has their own sense of entitlement to a place on the sand.
How did the funeral scene come about?
Gerard: The funeral scene was created shortly after my mother passed away. While I had previously lost friends, my mother’s death left me with an irreconcilable grief. I thought about the way Queen Victoria made the poetic commitment to wear black for the forty years following the death of her beloved prince consort, Albert. In so doing, she caused the wearing of black to become fashionable throughout London. We decided to stage an entire Victorian scene in black, which was quite a challenge.
Marc: It was shot at the Old Melbourne Cemetery with graves dating back to 1852 … that’s old for Australia. The scene is set up so that you never know whose funeral it is or what relationship the mourners had to the deceased. In it we explored all the trappings of the period from displays of pious Christianity to the importance of children and the family. But life goes on: the gravediggers happily eat lunch, feeding the living while burying the dead.
Was it hard to gain access to shoot in a cemetery?
Gerard: The cemetery management were delighted to assist us and gave us full access to its facilities. They charged only a nominal fee of fifty [Australian] dollars. However, after the shoot they gave the money back because they felt we were doing something positive for Melbourne that hadn’t been attempted before.
Was the rain added digitally in post-production?
Gerard: No, the rain was provided by a special-effects man on site. Marc had pointed out that the image would not work unless the clothes were wet. We had around forty actors dressed in full Victorian mourning garb including shoes and props being soaked by a rain machine for the entire production. The scene certainly came to life: the screaming and wailing were genuine!
Marc: It gave an overwhelming sense of doom and drama to the scene… But it wasn’t so much fun afterwards having to air-dry all those Victorian dresses and petticoats … so much wet fabric, argh!
How much of your work is done in digital postproduction and how much is fixed at the time of shooting?
Gerard: I believe in doing everything you possibly can through the camera. We don’t want our images to look too artificial; maybe like film stills, but realistic. If you don’t have the majority of the cast and props on set on the day of the shoot then you do not get the genuine reactions between the subjects and the shadows don’t fall naturally. I think that an image that is all about the tools fails the ideas you wish to communicate. It just looks like a technical assignment. Art is not predominantly about the tools but the ideas; the content.
Marc: We use postproduction tools to make the image stronger by adding to what is already there.
Sometimes tweaking the colour of a garment, enhancing a sky or adding a couple of props or bushes to make the overall composition work better.
Who are the people in your images?
Marc: The people in our images are from all walks of life. We prefer to use actors or people with theatrical backgrounds, but this is not always the case. Many of our friends and their children and relatives have also appeared in the images. We are always looking for interesting faces to work with.
Gerard: Although our images are large scale, we are just two artists and we don’t have a big budget. Luckily most people, once we explain our concept, take part for the fun of it; they have empathy for our projects and want to be involved.
What kind of production team do you have working behind the camera and in post-production?
Gerard: As the shoots have grown so has the amount of assistance we need in pre-production and post-. We now required people to oversee each of the various departments because the more assistance we have the more organised we become, which allows us to concentrate on the detailing that is so important for our pictures.
Marc: Our process is like shooting a film. There are many people behind the scenes. We normally have a props and sets department (which might also include a food stylist), a wardrobe department (with a number of dressers to get people in and out of their costumes). There are teams dealing with hair and wigs, with makeup and with special effects like those we used for the fairies in ‘Victoriana’. Each department can have five to ten people, depending on the shoot. ‘Victoriana: Pleasure Garden’, for instance, had ninety cast and crew, including a team with the specific task of creating beards and facial hair for the men.
Gerard: While Marc works on costume and makeup, I work with two colleagues on casting, props, advertising and sponsorship, as well as co-editing various promotion videos. There is always so much to do.
Tell me about the making of the battle scene.
Marc: This series is not a depiction of any specific battle, but draws on the history and imagery of the later eighteenth century. We loved looking at old paintings of large group scenes that capture stories within stories, layering perspectives and compressing a spread of time into a single moment. It was an interesting process watching the actors form ranks and play out the drama we had set in motion.
Gerard: Once in costume, the individual players develop their character. We made portraits of those characters that proved particularly strong. We found later that viewers who came to the gallery really engaged with the characters, empathising with the contemporary figures who found themselves amid the historic tumult of battle. That was largely to do with the styling and the amazing location, which is a farm in Ocean Grove on the coast of Victoria, where the hills run into a valley giving the location a lush European feel.
How long does it take to make a single series?
Gerard: Each project is a massive undertaking. The recent ‘Victoriana: Pleasure Garden’ series took more than four months of intense pre-production; the shoot itself took four days and post-production a further three months. The more meticulous we have become, the longer these images take to complete.
In your early work you tended to make one large image and also a series of supporting portraits of key characters. Later, in ‘Victoriana: Pleasure Garden’, you extended this into a more complex story of social manners and the Gothic-Romantic supernatural. How did that narrative development come about?
Marc: Our works have always been about storytelling. Just like the narrative from a play, we try to incorporate all three acts into one image so that each character has their own backstory. ‘Victoriana: Pleasure Garden’ was approached in a slightly different way to our other series because we came to realise that the whole late Victorian era was such a complex juxtaposition of contrasts. A whole new world of science and medicine was being born, but there remained a strong belief in mysticism and the supernatural.
© Gerard O’Connor and Marc Wasiak – scenes from ‘Victoriana: Pleasure Garden’ 2015
 ‘The Archers’;  ‘Lady Du Bennet and Male Guests’;  ‘Annie Jones and the Duke’
Tell me about your collaboration with the National Trust …
Gerard: The National Trust offered us an exhibition following our show at the Australian Centre for Photography in Sydney. They then suggested that we visit some of the houses in their care to see if we’d be interested shooting in any of them. We began at the old Melbourne Gaol (the site of Ned Kelly’s execution) and then Ripponlea for ‘Victoriana’. Our favourite house is Labassa, which is one of the State of Victoria’s most lavish mansions.
Which series do you consider to be the most successful so far?
Marc: Each in their own way; they are all my favourites … but I do think with ‘Victoriana’ we managed to create an experience both in the images themselves and in the way they were first displayed in a public garden conservatory in Melbourne.
Gerard: My favourites change with my mood, but the image that still haunts me is the funeral.
What have you learned through your creative partnership that you might not have learned had you worked solo?
Marc: Gerard has an amazing drive, which is contagious. It’s always hard to work solo – believing in your art and keeping up the momentum. Gerard and I started a visual conversation many years ago and it has never really stopped. I guess we both want to have the last word!
Gerard: I have learned so much. Making art is a process that never ends. You aren’t good at everything and listening to the input of other people makes you better. Art is not a destination; it’s a communication… and sharing the things you are passionate about makes it fun!
If you had to describe what makes your images different from those of other artists, what single word would you use?
Gerard O’Connor [left] was born in Melbourne in 1963. He graduated from Australian Centre for Contemporary Photography in 1992 with a degree in photography majoring in fine art. His distinctive style and creative individuality have won him many awards including the Art and Design Award (UK) and a M.A.D.C. award (Australia) for his fashion photography. In 2011 he was voted Australian Professional Photographer of the Year and Australian Fine Art Photographer of the Year. He lives and works in Melbourne.
Marc Wasiak was born in Melbourne in 1971. Marc studied fine art at RMIT University, and graphic design at Monash University, both in Melbourne, and was highly sought after for his experimental and innovative styling. He passed away on 30 June 2021.
Gerard & Marc began working together in 1994, a professional partnership that continued over three decades in the fields of both art and advertising. They have exhibited not only in Australia, but in Argentina, China, Japan, Korea and Singapore. Their work is held in a number of prestigious public and private collections including the Fine Art Museum, Buenos Aires; the Australian Embassy in Argentina; and, at the personal request of the Governor General of Australia, the Government House Art Collection, Canberra. In 2011 they were awarded the Jin Hou Niao Zun trophy for best international exhibition at the Pingyao International Photography Festival, China.
Image: Gerard & Marc with the Jin Hou Niao Zun awards they won in 2011.
This article was first published in Chinese, in the January 2017 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. It was updated slightly for publication in English in May 2021. Only the Biographical Notes have been further changed to reflect the death of Marc Wasiak.