Mark Kimber: Imperfect Memories

© Mark Kimber ‘A Walk in the Park’ [detail] from the series ‘Side-Show Valley’ 2014

Art is the bridge between that inner perception of the way we want the world to be and the reality of the world beyond ourselves.


We may exist in the world, but we live in the mind.

Like a sailor, we navigate the oceans of time and space from within the ship of self. In so doing, we must reconcile the description of the world that comes to us through our senses with the world as we imagine it to be. Children understand this well. They have a powerful capacity for imaginative play. They can immerse themselves in games of let’s pretend that recreate the fantasies of the mind in the external reality of the playground. They can also fear the things they have not yet understood, creating from them the frightening demons of make-believe.

The Australian photo-artist Mark Kimber knows this well. He is interested in photography as an instrument for navigating the gulf between the exterior world of the senses and the interior realm of the self. These are images of a personal psychology, but they speak of something we all experience: the negotiation of real and imagined that lies at the heart of perception. What are we meant to be? How should we behave? Is what we remember actually what happened? His images reject the sharp focus we associate with the modern camera. Instead, they glow with a soft luminosity; radiant yet elusive. They do not simply offer themselves to the eye but to the mind and to the imagination. In this way, the interior world of the photographer and that of the viewer meet in a kind of dialogue; a resonance that echoes in the plane of the photograph.

Alasdair Foster

© Mark Kimber ‘A Foolish Rhythm’ from the series ‘Dissonant Melodies’ 2000


I first became aware of your work through a series that presents male figures in the light and dark of the urban night. How did these series begin?

I was living in London, studying at the Chelsea School of Art. My father was quite ill at the time. He was back in Australia and I was worried that I wouldn’t see him again. I spent a lot of time reflecting on our relationship as father and son. He was a very popular man, a war hero and a great sportsman. But something I had been thinking about a lot was the question of what it meant for me to be ‘a man’. My father seemed to be such a success at being a ‘proper man’, but I felt that he had failed to share with me the secrets of how to achieve manhood.

What did you think those secrets might be?

I think that masculinity is an elaborate ritual that men are pressured to participate in, but its not what it seems to be. Growing up, I found this deeply problematic because the notion of masculinity seemed to be difficult to navigate and deeply flawed. I still think this today, now that I have a son of my own. I think it’s very important that we teach boys how to be caring, supportive, understanding; to learn that strength doesn’t come from being selfish or aggressive, it comes from compassion, kindness and empathy.

So how did you build on those ideas when making this work?

I found various male action figures in second-hand shops. They stand about ten centimetres tall and tend to represent stereotypically masculine characteristics. I didn’t have a proper studio space, so I photographed them in my bedsit against a plain black background, using a torch for lighting. I wanted to create powerful pictures of an image of manhood that was nonetheless false, just as the plastic dolls were not real men.

What response did you have to your work?

In the UK, a number of people assumed that, since I was exploring masculinity, I must be gay. I am not. I’m just making work about the issues and paradoxes of masculinity from my point of view as a man. But I thought this was an interesting response, because it has tended to be gay men who first critiqued notions of masculinity. I think, perhaps, some people think that a heterosexual man isn’t supposed to question these things. However, I don’t believe one’s sexual orientation should be the only measure of one’s eligibility to address the issue of masculinity. It is a complex and often challenging area that all men have to deal with at one time or another.

The series ‘By the Dawn’s Early Light’ was made in New York using a large Polaroid camera. What was it like to use that equipment?

I enjoyed the experience immensely. This was something completely new for me. The paradoxical beauty of it was that while I was working with a nineteenth-century-style wooden camera, the Polaroid materials felt very modern. I could see the final image within minutes of taking it. The clarity and fidelity of the image was remarkable; you could see every detail of the subject in the print. But the fascinating thing was that every print was unique.

© Mark Kimber ‘Vapour Trail’ from the series ‘Fictive Landscapes’ 2005

The series ‘Fictive Landscapes’ relates to your memories of childhood. How did they come about?

When I was a child there was a reproduction of a painting on my bedroom wall. It showed some mountains and an aeroplane flying over them. For me it was about escape; about going somewhere new and exciting when I was a grown-up. I went back to look for the picture when I was an adult, but it had been lost. So, I set out to create the sort of landscapes that I had imagined visiting in that aeroplane when I was child.

Each scene was constructed from picture-postcards and old photos combined using a mixture of traditional collage and Photoshop. It became a way to draw on my inner feelings. I was using the materials of the exterior world to shape something interior; something that seemed more in harmony with how I had imagined the world might be.

While ‘The Cloud Chamber’ takes a different aesthetic approach, the work continues this theme of childhood memory. First, what we are looking at?

These are my childhood toys, or contemporary versions of them. In my practice, I am always trying to identify something that one thinks one understands and then find ways to show it in a new and unexpected way. I like to surprise viewers with an alternative way of seeing something they had felt was commonplace, but which now seems a little magical.

Why did you call this series ‘The Cloud Chamber’?

When I was a child, my grandparent’s house seemed quite magical. There was a room there that had some tiny ventilation holes near the ceiling. When the light outside was right, they projected an image of the sky on the opposite wall. The room was, in fact, a giant camera obscura and in this work I used a pin-hole camera to capture the image. It was a way of working that also gave me the chance to revisit my grandmother’s house again.

© Mark Kimber ‘The Glow of a Thousand Tears Frozen’ from the series ‘The Chemical Moon’ 2013

In ‘The Pale Mirror’ and ‘The Chemical Moon’ the scene-making becomes increasingly atmospheric. One begins to lose the sense that these are artificial landscapes. What led you to develop your work in this way?

I wanted to evoke the experience we have in the transition between wakefulness and sleep, when we imagine the unimaginable. Technically it is known as the hypnagogic state. I like playing with concepts of scale and a sense of memory that are like peripheral vision; things glimpsed from the corner the one’s eye, but not completely comprehended. It is in these states that the eye is most creative, building from the smallest amount of information a sense of what might have been glimpsed. These scenes suggest extensive terrain, but they are actually very small… and they are constructed from the most modest of materials.

© Mark Kimber ‘Sea of Ghosts’ from the series ‘The Chemical Moon’ 2013

How were the images in ‘The Chemical Moon’ created?

I had a cardboard box, from which I cut away the front to make a little stage. The landscapes themselves were constructed from foam and cardboard, and built on a wooden base about forty centimetres square. Once created, I could slide the constructed scene into the box. I bought a smoke machine, the kind they use in discotheques. By filling the box with smoke, I could create an atmosphere that suppressed the detail of construction, but not completely. I wanted to give an impression of reality while leaving just enough of the flaws to undermine absolute belief.

There seems to be another shift as one moves between these two series: from personal childhood memory to something more general.

I think discovery comes through keeping moving. One can’t just thinking about the same things, we develop our ideas through the process of working: of trying, of failing and trying again, over and over… So, while I began with my own direct memories of childhood, I have since moved to a more public sphere, one that perhaps touches on the wider collective memory.

© Mark Kimber ‘Side-Show Valley’ from the series ‘Side-Show Valley’ 2014

How did your recent series – ‘Side-Show Valley’ – come about?

I am interested in ritual as something that is with us every day: from the way we stir our coffee, to the way meetings are held, to the way we relate to other people … and everything in between. Ritual brings people together through shared experience. We tend to think of ritual as something ancient, perhaps something pagan… connected deeply and richly to the earth. My idea was that this kind of ritual was something that could happen in suburbia.

One element often associated with ritual is the wearing of masks. Traditional masks symbolised many things, but they were also a way in which to become a member of the group. They provided anonymity; one could get lost in the crowd. My idea was to take this ancient way of thinking about masks and set it within the contemporary suburban landscape. Here, I imagined there would be an annual ritual when everyone would put on a mask and together perform ceremonies that brought them together, reaffirming the bonds of community.

How were these images made? Is this stagecraft or computer post-production?

It’s a combination of the two. The masks were made using a mixture of Photoshop and photocollage, which was then applied to a physical support structure to create the mask. There were a whole range of other manipulations and processes use in the creation of these images – photography, paint, plaster and so on. I enjoyed the processes of building them very much

© Mark Kimber ‘Wilfred’ from the series ‘Side-Show Valley’ 2014

Many of these images use fragments of famous photographs or refer to historical figures. Is it important to have a knowledge of western photographic history in order to engage meaningfully with these images?

Some knowledge of western photographic history could provide one way of entering into the meaning of these images, but it is not essential. After all, when I look at masks made in other cultures I know there will be a rich history behind them. Yet, I can still appreciate the power and the beauty of each mask without knowing all of their symbolic nuances. I think these images can work on a number of levels, depending on the viewer.

The art critic Anne Marsh described this work as having an “ethical story”. What do you think she meant by this?

I have a strong desire to give voice to the outsider; to give them a face, substance. Most of us are outsiders in some sense or another. The privileges that society offers are really only available to a lucky few. For most of us, we must struggle for understanding, recognition, and inclusion.

What kind of response to your work do you get from the public?

I am not sure I understand quite what it is about my work that interests the public. It is certainly something that I seem to have no command over – particularly when it comes to selling fine-art prints. There have been many times when I have been trying to promote a certain body of work, only to find that the buying public are more interested in a completely different series of my images, ones that I have put little effort into promoting. I have never been able to understand why; not completely. There seems to be no apparent reason. It’s strange and fickle. But then some old works suddenly find a new lease of life, often without me doing anything to encourage it.

What have you learned in the process of making these images?

The English child psychologist Donald Winnicott said that, when we are babies, we develop a sense of omnipotence; the world is there for us and for no one else. Then, around the age of two, we begin to recognise that we are not intimately connected to the world but separate from it. The child learns that the ‘true self’ (our internal perceptual sense of being alive and real) must be masked by a kind of ‘false self’ whose behaviour is artificially modified to comply with other people’s expectations. Winnicott argues that the infant’s rage at this discovery never really goes away as we grow older. We have an interior sense of the way the world should be, but the outside world will not comply.

I have come to believe that art is the bridge between that inner perception of the way we want the world to be and the reality of the world beyond ourselves. My images are a very conscious projection of my own way of seeing, my internal view of the world. Through it, I try to shape a personal vision that is something less like ‘the world as it is’. That personal view involves a transformation of raw materials (light and form) into something new and different. A world mediated by my own imperfect memories.

© Mark Kimber ‘The Deepening Ether…’ [detail] from the series ‘Side-Show Valley’ 2014

Biographical Notes

Mark Kimber was born in Adelaide, South Australia, in 1954. He has a bachelor’s degree in visual arts from the University of South Australia (1981) and a master’s degree in fine art from the Chelsea School of Art, London (2000). In the past twenty-five years, his work has featured in over one hundred solo exhibitions and eighty-five group exhibitions, both in Australia and overseas. His photographs are held in many public and private collections including the National Gallery of Australia; the Australian National Portrait Gallery; Parliament House Collection, Canberra; the Art Galleries of the state of South Australia, the state of Western Australia, and the city of the Gold Coast; and the personal collection of Sir Elton John. In 2012, he was awarded the South Australian Living Artists Monograph, which resulted in the book ‘Mark Kimber’ [Wakefield Press 2012]. He is currently Studio Head of Photography and New Media in the School of Art at the University of South Australia.

photo: Peter Fisher

This article was initially published in Chinese, in the February 2019 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme for the year was Ways of Seeing.