Kim Guthrie

Kim Guthrie’s solo exhibition at University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) Gallery, 'River’s Edge', interrogates relationships between people and place. His fifty-six Giclée prints weave portraits with mundane objects, often through surprising juxtapositions that both validate and disrupt our expectations, to record an extraordinary story.   

The exhibition’s title refers to Tim Hunter’s 1986 film River’s Edge, starring Dennis Hopper. This American film, which begins when a teenage girl is murdered on a river’s edge, resonates for Guthrie because of its location and as a tale of the disenfranchised. In every other way, Johns Landing Camping Ground, Queensland—which is the site of this remarkable series of images—is in stark contrast with the film. Although Guthrie’s photographs invoke a level of anxiety, he ultimately persuades his viewers to see Johns Landing as a place of healing and recovery.

The photos centre on Johns Landing, a 50-hectare site located in southeast Queensland where the Noosa River meanders south through lakes around Tewantin to Noosa Heads and the sea. The extensive river frontage section of this land was used as a camping ground from the 1950s until 2017, when owners Ben and Pat Johns sold the entire parcel of land to Noosa Council as part of a Council program to rejuvenate endemic flora and fauna and to protect the fragile river edge.

Since Ben Johns’ grandfather purchased the land in 1892, it provided for the Johns family. The beauty of the property attracted visitors from this time, when it held only beehives; and, following the end of the Second World War, the family encouraged people to use the area as a weekender and holiday camping destination. In 1994, it became a Council-approved camping ground. New amenities were built, including showers and laundries, and composting toilets replaced the thunderboxes among the trees. Peak holiday periods attracted 800 people per day.

Guthrie became aware of Johns Landing soon after he and his wife, painter Lisa Adams, met at Noosa in 1986. In 2010, Guthrie visited the area and photographed some Johns Landing residents, but when he learnt that the camp was being closed he spent five consecutive days in June 2017 photographing the residents, the Johns family, and their tranquil environment.

The story of the camp is the story of the Johns family, and the most resonant portrait in ‘River’s Edge’ is of Ben Johns, the gentle patriarch. Ben, his two brothers, and their sister lived all their lives on this beautiful property. The photo Pat and Ben Johns (2017), where the couple are seen in the chaos of their kitchen, is the image that begins the lens’s narrative, while Cyril Johns (2017) of Ben’s brother, seen wearing a hanging-cork hat and standing in front of a large shed cluttered with random objects, is where the narrative ends.

Bob French (2010), confined by alcoholism and chain smoking, is one of the most confronting images in ‘River’s Edge’. In common with most photos in the show, there is a background story here. Ben Johns explained that Bob French had ‘lost his home. Before he came here, he was sleeping in parks. Then he got himself together a little bit. He was still drinking a lot, very alcoholic. Then he stopped drinking here about three years ago. Now he lives in a home in Tin Can Bay.’[i] Guthrie’s lens has captured French unpatronisingly and without sentimentality.

Viewing ‘River’s Edge’, one gets a sense of Guthrie’s deep respect for his subjects, whether they are members of the compassionate Johns family or people who have been down and out. One comprehends Guthrie’s appreciation of their generosity in participating in his photos and his awareness of the responsibility they have given him. Even in their most unprepared state, such as in Stewie at his camp or Emma (both 2017), Guthrie is awake to his subjects’ kindness. Guthrie survived heroin addiction when he was a young artist in Melbourne, which could explain why he was trusted by the residents to move freely in the camp grounds. This extraordinary series reveals real people with individual mannerisms, because Guthrie could empathise with their lives.

Guthrie’s lens reveals a deep respect for Ben Johns. His attitude comes from his own interactions with Johns, stories about him that residents have shared, and impressions gathered from people within the wider Noosa community. Guthrie views Ben and his family’s dedication to the residents ‘as something spiritual … [they have] this gentle caring quality about them’.  Ben’s priority may have been to manage a camping ground, but he and his family devoted their lives to providing an affordable sanctuary for many people with little money and who were sometimes battling substance abuse.

The photographs don’t provide a sense of the mass of people that came to Johns Landing over the years, but they do reveal their diversity and that some arrived with no other place to go. Viewers understand that the Johns family accepted all arrivals, no matter how desperate their lives had become. In these images, Guthrie aims to convey the hard-working, down-to-earth values of the Johns family. Asked about these values, Ben Johns said, ‘I got to know everyone in the camp. They were friends and always good to me. They might have not been good to each other sometimes…I think we had a few successes with people.’

Guthrie’s photographs also provide an insight into Ben Johns’ daily interactions with the residents, his common-sense approach to the land and others around him.  It is clear that in this place a warm humanity was more important than a cool bureaucracy. The photos of Karen, Adam, Nulla and Marley, Chris, and Paul (all 2017) are of camp sites, demonstrating that residents were permitted to set up their camp as they wished. All the camps were mostly salvaged from bits and pieces of recycled scrap with hoarded objects awaiting use. Yet, Guthrie makes this chaotic order appear ordinary.

Dart Board (2017) depicts a well-used dart board hanging on a shelter near the edge of the river. Pat and Ben Johns (2017) focusses on fire brigade overalls. These two images refer to social interactions within and outside Johns Landing. Many residents volunteered for the local fire brigade and some joined Ben’s family in the ‘Landing’ dart team competing in local darts events.

Guthrie has used his non-exploitative lens in past series, Ned Kelly (2009–2019), Map of Tassie (2015), and Death Bed (2011). His approach fluctuates between photographs that are carefully staged and those that are an instinctive reaction to a situation; yet, the line between these two attributes is nearly impossible to find. In River’s Edge, we appreciate Guthrie as the master of the vernacular moment, fascinated by the wonder of the everyday.

Photographing Johns Landing was an exercise in deliberate picture-making. ‘River’s Edge’ consists mostly of staged poses that Guthrie arranged in suitable settings. He used no lights, deflectors, diffusers, digital applications, or assistant. The moment he captured is the one he wanted and he denied any changes to be made. This suggests his higher goal to protect his photographs’ integrity and intimacy. Using a Canon 5D Mk IV DSLR, he has positioned these people and mundane objects with remarkable speed, yet somehow this immediacy conjures the way nineteenth-century, large wet-plate negatives revealed an image slowly over time.

Guthrie believes in the photograph as a medium that should truthfully capture the moment. The composition of his photographs is paramount, which is why he opted to use colour to represent the Johns Landing world. His approach to photography is informed by his earlier days as a painter, with his confident manipulation of the image and his use of colour. He also relies on the essence of colour to reference periods in art history, such as colour field and non-objective painting. Annette (2017) illustrates Guthrie’s playful handling of colour. The photo depicts Annette in her camp, positioned in front of a hanging patterned toned rug, with both feet within a hose as if in a cul-de-sac. The pink band-aid on her upper right arm colour coordinates with the text on her shirt, the bum-bag zipper, and her grandchildren’s onesies to the right of the rug.

River’s Edge may give the perception that the Noosa River is defined and confined to Johns Landing. But of course boats travelling either up river, or to the Heads, regularly pass along the Noosa River. The socio-economic status of the residents of the Lakes and Noosa Heads were considerably higher than those living at Johns Landing. Guthrie wants us to consider the wealth beyond Johns Landing, the resorts, Council Chambers, parliamentary offices, schools, cinemas, cafés, fashion boutiques, hospital and other private and public organisations. He wants the viewer to know that the role, the importance of the camp site, as well as the beauty of the site, were understood by residents and perhaps misunderstood by their wealthier neighbours.

Notice (2017), a fading sign hand-painted by Ben Johns wired to the entry gate, is an accidental art moment; it recalls the Reverend Howard Finster’s use of text in his paintings.  We know from this that Johns Landing was closed to no-one. By paying an entry fee of one dollar for parking the car (with the option of a boat attached), visitors could spend all day on the private picnic ground and launch their boat from the makeshift boat ramp.  Day visitors shared the space of the residents. The residents’ lives and their conditions allowed visitors to measure their lives against them and to consider the implications. Although visitors could view the residents’ homes, the residents lived a life of their own. Perhaps for some visitors, it was too strange to understand.

The head-to-torso portrait of Darren (2017) shows a middle-aged man standing centre picture and straight in front of a mostly grey tent in the middle ground of the image. Guthrie has captured the sorrowful humbleness of his personality. While Darren’s black AC/DC ‘Highway to Hell’ shirt is vibrant and provoking, Guthrie’s lens draws us to his face. The image has a fleeting uneasiness when compared to other portraits such as Annette and Cassie (2017). At first look, this portrait doesn’t seem consistent with the unwritten understanding in Johns Landing: what comes in tends to stay.

Exhibiting and cataloguing the people and place, Guthrie has given the viewer a series beyond Johns Landing. This is what Guthrie does, he delivers the moment to us. Yet, the composition and subject of this series is perfectly controlled; he overcomes the difficulty of this challenge by his cool passion. He uses a number of visual approaches to achieve his control. One method Guthrie uses frequently is to include parallel relationships in the picture plane, and often his subjects seems to fade out beyond the edge of the photo’s frame.  But these devices or techniques don’t intrude on the immediate impact of his imagery; one must study each picture to tease out their technical mastery.

I visited Johns Landing a month after all the residents had vacated the camp ground. The sale seemed like a good idea for everyone until Guthrie pointed out the rainbow lorikeets: ‘See how they are flying around us, they think we have food.’[ii] But of course the lorikeets will thrive as their indigenous food supplies return. While a shabby path provided some points of reference of the former camping ground, all the residents’ homes were gone. Systematically working with the residents and other support services, the Council found accommodation for all the residents in the year before the closure.  According to Ben Johns, ‘the Council was very good. They had someone here every week … talking to the people and arranged transport to shift them wherever they found a place… So it was all done very well I thought.’ Throughout my conversation with Ben, I pointed to various past residents in Guthrie’s photos in ‘River’s Edge’, and he was able to tell me in detail how each of them came to Johns Landing and where Council had relocated them. When I asked Ben how he was feeling after the sale of Johns Landing, he said, ‘I am a little lost.’

[i] All quotes from Ben Johns taken from a conversation with the author, 7 December 2018
[ii] Conversation with the author, 8 December 2018

Kim Guthrie: River’s Edge
17 May – 29 June 2019
USC Gallery, QLD


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