Intimate portraiture from Australia Tristan Still discusses subcultures, gender and identity

Graduating from the University of Western Sydney in 2001 with a BA in Visual Communications (Photography and Digital Imaging), Sydney, Australia -based Tristan Still has been actively exhibiting for more than 10 years – including a solo exhibition at the highly regarded Australian Centre for Photography.

Still’s work has been featured in exhibitions at The Australian Centre for Photography (ACP), The Perth Centre for Photography (PCP), The Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW), The State Library of NSW and the Tweed River Art Gallery, among others. He has been published internationally in print and online magazines, and has been selected as a finalist in the National Photographic Portrait Prize, the Head On Portrait Prize, the Olive Cotton Award, the PCP IRIS Award, ACMP’s Trampoline, Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘Shoot the Chef’ and more.

His work is an ongoing photographic diary of the overlapping subcultures he is active in, or exist in the periphery of his life – skateboarding, punk, art and others – often tied together by a shared commonality of resistance to capitalist ideals and authority – those who fiercely challenge cultural normative behaviours, practices and expectations through their actions and identities.

The work you showcase is centered around ideas of gender and identity, what objectives did you have for this project? What is your intended message for viewers?

This series of work is really the start of my personal exploration into questions of identity. It seeks to examine ideas of strength, vulnerability and isolation beyond the exterior, through a series of intimate portraits. These works are a sort of intimate personal diary and at the same time an interrogation of ideas of identity and social artifice.

You mention the tendency in your work of using anti-capitalist subjects in your images, how do you balance with the aesthetics of the image itself knowing you do some experimental photography and post-processing?

I always try to connect the aesthetics of the image with the subject in my photography. I am constantly exploring aesthetic techniques to use in my photographic practice. My subjects are often anti-authoritarian in ideology and this often informs an aesthetic in my work that reflects the fierce nature of my subjects and their actions.

For my work documenting DIY skateboarding I used a very high speed, high contrast, high grain film – Kodak TMAX 3200 pushed to 6400 ISO to shoot high speed in available light. The grittiness of the result matched the aesthetic created with the subject matter – raw & stark – impassioned skateboarders building skateboard ramps in abandoned schools, in their bedrooms, living rooms and kitchens.

Tell us a bit more about the idea of gender and identity in Australia. Is it a big issue among teens or youth? What’s the relation with the government or political figures?

There is a cultural shift which is challenging conventional notions of gender and identity. Unfortunately people who don’t conform to conventional ideas of identity and gender often face prejudice from conservative political figures and government but positive change is being created.

The Safe Schools program for example, is a federally funded program to help create supportive and safe school environments for gender diverse, intersex and same sex-attracted young people.

You used the Leica M ( Typ 240) for the majority of these images, and the M9 for a few. Can you share your thoughts on the performance of these cameras and why are they your selection of choice?

The files from the Leica M9 and Leica M ( Typ 240) are highly detailed and each has it’s own unique colour palette. By processing and adjusting my RAW files in Iridient Developer I am able to take the highly detailed images of the M and get the colour palette just right for each image.

The shooting process with the M is definitely more comfortable to me than other cameras – I like the manual process, and I dislike the form factor and complexity of modern SLR cameras.

People that I shoot are also curious about the camera – the camera is unique and it helps my subjects to engage with the process, ultimately leading to better images.

As a portrait photographer, which lenses would you say are the most effective or versatile for this type of portraiture?

I think both the Summilux-M 50mm and the Summicron-M 35mm are ideal for portraits, where the Summilux-M 50mm is ideal if you want to get closer to your subject, or you want to have a really shallow depth of field. The Summicron-M 35mm is better if you like to have some more context to your portraits by including some of the surrounds of your subject. With a choice between the two, I would go with the Summicron-M 35mm as I think it’s ultimately more flexible.

A strong emphasis in light is seen throughout the images. Is this also part of the influence you had from other fellow Australian photographers? Do you like to use available light or artificial light?

I think use of light is fundamentally important in making great images. Some photographs might be taken at the right time or in the right place, but without great light it’s not nearly as visually arresting or memorable. I am always looking for best way to use available light. To me it has a more interesting quality to it that artificial light, and more variation in colour.

Lastly, are there other projects you’re working on or anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

I am currently working on a series exploring ideas of masculine identity in contemporary Australia. The series is investigating what it might mean to be masculine, and how sexuality, age, culture, sex and other aspects can inform one’s sense of masculinity.

I am shooting portraits on film using a 20”x24” ultra large format camera I built, and am developing the resulting prints using the subject’s urine, replacing traditional developer. The result is a highly unique, one of a kind image that is intrinsically linked to the participant. Though the process may be repeated, the content of the bodily fluid will vary, and the resulting image is never the same.

Thank you Tristan!

To know more about Tristan Still, please visit his official website.

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One comment

  • Strong series of portraits, the subjects, the great use of available light and the colours make them really interesting
    PS: impressive skateboarding photos in your site, wow, the B&W is really impressive

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