Ballarat has never seen anything like the hyper-realistic social commentary that iconic American photographer David LaChapelle injects in to his artworks, says Ballarat International Foto Biennale director Fiona Sweet.
“I have been a huge fan for many years but it’s so different seeing the work large and beautifully framed here at the gallery,” she said as the artworks were installed on the walls of the Art Gallery of Ballarat.
LaChapelle’s work has never been displayed in Australia, and Ballarat is the only Australian venue to host the retrospective which features 90 of LaChapelle’s works spanning 30 years.
His work shines a light on 20th century pop culture offering a commentary on consumerism and its association with idols. Some of the most recognised faces on the planet – Madonna, Leonardo DiCaprio, Angelina Jolie, Muhammad Ali, Hilary Clinton, Uma Thurman, Pamela Anderson and Whitney Houston – have posed before LaChapelle’s lens.
“There’s real excitement about this exhibition, which is the most significant thing we have ever done,” she said.
“I think Ballarat is an incredible gallery and I wanted to pay homage to that gallery and make sure that we had a very significant photographer. It would allow the local and the existing audiences of the gallery to see a really significant show, and the LaChapelle exhibition spans 30 years, and it’s come directly from Usina del Artes in Buenos Aires. In its opening weekend there it had 55,000 people go through the gallery.
“People have never experienced the BIFB like this before and we are getting huge response not just from Ballarat but from Melbourne and Sydney too.”
But the BIFB is about much more than just the big-ticket exhibitions and the hype around the LaChapelle exhibition bodes well for the more than 100 other exhibitions held throughout the city in the next 30 days.
The 2017 Ballarat International Foto Biennale opens this weekend at more than 80 venues throughout Ballarat, having grown from humble beginnings in Daylesford in 2005.
“The Foto Biennale started in Daylesford, but it soon outgrew the town and thanks to the generosity of the City of Ballarat it was able to move here. We had four biennales in Ballarat before the founding director retired and I was appointed in 2016,” Ms Sweet said.
“I had a done a projection festival in St Kilda and had been on various art boards. I think what the board wanted from me was to see how much further the Biennale could be pushed in a regional town.”
Ms Sweet said she had seen the 2013 and 2015 biennales and had fallen in love with Ballarat.
“I loved the architecture and the art, walking around and engaging with that. I wanted to build on what’s already here because it is a very strong and well-known festival.”
Every two years, 15,000 to 20,000 people attend the biennale. It is the only photographic biennale in Australia, and Ms Sweet said that and Ballarat’s appeal as a city fed her inspiration.
“Those were the two drivers for me when I started building my programming,” she says.
“I was very respectful of the audiences that we've always had, which is the photographers and the photography lovers; and from all accounts it appears that they are still very excited.
“I'm getting lots of emails about how excited they are that we have invigorated it, because for them refocusing and re-imagining a photographic biennale where more people are engaged with the medium is actually more exciting for them as well; it gives them more opportunities have their work exposed to a broader audience.”
The 2017 Biennale
There are more than 70 international and Australian artists exhibiting within the core program, and more than 90 photographers involved in the fringe program.
“We've got 11 solo shows and all the others are group shows and we've got four brilliant emerging curators that have come on board to create four of the major shows,” Ms Sweet said.
Jessica Clark, a Palawa woman has curated Tell: Contemporary Indigenous Photography which features the works of 17 indigenous artists, while Aaron Bradbrook’s Rearranging Boundaries is filled with images from five significant documentary photographers from across the globe.
“Michelle Mountain is curating Reverie Revelry: Fashion through Photography in which seven photographers talk about photography and fashion: both classic photography like Bruno Benini from the 1950s and Robyn Beeche from the 1970s right through to Prue Stent and Honey Long who are the ‘it’ girls of contemporary fashion photography,” Ms Sweet said.
And the entire Ballarat Observatory has been taken over by curator Rebecca Najdowski for her astronomical exhibition A Field Guide To The Stars.
Photographers from around the world will be in Ballarat during the month-long celebration of the many ways the world is interpreted through a viewfinder.
Iranian photographer Maziar Moradi will visit the city, and be an artist in residence at Federation University, for his exhibition Ich Werde Deutch, a collection of images exploring the powerful and personal experiences of young people who were forced to leave their country and start a new life as immigrants in Germany.
The BIFB images are not confined to the galleries and exhibition spaces around town – an outdoor program will bring art to unexpected places with laneways, building walls and other nooks turned in to art installations as part of the outdoor program.
Ms Sweet said it was important that Ballarat audiences understood that the BIFB is their festival.
“We are not-for-profit, set up to run a photographic festival here and we're not going anywhere. We’re here to stay. This exhibition is for them.”
Every exhibition except David LaChapelle is free.
The 2017 Ballarat International Foto Biennale runs until September 17. See the full program at https://ballaratfoto.org/