In The drummer a young child of ambiguous gender stares fiercely at the viewer while clenching two batons above a red-and-white lacquered tin drum. The child’s gaze is earnest, severe and almost defiantly inaccessible, and the strange calm of the image appears ready to be shattered at any moment by a sudden strike of the drumstick.
Loretta Lux, a working name adopted by the artist at the time of her first exhibition, presents consistently intriguing images of children that defy traditional boundaries of portraiture or childhood imagery. Lux uses the children of friends to pose for photographs against simple white backdrops, dressing them in 1970s clothes and styling them with retro props. She then employs a deft touch to digitally manipulate the images, superimposing the children onto separately produced backgrounds of hand-painted or photographed scenes. Lux has trained as a painter, and she brings the aesthetic and compositional discipline of that medium to her images. She utilises programs such as Photoshop to structure and organise the composition and palette of her photographs in the manner of a painter working with a canvas.
The effect, as in The drummer, acquired by the NGV in 2006, is quietly surreal. The porcelain-like skin, angelic curls and penetrating eyes of the child, along with the beautiful surface texture of the image, have a hyper-real aura that is reminiscent of the eternal, luminous beauty of Agnolo Bronzino’s child studies. Unlike Bronzino’s exquisite babes, however, the child in Lux’s photograph loses the individuality that we search for in portraits – the lustrous exterior of the constructed image conceals any clues as to the thoughts or identity of the child. Indeed, Lux is emphatic that her photographs are not traditional portraits intended to capture an individual’s psychology and treated as metaphors for childhood.
Whether referenced intentionally or not, many aspects of Lux’s haunting image resonate strongly with the complex moral allegories of The Tin Drum, the Nobel Prize winning novel written by Günter Grass in 1959. In this story the extraordinary fictional hero, Oskar Matzerath, tells how, upon receiving a tin drum for his third birthday, he refuses to enter the adult world which he finds rife with duplicity. He stays in perpetual childhood as a protest against the horrors of recent German history. The drum acts as a means of communication, a defence mechanism, a catalyst for chaos and a source of comfort. The child in Lux’s photograph holds us captive in a manner that mirrors the complicated sentiments of Grass’ novel, the intensity of gaze empowering the child so that, like Oskar, this drummer appears ‘superior to all grownups’.
At first appearance, Lux’s work is a picture of seeming childhood perfection. The unnerving facade, however, forces a deeper analysis and a consideration not just of the child’s individual psyche but of a collective questioning of the mysteries of childhood. The tension caused by the possibility of the drum being struck appears to act as a catalyst whereby Lux asks us to question whether we, as viewers, have the capacity to retain the innocence, mystery and purity of childhood.
Maggie Finch, Assistant Curator, Photography, NGV (in 2007)