Ask yourself this question: What photograph do you think holds the record for the most valuable Australian photograph ever sold? The journalist Nick Miller asked this question in similar words in his column in the Sydney Morning Herald 23rd February this year.
This accolade now belongs to Carol Jerrems. “Who is she?” I hear you ask. Many of you will not know of this ground-breaking female Australian photographer and may not recognise any of her works.
It’s possibly a tragedy that Carol Jerrems died at the young age of 30 in 1980, yet she leaves a legacy of photographs from the late 1970s that are iconic and show the work of a female photographer who got out there and competed with established male photographers of the time. It’s a mystery why she isn’t better known.
Here then is the image that now holds the record as the most valuable Australian photograph:
Her photograph titled “Vale Street (1975)”, one of only 9 prints of this image known to exist, now holds the record for the most valuable Australian photograph when the Sotheby Australia auctioneer’s hammer recently fell at AUD$100,000. The final price including buyer’s commission was $122,000.
The image depicts a bare-breasted young woman standing prominently, and with obvious fearlessness, in front of two similarly aged tattooed young men, with a plant occupying the top left-hand corner of the image. There’s an indication the tattoo on the right shoulder of the young man in the left of the photograph is a shadow from the plant and maybe this was intended. It certainly gives the impression of the younger generation of the time not only emerging from the shadows, with the young woman unafraid of being prominent and surpassing her contemporary males, but also emerging almost unnoticed from the sideline behind the plant. Her countenance indicates a challenge: “I’m here and you’re no longer going to hold me back! So what are you going to do about it?”
Is the plant a compositional intrusion or an important element? Try imagining the photograph without the plant and you’ll see the impact of the image deteriorates with its exclusion. If the plant wasn’t there the three-dimensional impression fails, as does much of the impression of youth emerging sideways from the shadows.
The Heide Museum of Modern Art is located at 7 Templestowe Road, Bulleen, Victoria, about 20 minutes drive from the Melbourne CBD and is now a museum on my “must visit” list. Curator Natalie King spent several years researching the work of Carol Jerrems, including her work in an exhibition in 2010 after channel-surfing late one night on SBS where she came across a documentary on Jerrems. The 2010 exhibition deliberately put Jerrems’ work beside international contemporaries.
King says: “It (the SBS documentary) was utterly riveting, and I realised that as a curatorial endeavour this was irresistible. I had some sense that Carol’s work was incredibly significant … yet it was hardly known. She hasn’t been overlooked, but she certainly hasn’t received the level of attention that her work deserves.”
The 1970s was a period of my life I can identify with, and a time my own photographic interest matured. I was then in my late 20s – early 30s, five years older than Carol Jerrems. It was certainly an era when women were asserting themselves in society. This photograph exemplifies that emergence. The 1970s was also an era when the youth of the World were asserting their political status and resistance to political power, especially their objection to the Vietnam War that officially ended on 30th April 1975 with the fall of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).
Another of Carol Jerrem’s work I particularly like is her photograph of Evonne Goolagong-Cawley. Once again we have an image of a young woman emerging from the shadows. Evonne, as we know, became an icon of Australian sport – particularly women’s tennis and a Wimbledon winner. I get the impression of Evonne striding forward to challenge and overcome whatever obstacles are placed in her path. The white dress partially isolates her head from the rest of her body giving the impression of her being headstrong, and her shoulders hint at her strong athleticism as well as her feminine-ness. Her eyes in this image display her drive and issue a challenge that shows strength with a hint of insecurity. Fearlessness is never without an element of fear. This image, like Vale Street (1975), has similarities in that the background is dark, increasing the 3-dimensional feel as well as showing the subject coming into prominence. The Evonne Goolagong image also has a secondary element in the clothes on the rack to the right-hand side that provides an additional three-dimensional element but to me the overall effect of the clothes doesn’t project the same compositional strength as the plant in Vale Street (1975). You may think otherwise. What is an important element in this image is the figures in the dark background; the head of the girl in the lower left hand corner with only her forehead included, the silhouetted figure on the middle left hand edge, the barely-discernible figure behind Evonne’s right shoulder and the muted figure in the middle far background. Evonne is not only emerging as a force to be reckoned with but has already surpassed her contemporaries. She is the one who has come to the fore.
I find both images to be extremely strong and indicative of the style of Carol Jerrems. You will find more images by Carol by entering her name in whichever search engine you use.
I have to admit I too was ignorant of the work and importance of Carol Jerrems’ works, and came across the SMH report via a link in the View Camera Australia site I subscribe to. I’m glad I did!
I, like Natalie King, feel Carol Jerrems’ work should receive much more attention than it does. If it had then I probably wouldn’t have been ignorant of it. When we next travel to Melbourne I will make sure the Heide Museum of Modern Art is on my list of places to visit, simply so I can view some of the works of Carol Jerrems’ from the short time she was with us. I hope other BPC members will likewise make such a resolution.