Louis Porter

Louis Porter

Work from Cheap Flights.

“To inner-city dwellers there is something unnerving about the seemingly endless sprawl of suburbia. But for most, home is that in-between realm of tree-lined streets and manicured lawns.

Most Western-style societies have their share of suburbia. But Australians, more than most, tend to celebrate it. From Neighbours to the explorations of such artists as John Brack, Howard Arkley, Jenny Watson and Bill Henson, suburbia is a part of the national psyche.

When Louis Porter arrived from England four years ago, he set about working as a documentary photographer but was soon seduced by a more personal fascination. His work covers a bizarre collection of subjects, from brothels to phone boxes, but it is the strange landscape of the ‘burbs by which Porter has been seduced.

His work is currently showing in an exhibition called Suburbia Picnic, with painter David Hurwitz and sculptor David Waters.

Porter quotes on his website, fellow Englishman D.H. Lawrence from his 1923 book Kangaroo, which was written after a visit to Australia: “And there went the long street, like a child’s drawing, the little square bungalows dot-dot-dot, close together yet apart, like modern democracy. The vacancy of this freedom is almost terrifying.”

Porter thrives on this landscape. Power lines in Fawkner sweep majestically across a brilliantly azure sky at the hint of sunset, their shadows crossing the no-man’s land of urban existence. The zebra stripes of the speed bump appear like a crossing to nowhere in Murrumbeena. In Footscray, Porter captures suburbia like an antipodean David Lynch, where carefully tended pink and yellow roses contrast with the sky-blue window frames, but there, almost as if in pride of place, are two discarded tyres on the porch.

In another Footscray image, carefully tended hedges serve to frame a phalanx of tied garbage bags. A roundabout in Preston appears more like a UFO landing, the lack of traffic highlighting its strangely decorative role.

“Much of what makes up our culture is suburban,” says Porter. “We grow up in suburbia, and for many, a huge part of life is about creating our own little slice of suburban bliss.

“Although most of us are a little ashamed to admit it, suburbia is the physical embodiment of a set of values that is almost universal in our society.”

Neighbours aside, much of Australia’s cultural exports have been of the rugged, survival-in-the-desert type, from Mad Max to Crocodile Dundee. Porter admits to being surprised by the reality. “More so than anywhere else I have been, Australia has struck me as a particularly suburban place. This is very much at odds with the popular concept of the rugged Australia I was led to expect when I arrived.

“Australia for me has a great track record of producing some brilliant takes on suburbia. John Brack’s somewhat uneasy depictions of 1950s Melbourne have been of particular interest to me.”

In works such as The Choice is Yours, the cynicism of suburbia filters through. Two identical homes are distinguished by no more than the colour of the flowers planted on either side of a fence. Like Arkley, Porter’s suburbs are vacated of human life, strangely depopulated.

“I find there is something very strange, almost surreal about wandering around suburbia when there is no-one about, especially in the summer when the heat is a little oppressive,” he says. “I time my visits to avoid people and when I do photograph them I try to make them as anonymous as possible, a colour or shape nestled amongst the landscape. I think that when I put people into the photographs they lose a lot of the eerie stillness I enjoy, so I tend to avoid it.”

The results are decidedly surreal. “I think suburbia is a surreal thing and this aspect of it influences me a great deal,” he says.

“I don’t so much construct surreal scenes as wander aimlessly till I discover them. Sometimes I can spend a whole day walking around the ‘burbs and not see a single thing to photograph. Other days I am only limited by the amount of film I have with me.

“My sense of humour is perhaps a little surreal too, I grew up on Monty Python and Spike Milligan so I think that probably has had a big effect.”

In one of Porter’s most powerful images, a night shot taken in inner-city Fitzroy, the backyard light becomes a beacon for a dismissed fridge sitting like some bizarre guardian ready to attack intruders. As with much of Porter’s work, the result seems a balancing act between the mundane and the theatrical.

“It could be a guard dog or possibly it’s been upstaged by a newer model and has been kicked out into the cold to wait for hard rubbish day,” Porter says. “I think it looks a little forlorn. There can be a lot of drama in the mundane aspects of our lives and this is something I am constantly looking for. For some reason I find the idea of the mundane endlessly fascinating, perhaps because if you look close enough there really is no such thing.

“Every suburban garden is unique, for instance – it’s just that as there are so many subtle variations they meld into one in our minds. I try to avoid slipping into seeing just another dustbin or fence and try to see each as a unique thing. This inevitably means I move very slowly and take lots of little breaks.”

Porter is also not without a touch of cynicism about his pet project. He named the images in Suburbia Picnic “by searching through real estate catalogues and cutting out the glib statements concocted by the agents to sell the suburban dream”.” – Ashley Crawford

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