Behind the Scenes Artist Q&A

Meg Cowell (@meg.cowell), large-scale photographer, sat down with KBFA Artist Liaison Sara Nachum to share her process capturing feminine garments arranged and illuminated whilst suspended in water.

These unique articles of fashion are tied by their semblance of romance. The opulent theatrical fabrics appear to breathe and defy gravity, moving between the worlds of the real and the supernatural. Cowell is both fascinated and inspired by the moment when a woman dons a costume for her transformation, in these cases, the moment of marriage and in so doing captures the transition from garments to artefacts.

Cowell questions the meaning attributed and associated with women, status, life experiences and the nature of romantic love. These carefully selected articles of clothing are photographed in a 1000-liter pool that Cowell has installed in her backyard.

KBFA: Do you remember the first photograph you took?

Meg C: I actually don’t remember! But I can tell you about when I first came to photography. My relationship with photography surfaced within the sloshing chemical trays of the Hobart College darkrooms. In the gloom amongst the dripping taps, I relished the almost supernatural processes of chemical dips and rinses that created and sealed my camera’s vision. I was enthralled by the control that was possible at the various stages of decision‐making that managed exposure, cropping, and tone. I loved how these choices – what to reveal and what to conceal – could be used to veil reality and create meaning. Recently, I have worked exclusively with digital cameras, but my understanding of photography’s illusory possibilities is certainly shaped through my love of the magic and alchemy of black and white processing.

KBFA: What was the process of discovering and photographing underwater?

Meg C: The idea behind using water for my images came years ago when I was living in Hobart. I would walk into town via the rivulet and think about fabulous, tragic characters like Shakespeare’s Miss Havisham and Dickens Ophelia. I started bringing fabric and garments with me on these walks and dipping them into the water to see if I could describe anything about the visual poetry and loaded symbolism of theses characters. I eventually forgot about it and then years later found some old photographs I’d taken and thought ‘there’s more to be done here’. My ability to imply the female figure in the garments is a product of a long period of experimentation. For a while I just photographed the undergarments, corsets filled with stuffing attached to underskirts, to better understand a way of sculpturally building forms. A lot of my work is a kind of sculpture. I often have the garments completely filled out with the under-workings before I put them in the water which provides the movement and energy. I also wanted to achieve a particular aesthetic. I want the viewer to feel as if they were looking into a candy store window after dark. Through the saturation provided by the garments submergence in water, I am able to produce these florid, sweet colors.

KBFA: Who or what inspires your practice?

Meg C: I’ve been looking at photographers Anne MacDonald and Pat Brassington for inspiration. These artists belong to a sub-category of Australian contemporary art termed Tasmanian Gothic. The concept being that something to do with Tasmania’s climate, isolation and convict history produces artists with an inclination to the sinister. I completed my undergrad studies with Anne MacDonald and I feel very much connected to this genera. Australian photo-artist Deborah Paauwee. Paauwee captures young women during that fleeting and mysterious transition between childhood and adulthood and at play within their own private worlds of fantasy and emerging sensuality. Paauwee subjects are always faceless. This allows us to pick out delicate and obscure narrative threads without meaning being overshadowed by the identity of the subject. I was fortunate enough to be paired with Deborah in a mentorship program through The University of South Australia in 2012 and I continue to look to her and others for inspiration in this subject matter.

KBFA: Do you use your pool for recreational purposes as well?

Meg C: Haha! No. Not as a rule. Our skin is very oily and I’d have to change the water which I do only when necessary.

KBFA: If individuals are defined by their choice of fashion, is there an article of clothing that describes you? Or your style as a whole?

Meg C: I don’t really have an interest in fashion per se. I have books on period fashion that I dip into to understand the way things like bustles and hoop skirts work, but really I’m more interested in creating a sense of pose and movement with the garments and substituting the absent female figure. I use period garments because I’m attracted to the lavish detail, colours and the sheer quantity of fabric. These garments have a lot more imaginative detail than contemporary garments, a lot more detail to capture that make an appealing photograph.

KBFA: Is there a garment throughout history / belonging to anyone that if given the opportunity you would love to photograph?

Meg C: I like institutions of dressing. For instance, the white wedding dress is a potent example of the transformative properties of clothing; bodied as transformative phenomena and disembodied as relic. Similarly, Victorian-era mourning dress- after the death of her husband Queen Victoria spent more than forty years in mourning black to symbolize her spiritual darkness, and an entire country of women followed suit. I would LOVE to photograph all of the subjects of Joseph Tissot’s paintings – Have a look at ‘A Woman Of Ambition’ you’ll see what I mean. The fashion of the period; the gothic romance and the extreme femininity in a period of turmoil and change. Sheerness and frills layered over dresses for sensory overload. Ribbons tied at the neck had strong sexual undertones. A sense of abandon too, not a statement of ‘pretty’ as such, but drama.

KBFA: If you were to express yourself in another medium or discipline, what would that be?

Meg C: Sculpture or installation. If I could arrange the dresses as installations in the gallery for people to view that would be incredible.

KBFA: If you could have a cocktail with any artist or designer – living or deceased – who would it be and why?

Meg C: Hmmm. Probably Bill Henson. He’s just such a superb institution for Fine Art Photography. It is so hard to know what to do next in with art, in terms of career and the work itself. I’d love to sit down with someone like Bill for an hour and chat direction. Maybe that’s next!

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