BOOK LAUNCH @CCP: “Nightshade” by WENDY CATLING

Nightshade double page spread
Nightshade double page spread

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M.33 launched their latest publication Wendy Catling’s photobook ‘Nightshade’ on Saturday 10 September, 2022 at the Centre for Contemporary Photography Fitzroy Victoria.

The book was launched by Professor Melissa Miles, Monash University Art, Design & Architecture.

What follows is a compiled report about the book including its bibliographic details, images of the Launch and the speech by Professor Melissa Miles and Wendy Catling’s response.

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ABOUT THE BOOK: NIGHTSHADE

From the Australian Cultural Fund Project page

A personal and nuanced response to widespread patterns of coercive control. Disturbing – yet avoiding sensationalism – this book hopes to elicit reflection on the hidden complexities of abuse inside families

Nightshade is an extension of a multimedia project concerned with family violence and intergenerational trauma. Images from that project will now be incorporated into a beautifully designed and printed book which will represent moments of personal history that connect with wider patterns of abuse in intimate partner relationships.

The artist has a unique perspective, as a witness to the domestic abuse by her father. She has also worked as a volunteer with women and children who are victims and survivors in refuge and crisis housing accommodation hearing from other survivors, stories similar to her own.

The intimate format of a photobook will enable a wide audience beyond the walls of a gallery to engage with difficult subject matter. It is an opportunity to highlight the complexities of coercive control in a moving and poetic manner.

“The black nightshade with its appealing clusters of poisonous berries, is a metaphor for my father’s attractiveness and charm in public, and violent control in private. He stalked my mother, kidnapped her, and made her pregnant. This project is an exploration of my mother’s resistance to domestic abuse during their tumultuous 20-year marriage. Since their separation in the 1980s followed by my father’s death in a car accident, my mother has volunteered in outer suburban bush reserves, removing environmental weeds to promote the growth of native plants. She is now in her 90s and her garden is full of beautiful plants which she obsessively keeps weed free.” – Wendy Catling

Wendy Catling was a finalist in the Ballarat International Foto Bienale, GradFoto 2020 Award with an earlier iteration of ‘Nightshade’. The judges of the prize said: “This is a disturbing yet important work that demonstrates how photographic practice can be used to shed light on the major public health problem of domestic abuse in Australia through a sensitive, personal and complex perspective.”.

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NIGHTSHADE – IMAGES OF THE BOOK

“Click” on the images to enlarge

Nightshade cover
Nightshade cover

BIBLIOGRAPHIC INFORMATION

Title:  Nightshade

Author: Wendy Catling

Design: Kim Mumm Hansen

Published by: M.33
Pages: 192

Size: 28 x 21 cm
Exposed section sewn soft cover
Edition: 150
Price:  A$50 (plus GST in Australia)

ISBN 978-0-6482588-5-8

To Purchase a copy – M.33: https://m33.net.au/nightshade/

MORE INFORMATION ABOUT WENDY CATLING: https://wendycatling.cargo.site/Home

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Helen Frajman reads Melissa Miles' speech
Helen Frajman reads Melissa Miles’ speech

MELISSA MILES LAUNCH SPEECH

Melissa was unable to attend the Launch and her speech was read out by M.33’s Helen Frajman

Melissa Miles PHOTO: Julian Dolman
Professor Melissa Miles   ..PHOTO: Julian Dolman

It’s a real honour to be able to talk to you about Wendy Catling’s book Nightshade today. Nightshade is a beautiful book, and an important book.

Its importance creeps up on you, slowly, as you turn the pages and the rhythm of words, colours and images begin to tell a story.

The story is a very personal one for Wendy, and one that is shared by many, many people.

The personal parts of the story are signalled right up front in the reproduction of hand-written pages that sit separately from the rest of the book. These pages are written by ‘me’, ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’; each one a different narrative and a different effort to manifest familial bonds through the act of writing. A child’s school essay on her happy, secure home life; an adult daughter’s travel letter to her parents; and a short note of enduring love from a father to his daughter, Wendy.

There’s also a sense from these fragments of different lives and perspectives that not all is at it seems.

I’m not going to tell that story for you now. It’s not my story to tell. Above all it’s a story to be shared and shaped differently between Wendy and each reader.

But I do want to draw your attention to some of the many, elegant, thoughtful and powerful parts of this book:

The controlled palette of white, red and dark Prussian blue – a palette of illumination, blood, absorbing density, and courage. And the bountiful white space, which allows the resonances of words and images to linger…

At the start, words unfold slowly, in a steady succession of street names and short phrases from Mum as she tells her story with calm and honesty:

‘Every picture of a male, my friends, he tore up’…

‘I had lots of broken teeth’…

‘I didn’t talk about it to anyone’. . .

‘I was alone, I wasn’t allowed to have friends’. . .

It’s the language of family violence and coercive control, laid bare on a broad white ground.

Like the words, the images that appear later are given room to stand alone, while they also speak to one another as the book’s pages are turned.

The devil is in the detail. Cropped photographs showing photo albums with photographs removed. A wedding photograph, in which the bride’s delicate hands are being steadied and guided by the hands of others. Another photograph of the frayed, dropped hem of the bride’s blue velvet dress. A mother standing behind a screen door. A suited man’s fist, or big hands at once embracing a child and holding her in place. Together, these gestures become clues.

Cropped, grainy family photographs are interspersed with stunning, magnificently lit photographs of plants variously reaching for sunlight, surviving in dark shade or torn from the ground still connected to their roots.

The title of the book, Nightshade, refers to a particular family of plants that can be either toxic, like the deadly nightshade belladonna, or nutritious like eggplant, tomato and potato.

But there are many other types of plants in this book. Glistening berries hanging beneath bristly caps; thorns, tendrils and feathery leaves. Gardener’s will recognise the dense growing habits and leaves of these plants as different varieties of weeds.

Here, weeds are metaphors for abusers and abuse. They ensnare – slowly – and can sometimes appear beautiful and delicate. But eventually they take over, limit the growth of the plants closest to them, smother and overwhelm.

Images of darkened windows hint at hidden stories and events.

Like so much coercive control and domestic violence, the amalgam of love and abuse that bind mother, father and daughter in this book happens largely off camera, outside the pages, hinted at through postcards, letters, photographs, place names and recollections but not explicitly seen. Stories overlap and shape one another in this book through repetition, bold interjections of colour and carefully considered pauses.

As striking as these images and words are, the thing that strikes me most about this book is its generosity. Ironically, the generosity comes from the very careful and paired back approach. This approach gives readers something very special and very important – space to observe and reflect – not only on the story being told here, but how they may relate to it.

This delicate balance of silences, images and words speak to some of the complexities of speaking truth to experience. They embody the meaning of bearing witness as both seeing and testifying to what is seen.

You can buy this book simply because it is a beautiful book, and an example of what can only be said and done in photobook form. The bonus is that it provides a safe place to pause and think – a prompt to talk about family violence and coercive control, and bring it to light in a way that doesn’t cause further shame or shock.

Congratulations on a magnificent, thoughtful book Wendy.

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PROF MELISSA MILES

Art History and Theory Program, Monash University Art Design and Architecture.

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Wendy Catlin speaks
Wendy Catlin speaks

WENDY CATLING’S RESPONSE

Thank you Helen and thank you so much to Melissa. It has been an absolute honour to have Melissa’s very generous overview of my book today. I send her my very best wishes for a speedy recovery and my gratitude for her encouragement of my research and ideas.

Domestic abuse – the terrible breach of trust between people in intimate relationships, where partners should feel most confident and most safe – the stories are common and yet they are hard to tell.

There are many reasons not to reveal family abuse: feelings of shame, the effects of trauma, victim blaming, lack of understanding about coercive control. And for survivors there is a need to not be defined by our trauma. We are so much more than victims. My Mum often projected strength, endurance and determination during the power battle of her marriage. It is true that she was also a victim. A victim of one man, yes, also a victim of social constraints, and a victim of a culture. But I know my mother to be adventurous, strong, gorgeous and gutsy. Stories of her early life told during our many occasions of poring over photo albums are surprising, given that she was also a shy and stammering younger woman. She was close to both her parents and especially her father, working by his side on their farm from an early age: hand planting cauliflowers during the second world war, cutting a striking figure as she rode her horse down the main street of Dandenong, hand milking cows to save money for a trip to the country of her parents’ birth, driving a car through post war France with two women friends, making Cadbury hot chocolate samples from a van for frozen British tourists on pebbled beaches.

She was the son her father never had… and belle of the ball.

Trusting, and always believing in the essential goodness of others, she found herself trapped into marriage despite her best efforts to escape my father’s unwanted pursuit of her. His stalking, is the starting point for the book. And then it follows the various addresses where they lived, on a broken trail of my father’s other obsessions; alcohol, gambling, unrealistic dreams, and his belief in the essential evil of others.

Behind the photographs in this book my mother was bringing up five children on a low income, keeping a well organised house, sewing and knitting our clothes, cooking hearty meals from the cheapest of ingredients, and always maintaining a lovely and productive garden… all while suffering the worst of private cruelties. Incredibly, throughout that time she was also actively involved in church and school mother’s clubs, always hiding the truth of our home life. Community and social interactions have always been important to Mum. So the loss of friends, mistrust of family members, the isolation created by my father during their marriage was cruel. After his death Mum’s life changed. Last year she was rewarded by Maroondah City Council for nearly 30 years of voluntary environmental regeneration and indigenous plant propagation.

I would have loved for you to meet my mother and she was looking forward to it but a week ago she was admitted to hospital. We are hopeful that she will be out again in a few days. Back to her home, back to the native garden that gives her so much pleasure. As she said in a text to me this morning “I am a survivor”

Mum, I am here because of you. You have been a generous partner throughout the project. I am so proud of you. I love you so much. Thank you.

Stories of domestic abuse are hard to tell, they are also hard to hear. So how does one create the circumstances for viewers to engage with a difficult story of human experience? There are fragments here in this book of other stories and traumas – mine, my fathers. And there is coercive control which underpins all violence. DV is complicated.

I was fortunate to find two incredible and talented women with whom to collaborate. They have enabled me to realise the project in a way that I believe will resonate and endure.

Look at what we made! I am so proud of this book.

My immense gratitude to you Helen for your belief in this work, your advice and guidance through the grinding grant application process and for sharing your immense knowledge of the business of photobook publishing. It is such an honour to have my book published by M.33. Immense thanks as well to Helen’s partner, Michael Janover, for his invaluable behind-the-scenes assistance. (Native Flowers)

I am happily indebted to the amazing Kim Mumm Hansen who went above and beyond in her efforts to interpret my work and ideas for the page. This story has found a natural harbour in Kim’s book design. Kim’s persistence of vision, and translation of that vision via her refined and innovative decisions for font, layout, paper, printing and binding have been extraordinary. Thankyou Kim. (Native Flowers)

It is a truism that there were many people along the way without whom this book would not have been made. I began the project at Photography Studies College where I was supported and nurtured by the wonderful Daniel Boetker-Smith, Kristian Haggblom, Clare Rae, Hoda Ashfer, Brie Trennery, David Rozetsky, Dan Rule, Peter Hatsipavlis, Gareth Syvret, Torika Bolatagici and numerous others who make up the PSC family. I wish I could name them all.. I am grateful especially to the MA kids who came along the journey with me: Jo-Anne Cripps, Yask Desai, Tom Goldner, Anjella Roessler, Emmeline Zanelli, Danielle Smelter, Sam Forsyth-Gray, Ahmad Sabra, Anne Davies and Megan Williamson. Huge thanks for stimulating conversations from my very wise and generous mentors Janina Green and Melinda Gibson. A big thank you to Ponch Hawkes for reminding me of the power and purpose of realising this work as a book.  I am proud to call these people my friends.

My last thanks are for my family. My darling Mum. My extraordinarily kind, generous and loving partner Peter. My lovely, funny supportive sister, Andrea. My sensitive and insightful daughters, Scarlett and Darcie.

With your nurturing love and encouragement I and this project have blossomed. Let’s keep fighting the weeds.

TO PURCHASE THE BOOK:

M.33: https://m33.net.au/nightshade/

MORE INFORMATION ABOUT WENDY CATLING: https://wendycatling.cargo.site/Home

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ThankS To Wendy For RESPONDING TO MY REQUEST to Publish the launch of her book.  Thanks also to Professor Melissa Miles for her Launch words, HeleN Frajman – M.33 AND DANiel Boetker-Smith from CCP – the venue for the Launch.

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