Tracey Moffatt is one of Australia’s leading contemporary artists. Born in 1960 in Brisbane, Moffatt began her career in the late 1980s – her first solo exhibition was at the Australian Centre of Photography in 1989 – and has since established herself as a pioneering voice in contemporary art, nationally and internationally, over the past four decades.
Throughout her career, Moffatt has consistently emphasised her artistic role as an image-maker and storyteller rather than a specialist in any one medium. As a result, she takes a deeply narrative approach to her practice, using the mediums of film and photography as tools to construct theatrical scenes and open-ended stories. Moffatt’s mercurial status as an image-maker is witnessed in her experimental approach towards such mediums, with bodies of work ranging from nineteenth century photogravures to photoshopped found images, as well as long-form narrative cinema to short-form digital video. Moffatt’s films can be described as moving photography and her stills like cinematic tableau, both allowing for the real and the imaginary to co-exist, and for Moffatt to explore themes of desire, longing, structures of power and collective memory. Moffatt’s storytelling draws on her autobiography as an Aboriginal woman, particularly where she has used herself as a model, but is equally influenced by Western art history, popular culture, advertising and television to reflect broadly on issues of identity, race and gender.
Books and Articles
Douglas, Sarah. “Tracey Moffatt: New Work in New York.” Art Collector. First published in issue 33, July – September, 2005.
Summerhayes, Catherine. The Moving Images of Tracey Moffatt. Milan: Charta Art Books, 2007.
Summerhayes, Catherine. “Who in “Heaven”? Tracey Moffatt: Men in Wet-Suits and the Female Gaze.” Journal of Narrative Theory. Vol. 22, No. 1 (Winter, 2003), 63-80.
“Tracey Moffatt.” Guggenheim.
Art Gallery of New South Wales. “Tracey Moffatt.”
Australian Centre for Moving Image. “Heaven.”
Milner, Johnny. “Tracey Moffatt: a celebrated urban storyteller.” National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.
Museum of Contemporary Art. “Tracey Moffatt.” https://www.mca.com.au/artists-works/artists/tracey-moffatt/
Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. “Tracey Moffatt.”
ArtLike. “Australia – Tracey Moffatt – My Horizon – Venice Biennale 2017.” May 6, 2018.
Art Gallery of South Australia. “Lunchtime Talk: Alice Clanachan discusses ‘Tracey Moffatt: Body Remembers’.” Soundcloud, 2018, 28:32.
Frequently using herself as a model in highly staged photographs, Moffatt presents tableaux that explore the tensions underpinning unequal power dynamics. Moffatt’s first major photographic series, Something More, 1989, comprised eight large photographs that drew on the aesthetics of 1950s melodrama to tell the story of a young woman’s attempt to leave her small town life for the promise of the city. The series concludes with a violent death.
In Up in the Sky, 1997, Moffatt takes her visual cues from the neo-realist cinema of 1960s Italy. In the twenty-five-part series, Moffatt adapts cinematic conventions such as blurred motion, close-ups and low camera angles to aid her storytelling. She even followed the neo-realist method of shooting on location – doing so near Broken Hill, New South Wales – with non-professional actors. By employing this ‘realist’ approach, Moffatt evokes the authoritative mode of reportage. The wide range of characters captured in different scenarios suggests a narrative of epic proportions. But there is no beginning, middle and end to lead the viewer through this story. Moffatt’s photographs function like film stills, highlighting poignant scenes in a larger drama, but one that is never fully disclosed.
First Jobs, 2008, explores Moffatt’s own experiences of paid employment during her teenage years and early twenties. The autobiographical nature of the series is signalled by the titles of the twelve works, each of which identifies the job and year she was employed. Photoshopping herself into different workplaces, such as a fruit market and hair salon, she creates a nostalgic mood. This is reinforced by the bright colour palette of the inkjet prints, which draw on the conventions of art direction in the advertising and tourism campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s.
Moffatt said the following about the series in the year it was made,
"But I remember the good things about the factory floor. Walking into work everyday and saying hi to people you knew, there was a camaraderie. The work was mindless but it didn’t mean that your mind couldn’t go places. Then there was knock-off time. The bell would ring and you would be out the door with a wad of cash in your hand and not a care in the world.
In being a full-time artist there never is any knock-off time. There’s always a nagging, miserable voice of ideas in your head and you MUST get up off the sofa and produce work. The bell never rings and you never know where your next buck is coming from. Your mind is constantly wound up. You’re never really physically tired not like when you had a real honest job. But would I go back to working in a factory just to get good a night’s sleep? Ha, um, no."
- Look at the series of Something More (1989). Write a sentence for each image telling the viewer what is happening in each photograph.
- Investigate the work of other artists who use film or television as inspiration for their photographic work such as Cindy Sherman. Compare their works to that of Tracey Moffatt and collect ideas for composition, style and storytelling that you might like to apply to your own work.
- Write a short story that you will portray in a series of 5 – 8 photographs. Like Moffatt, use yourself as the main model in your series.
- Create theatrical scenes in which to take your photographs. What props can you borrow from the drama department or bring from home? You may like to consider styling your photographs in your favourite genre of film or television program.
Sometimes artists who use photography in their work manipulate their image or their subjects. Does a photographer make or take a photograph? Provide examples for your answer. Tip: Also look at the work of Naomi Hobson.
First Jobs can sometimes trigger memories of early experiences of employment. Show these images to your parents or grandparents. What was their first job? Does this job still exist today? What was their favourite place to work?
- Take a photograph of this person and photoshop them into a scene where they are undertaking this job. Moffatt is sometimes influenced by advertising and TV from specific eras, you may like to edit your photograph so that it echoes some visual conventions of a particular time.
- Now Photoshop yourself into an image where you are doing a job you would like to have one day. Display your images side by side.
Look at the work of Naomi Hobson’s work titled Adolescent Wonderland and compare the use of high-key colour to the First Jobs series by Tracey Moffatt. How have both artists manipulated colour in their work? How are these artists’ works similar and different? Discuss the following statement in relation to Hobson’s and Moffatt’s photographs: ‘Colour is a powerful tool in art making, one that is emotive and can evoke nostalgia and humour.’
Recommended for senior secondary
Heaven (1997) is a twenty-eight minute documentary-style film where Moffatt, and six of her women friends, filmed short sequences of male surfers in various stages of undress. Shot on 8mm video, a pre-digital technology, the surfers were captured changing in and out of their wetsuits in car parks surrounding Sydney’s Bondi and Avalon beaches. The montaged scenes play to a surveillance style hand-held aesthetic. They offer a voyeuristic glimpse, through car windows and from across the street, into the naturalised yet highly gendered ritual of exhibitionism typically seen at the beach, a public act of nudity that is almost exclusively performed by men. As a charged location in the national psyche, Heaven captures the machismo of the beach and surf culture in Australia at the time.
Unlike today, where people purposefully document themselves and others in public for a social media audience, Moffatt’s subjects were not always willing or aware of being recorded. While some men slyly complied, playing to the camera, others were confronted by Moffatt’s scopophilic gaze – a term used to describe the pleasurable act of looking. “Heaven is made by women for women. It is for all the women of the world who like to ‘look’.” While Heaven inverts the deeply gendered history of the nude, which has predominantly focused on women’s bodies, for those men who did display a degree of control over how they were seen by Moffatt, the film also pries open the power dynamics between a photographer and their subject. Heaven taps into the representational power of photography and film. As the men perform their nudity for Moffatt, and us as an unknown audience, she captures the tension of the subject as both victim to and maker of their own image.
 Catherine Summerhayes, The Moving Images of Tracey Moffatt, Milan: Charta Art Books, 2007, 219.  Tracey Moffatt quoted by Catherine Summerhayes, 220.
Watch Heaven. How did you feel when you were watching this montage? Did you find it difficult to watch? Does the hand-held footage make you feel sea sick? Share your responses with your classmates. Suggest reasons as to why you and your classmates responded in this way. Consider the subject matter and the manner in which the footage was captured.
Heaven has been described as documentary-style. Think about other documentaries you have seen. What documentary qualities does Heaven have?
Although filming in public spaces is legal, there is an expectation that we respect the privacy of other people. Heaven has been filmed in a public place. However, Moffatt’s subjects were not always willing or aware that they were being recorded. As a class discuss the ethical and moral issues of this. Consider other situations where this might occur, for example people captured during news broadcasts, leaving court or celebrities engaging in everyday activities. Is it ever ok to film someone without their knowledge or consent? What about surveillance? Conduct a class debate on the topic.
Conversely, in some parts of Heaven the men being filmed are in fact aware of the camera. Can you identify shots where this has occurred? How does the men’s behaviour change? Are the men being filmed in control of their portrayal or is Moffatt who is holding the video camera and later editing and creating the montage? Provide examples for your response.
Since the making of Heaven in 1997 advancements in technology have changed dramatically. Hand-held devices, the invention of social media and video sharing platforms have transformed how we record, edit and share visual information. The rise of the selfie has influenced the way some people want to present themselves – women may like to appear thin and flawless while men may try to look more masculine or muscular. As a class make a list of the stereotypical things men and women do to manipulate their appearance for an online platform. What types of things do the men do in Heaven to make themselves appear more powerful, masculine or attractive?
Historically, the female nude has been acceptable subject for male artists but it was considered an unsuitable subject for female artists. Despite this, female artists have been depicting nudes for centuries.
- Take a look at works of art depicting the female nude, made by men. Compare these to works of art depicting the female nude, made by women. Select two works of art and in pairs discuss the similarities and differences of these works.
- Compare Moffatt’s film Heaven to the work of American artist Sylvia Sleigh (1916 – 2010), an artist who sought to counteract stereotypical representations of women in art, by featuring nude men in poses that were more commonly seen by female models. Sleigh was concerned about turning male nudes into art subjects in the same way women had been objectified throughout art history. How have Moffatt and Sleigh depicted or captured their subjects – have they both captured the beauty of their subjects?
- Investigate and select three different representations of the human form throughout history and from a variety of contexts (not only Western traditions). What do these depictions tell us about the time they were created? What do they suggest about beauty, identity, religion or power – of the sitter or the artist who made them?
Create a film or photo-montage about your family and home. Experiment with a variety of composition techniques such as capturing images or footages through windows or different vantage points. Play with distance – zoom in and out, combining imagery of people and objects.
The Gallery’s Learning programs are supported by the Department for Education.
This education resource has been developed and written in collaboration Dr. Belinda Howden, Kylie Neagle Education Coordinator, Dr. Lisa Slade Assistant Director, Artistic Programs and Maria Zagala, Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs.