An Interview with David Manley

An interview via an ’email conversation’ over the summer of 2016.


KB: Your work with structures is wonderfully brutal; encapsulating the urban monster and the dichotomy between nature and human development which I don’t find as terrifying as many people say it is. Your work reminds me of work done by Fay Godwin some years ago. What attracts you to this vast theme? And where are you hoping to take it?

DM: I grew up in Canberra during the seventies surrounded by socialist architecture (the Cameron Offices, the Belconnon Bus Interchange and the National Art Gallery to name a few). I am attracted to Brutalism through its stark beauty and science fictional aesthetic. Remember the opening sequence to Bladerunner? I guess these structures allowed my imagination to soar in what really was a boring city to grow up in. Modernism and its close cousin Brutalism link in with so many artistic aesthetics from Joy Division to J.G Ballard, the Bechers, Paul Virilio, George Orwell, Bowie and so on. I see Brutalist architecture as a counterpoint to classicism, which was more about power, and subjugation. Brutalism was architecture for the people. Le Corbusier’s Unite de Habitation was a building to that operated as a machine for living where all were housed in a similar fashion without the need to leave their homes as amenities were all provided. Of course this was a utopian aspiration, which soon degenerated as all human endeavors do and was something Ballard explored in the novel High Rise. I am attracted to this theme because it is so vast.

KB: So being so vast there is scope for experimentation and development within it and for yourself I suppose?

DM: Yes the work seems limitless and something I will keep going with. Ambivalent Structures the series has been published by Emblem Books and the work has been shown at a number of galleries as well as being published in the forthcoming Deep Ends the J.G Ballard Anthology 2016

KB: Is photography an instinct, a feeling, as Cartier-Bresson said? Or can we learn to take photos?

DM: If it is an instinct then we should unlearn how to take a photograph as I feel this instinct is being corrupted through the speed and acceleration of image saturation in our society.  Commercial image spectatorship demands particular visual recipes that fall in line with commercial expectations. Over time these tropes become more refined and ingrained to the point of fabulous banality. I think it’s partly the artist’s role to disrupt and subvert these tropes. As for Cartier-Bresson of whom I am a great fan but the idea of the photographer capturing a decisive moment I feel is a bit of a myth. Like any photographer Bresson manipulated and staged his work to varying degrees. Photography is all about manipulation, it’s a smoke and mirrors game.

KB: I must use that line: “…the point of fabulous banality” – brilliant! I agree, artist need to disrupt these tropes, and rock the boat, challenge the so-called norm. Yeah, the idolization of the decisive moment bothers me too – like it’s the only way to do photography for crying out loud!! (I wrote about this here).
I’m sure that Bresson staged a bit, but he was famous for his “lucky” captures more than anything and that graphic eye. Did he manipulate? How do you mean? Certainly not in the dark room – he never went in there!

DM: Lucky captures are arguable as you need to be shooting to achieve them. I do think however that good editing is the key to great work. I think Cartier Bresson and others are great editors also which is where the manipulation comes in. They choose what we don’t see as well as what we do see…like all photographers.

KB: Totally agree: he wasn’t just in the right place at the right time – more like he had the right vision at the right time; some sort of predictive, prescient camera vision!
I see what you’re saying here: editing and selecting shots has always been important – something I am learning to do with my own shots – as well as being patient and trying not to delete anything: you never know when a shot may take on an important pertinent significance, so it’s a good idea to save shots to some sort of archive for future reference I suppose. (What a great line: “They choose what we don’t see as well as what we see…” Brilliant.)
David, I’m a fan of ambiguity, but there are times when it’s inappropriate, wouldn’t you say? Should a photograph always clearly communicate something (how can it not?) to the viewer?

DM: The viewer will always read the photograph through his or her own unique life experiences something an artist will never control. I believe the spectator is the author of the work. So I guess ambiguity is in the eyes of the spectator rather than in the work itself.

KB: Yeah, I agree, we all bring our cultural baggage with us.
Interesting though – the spectator as author… Surely if the spectator sees ambiguity then the photo may be seen as unsuccessfully communicating, or successfully communicating depending on the photographer’s aim? Or, does it mean that the spectator doesn’t understand the language of the photograph, that they are photographically illiterate?

DM: I guess for me ambiguity opens up the space for a variety of interpretations which I find exciting as an artist. 

KB: Ok. But how much is the viewer’s interpretation of a photo important and vital? And when is it not?

DM: If it’s a genuine exchange then it is really the only thing that matters in the end. If we all interpreted things in the same way then it would be a pretty boring place and art would cease to exist.

KB: Agreed!
What do you think about the idea that the photographer should always leave a suggestion of intended meaning through a title (or lack of one) or a short statement about it. Do you think that is a necessary thing to do?

DM: It depends, but I do feel that the artist should not explain how a spectator should approach their viewing of the work through its title. I guess this is where some ambiguity may help to loosen the interaction up so the viewer can approach the work through the prism of their own lived experience.

KB: That’s really nice, will certainly be quoting that (if you don’t mind)!
So, David, where does photography stand in contemporary art today? Is it stuck  in the delightfully wacky world of advertising? What’s new? 

DM: Hiroshi Sugimoto, James Casebere, Thomas Demand, Rosemary Laing, Lynne Roberts Goodwin, Prudence Murphy, Gabriele Orozco, Izabela Pluta, Allora and Calzadilla, Debra Phillips, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, Bill Sullivan, Phillip Lorca Dicorcia, Kohei Yoshiyuki, Tom Bowditch, Michael Wolf, The Bechers, Andreas Gursky, Sarah Moska. These are twenty contemporary artists off the top of my head that may offer a different perspective on image making.

KB: Oh that’s great, I will certainly check them out (only know 6 of them!) thanks!
What about social networks, do you think they are diluting the art of photography, or are they actually creating more artists?

DM: I believe that social networks have always existed in various forms. The new technology is just that….new technology. As for the art of photography I feel that image saturation and its pervasive nature (I think this may be what you are touching on) makes art even more precious especially photography. A good book to read that explores these concerns is Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before by Michael Fried.

KB: Ah, I think I may have seen that quoted around. Ok, thanks again, I will order that straight away! To carry on from the previous question, are social networks the death of photography, or a kind of rebirth? Or have they simply created a new branch of photography, or better, a new kind of photographer (or photography user)? 

DM: I guess they have further democratized the photographer. Everyone with a mobile can make an image and I guess it’s a similar renaissance as the Box Brownie was or the Polaroid.



Born and lives in Sydney, Australia. David Manley studied at the College of Fine Arts (COFA) UNSW, majoring in Photo-media and graduating in 2012 with 1st Class Honours and the Dean’s Award for Academic Excellence. Manley was a finalist in the 2011, 2013 and 2015 Bowness Photography Prize and the 2014 Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Photography Award. In 2012 he was a winner of the coveted Head On Photographic Portrait Prize. Solo and group exhibitions include Black Eye Contemporary Photography Space, Darlinghurst, The Australian Centre for Photography, Paddington, Griffith University Art Gallery, Brisbane, Customs House, Sydney, QUAD Gallery Derby, United Kingdom, Ulsan Cultural Arts Centre, Ulsan, South Korea, FORM Gallery at Midland Atelier Fremantle, Western Australia, Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, Perth, Monash Gallery of Art, Melbourne, Blender Gallery, Paddington and Perspektiva at COFA Space/UNSW, Paddington. Manley was also one of sixteen Australian artists selected for the publication Hijacked III Contemporary Photography from Australia and the UK which was published in 2012. In June 2014 Manley attended the Ulsan International Photography Festival in Ulsan, South Korea as an Australian representative artist. David Manley has recently completed a Masters of Fine Arts achieving 1st Class Honours and is currently a PhD Candidate at the University of New South Wales Art and Design. (2016). DAVID MANLEY. [online] Available at: [Accessed 23 Sep. 2016].





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