Tamara Dean (b. 1976, Sydney, Australia) is a photographic artist based in Australia whose works explore the informal rites of passage and rituals of young people set within the natural world.
Dean studied Studio Art at the College of Fine Arts before completing her BA in Design at the University of Western Sydney, and is currently engaged in her MFA at the National Art School. Her solo shows include Ritualism, Divine Rites, This too Shall Pass and Only Human.
Dean has received numerous awards including the Olive Cotton Award and Sydney Life: Art & About.
Dean’s works have been widely exhibited both nationally and internationally. Her work has featured in the Fotofever Brussels Art Fair, 2012 and Pingyao Photography Festival, China, 2012 as well as at leading Australian galleries including Inheritance 2009 and Hijacked 2 – New Australian & German Photography 2010, both at the Australian Centre for Photography; Sydney Now – New Australian Photojournalism, Museum of Sydney 2007; Terra Australis Incognita at Monash Gallery of Art.
Dean has been awarded artist residencies with ArtOmi, New York State (2013), and previously Taronga Zoo, Montsalvat and repeatedly in the remote gold-mining town of Hill End, NSW.
For a decade Dean was a member of Oculi photographic collective and is a photographer at the Sydney Morning Herald.
Dean’s work is held in a number of public and private collections including Artbank and is represented by Olsen Irwin Gallery Sydney.
Tamara Dean: The Edge
By Gregory Volk
You might think that Tamara Dean’s enthralling photograph The Tunnels of Canaan refers to the ancient Near East land of the Bible, but in fact the setting is Canaan, New York, a small, rural town that features two old, natural rock railroad tunnels cut through a mountain. In Dean’s exquisite composition, five young adults are arrayed around the tunnel’s dark entrance: an entwined couple sitting on the ground, with the man smoking a cigarette; a woman and a man scouring the train tracks for something significant; a shirtless man emerging from the dense, green foliage. Burgeoning trees envelop the rocky tunnel, which connotes mystery and adventure, exhilaration and dread. Immersed in and affected by this special place, everyone seems intent, contemplative, and also curiously vulnerable—not at all boisterous young people on a lark. Whether consciously or not, they are participants in a collective ritual that you can’t quite pin down, an informal rite of passage and discovery unstuck from any religion or creed, but linked to such rites reaching way back into history. Gaping Maw, taken at the same site, is also a ritual of sorts. It shows a woman and a man entering the tunnel, their bodies leaning slightly forward in a perfect mix of anticipation and trepidation. They are crossing a threshold into the railroad tunnel, but also, more implicitly, into an uncertain future with its possible marvels, challenges, and travails.
The photographs in The Edge were taken in Australia, Dean’s home country, and in upstate New York, when she was a 2013 resident at the Art Omi International Artists Residency. Throughout, nature is much more than a mere setting. Instead, it is a cathartic and transformative force¬, and the remarkable thing is how routine and familiar outdoor experiences—young people frolicking at a lake, walking through a green field, exploring caves and rock walls, huddled around fires, entering the woods on a path—morph into ad hoc rituals and rites of transition during which bodies are tested and minds get altered and extended. In Ebenezer Rock Drop (an Australian site), two young women and four young men are clustered at the edge of a lake, with one of the men (he looks especially anxious) poised to soar over the lake on a rope attached to a tree, in order to plummet and plunge. Although together, each of these young people, at the verge of adulthood, seems strikingly alone, wrapped up in her or his own psyche, while casual rope swinging and plunging also evokes leaping into the unknown, with a loss of safety and control. In The Creek (an American site) four young women are solemn, purposeful explorers, moving through a luminous, green landscape that seems hallucinatory and otherworldly. A simple nature excursion becomes a mysterious, communal quest.
Dean has a spectacular way with colors, tones, textures, and light, and her photographs are vivid and lush. You are always aware of how composed, arranged, ultra crafted, and frankly cinematic these images are, yet they are also exceptionally painterly, with echoes of exalted and sublime 19th-century landscape painting as practiced in Australia and elsewhere. As she explores the homemade rituals, rites, and search for meaning of young people on their own, in nature, Dean offers a 21st-century, highly mediated, nature-based sublime involving wonderment, palpable fear, heightened consciousness, and decisive transformation. In the photograph titled The Edge, an 18-year-old boy with closed eyes seems lost in deep thought as he stands beneath a waterfall. He is at the cusp between boyhood and manhood, known and unknown, and this atmospheric waterfall seems downright baptismal, ushering him into the next complex stage of his life.
Gregory Volk is a New York based art critic and freeland curator who contributes regularly to Art in America magazine.