Tamara Dean is best known for her evocative photographs that capture figures immersed in the landscape. Often shot in low light, the scenes are haunting and intriguing, with figures engaged in ambiguous rituals. From scenes that resemble contemporary baptisms and pietas, to poetic depictions of teenage rites of passage, Dean’s images tell stories of connection, experimentation, vulnerability and transformation. Her latest series, About Face: “Are you a boy or a girl?”, is somewhat of a departure from this play between body and landscape. In an exclusive pop-up exhibition, Dean will present a never-before-seen series of portraits of androgynous youths photographed in time-worn interiors. Her masterful lighting recalls old Dutch Master paintings by Vermeer and Rembrandt, creating a sense of timelessness and universality. We chatted to Dean in the lead up to this exciting launch.

Your latest series, About Face: “Are you a boy or a girl?”, sees you move away from depictions of people in nature to scenes set in interior spaces. What led to this change in setting, and what effect does this change have on your process? 

The starting point for almost all of my works, be they interiors or exteriors, is portraiture. This is the space in which I get to know my subjects and begin to explore and discover their individual characteristics and nuances.

I tend to balance each series with a mixture of interiors and exteriors depending on what I am trying to communicate. In this series I particularly wanted the focus to be on the face, with minimal distraction. About Face is an intimate and personal body of work, which is why I have erred towards interiors.

Grace (detail), from the series About Face: “Are you a boy or a girl?”

Luca and Aki (detail), from the series About Face: “Are you a boy or a girl?”

Can you talk us through your process in creating these images?

I wanted to set these portraits in spaces that signalled decay. The peeling wallpaper and old faded paint symbolising time having passed. In my early work I used to find abandoned old buildings in which to stage my photographs. Accessibility to these buildings and spaces is a lot more difficult to find today in inner-city Sydney.

I made contact with Bresic Whitney to see if they might support this series by allowing me access to their properties. They very generously lent me the use of houses which were in the process of being sold and this was integral to being able to provide a safe and private space for the people I was photographing.

In previous works, particularly your recent series The Edge (2014) and Only Human (2011), the figures appear to be allegorical rather than individual. It’s as if they stand in for communal stories and shared human experience. In these new works, the focus is more on the individual. What attracted you to create portraits of these particular people?

The interesting thing for me about androgyny is what it reveals not only about the subject, but about the viewer. When you see someone who appears androgynous you are called on to challenge your ingrained notions around gender. The questions that often arise – “Are you a boy or a girl?”, or “are you a man or a woman?” – suggest that the way you may relate to that person is based on learned behaviour and cultural prejudices.

For me these portraits represent a united sense of humanity without a gender divide. They are symbolic of being simply human. There is something incredibly captivating and beautiful in androgyny which I wanted to portray in this series.

Centre of the Universe (detail), 2011,  from the series Only Human

By Feel (detail), 2013, from the series The Edge 

The first showing of About Face will be in a non-traditional setting. How do you feel about showing your work outside of the gallery, and how do you think it will impact upon the way the work is received and interpreted?

I love exhibiting within the gallery but I also find it exciting to exhibit in non-traditional spaces. I am inviting the audience to experience the work on a number of levels. To enter a space which is reflective of the locations in which I made the portraits and to feel a sense of domestic history within the walls. To smell the scents and engage with the works in a personal way. And to be introduced to my subjects as both portraits and as individuals.

In a gallery setting, photographs are traditionally framed behind glass, but this series will be presented without glass. What effect does this have, and why have you chosen this method of presentation for this series in particular?

I print on a beautiful cotton rag paper which has an almost painterly quality.

The surface of the print is important in terms of the way I would like people to experience the works. Each portrait will have the scent/perfume worn by the individual in the photograph sprayed on their neck (directly onto the photograph) encouraging the viewer to lean in closely and engage intimately with the works, using both sight and scent to discover the portrait.

Early last year you created Here and Now, an immersive installation that combined photography, architectural intervention and scent. How do you see the connection between the installation, photography and painting strands of your practice moving forward?

Here and Now was a pivotal work for me. I have always created photographs that almost invited the viewer into the mise-en-scène. Here I am actually inviting the viewer to be a participant, to enter the spaces in which I am setting the works so that they can be experienced on multiple levels. Scent is an element which I see myself employing in much of my work going forward.

Here and NowHere and Now, 2015

About Face: “Are you a boy or a girl?” will be a one-night-only exhibition on Thursday 5 May, 2016. Join Contemporaries to receive your invitation to this exclusive event.

Tamara Dean is represented by Martin Browne Contemporary. Limited edition works will be available for purchase on the night through the gallery.

All images courtesy the artist.