4a Industrial Zone Brothels

Published:  August 24, 2012
Heath Killen
4a Industrial Zone Brothels

4a Industrial Zone Brothels is a new series of photographic works by creative director and artist Christopher Holt. The series features photographs of legal brothels in the industrial areas of Sydney & Melbourne, and has recently been shortlisted for the prestigious William and Winifred Bowness Photography Prize. As a finalist, Holt’s work wil go on display at the Monash Gallery of Art (MGA) in Melbourne from October 4th 2012. According to MGA Gallery Director, Shaun Lakin, the finalists in this prize “represent the best in contemporary Australian photography”.

I spoke with Holt about the project, how his photographic projects overlap with his design practice, and why he is so interested in the forgotten, neglected, makeshift, and often maligned places in our neighbourhoods.

How did you come to choose the subject and select the individual buildings for this project?
My first significant project involved photographing makeshift islamic prayer rooms in and around London. I was fascinated with how different cultures were adapting spaces in their adopted country. The photographs were devoid of people, a conscious decision to allow the viewer to engage with the narrative through the architecture and interior elements. This project set the tone for what I wanted to do in Australia as an artist. The 4a Industrial Zone Brothels project essentially started whilst I was working on a landscape project. I was taken by a seductively glowing neon sign in a heavy industrial area. The contrast was immediately apparent and appealing, it was only later through research did I discover the NSW governments answer to the decriminalisation of prostitution was to allow brothels to operate legally in an area called the ‘4a Industrial Zone’.

I downloaded a PDF of all legalised brothels and set about mapping and photographing all of them. Like all work in series some are more successful as images in conveying the idea than others and I edit rigorously.

In what ways were you able to apply your design skills to photography? Where did you find overlaps between the disciplines?
I have to admit it took me years to understand how to photograph my ideas successfully. I took a great deal of experience with geometry and composition from my design background however I had a lot to learn technically. I find a great overlap in the ability to realise the projects myself, in the case of the artists books my design background is essential. It’s satisfying to have control over this side of the process. On the other side the photography knowledge helps a great deal art directing photographers and realising commercial projects.

You’ve mentioned Ed Ruscha when talking about the project. Ed’s paintings frequently use urban graphics and typography in their compositions, and you’ve chosen subject matter that similarly features signage and graphic elements. Is there a desire to encourage audiences to view graphic design (particularly of the urban, everyday kind) in the context of art, or is this material simply the byproduct of the interests and world-view of a designer?
I was influenced by Ed Ruscha’s artists books not so much his painting studies. He essentially validated the book as art object. There was a sense of rawness and energy in the production of these. Ideas could be realised for a low cost and in multiples making the work available to a wider audience, rejecting the rarefied gallery environment. The vernacular typography, as a graphic designer who works with typography everyday is certainly of interest and in the context of the brothels adds to the narrative. However, photography for me has a very different purpose and objective from my commercial graphic design voice.

How do you approach the design of your art books?
I have studied many books from mostly German publishers! The book design is very formal in it’s approach, the geometry of the page is carefully constructed in order to create sympathetic proportions for the typography and photography. The book cloth, weight of the cover board and spine board, end papers and various text stocks are all carefully considered. As mentioned early I am somewhat ruthless when it comes to editing and the book structure is always on my mind for the presentation of the photographs.

Much of your photographic work explores the fringes of the city and the suburbs. What is it that fascinates you about these places?
I find it’s where the extremes can be found. It’s the extreme contrasts that I find fascinating. People are creative, making things out of necessity with what is available. This is also the fascination with vernacular typography. In the case of the brothels they are forced by law to operate in these environments that are essentially created for a very different use. In their own way, the brothels are soft and approachable in their use of colour and language which is in contrast to the surrounding landscape. Similarly, the makeshift mosques were very creative in the way unusual spaces were adapted through the need to practice their faith. I have largely avoided portraits as I am endlessly fascinated by how and what people make and how they interact and interpret the landscape.

I think we’re all familiar with buildings like these from the city edges – and you’ve captured a certain aura of emptiness and sadness around them. Was this your intention? What were you trying to reveal about the buildings and businesses themselves?
The great thing about art is its subjectiveness. I personally find the narrative of these places fascinating, the seductive colours, the contrasting landscape. However there is a difficulty to them, in the fact that we know the function of the building and what it represents.

The absence of people and activity in the photos allows us to focus on the buildings – which day to day, most people would ignore. I’m interested to know then what you’ve taken away from the images yourself, and what effect the images (and experience of taking them) has had on you?
The absence of people and activity is a very considered approach. I always find people overpowering in images. I want to focus on the details and what they convey. Stills photography for me is a very contemplative, solitary pursuit. The large format is very laborious which allows time to not only compose and consider, however, absorbed a location too. I felt nervous when I first began shooting. There are obvious sensitivities for the people who work in the brothels and the people who frequent them. I hope the images capture this sense of unease.

Christopher Holt’s art books are available to purchase here.

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