Eva Collins : Photographs and Writing


by Eva Collins [The Age]
Senior Lecturer at VCA School of Photography

Chris Koller races against time. His speech is faster than the speed of sound; he probably sleeps standing up to get a head start in the morning. Is this to compensate for being held back as a child?

Nothing, apart from his mother’s love, was handed to him on a platter. Everything he has achieved was earned through hard work and by sharpening his survival skills.

His keen observations of the world started in 1946, when at the age of three Christopher contracted a serious bone disease in his foot. He spent the next 18 months in a hospital in his native England. He doesn’t remember the treatment, but he clearly remembers the austerity of the place. His mother was only allowed to visit him for one hour a week and the windows in the ward were always left open ‘to let the weather in’, no matter how cold it was outside. Following the rules was paramount in those days; paying attention to patients’ feelings was an indulgence.

Interestingly, his recent group exhibition at Melbourne’s Span Gallery addressed that period in his life. He recreated the hospital scenes and shot them through the lens of an old plastic camera, which slightly blurred the images, alluding to distant memories.

For his Master’s thesis, Christopher produced a video about instances of bizarre human behaviour. One of the pieces, shows a woman gulping down dry paper because it helped to settle her nerves. “I have always been fascinated by people’s aberrant behaviour,” says Christopher. And one wonders whether that fascination started in the days when Christopher lay in a cold metal bed standing on a fastidiously polished linoleum floor in the well- aired institution.
“Studying people’s unique traits is like going on a trip,” he says. There is an element of mystery which draws him in. That’s why he doesn’t have a ‘Signature’ style to his art. “I constantly switch my approach because I like to be challenged to do new things and to be unpredictable. It excites me not to know what the end is going to be”.

The family arrived in Australia in 1952, traveling on a leaky boat that had serious engine trouble throughout the trip. This culminated in a fire and evacuation in Columbo. Upon its return to England, the ship was promptly scrapped.

After living in numerous migrant hostels, Christopher’s family settled in outer suburban Park Orchards. Life was so uninspiring there that Christopher dropped out of school in Year 10 and began an apprenticeship in Screen Printing. He found this to be repetitive and boring and could not wait to complete trade school and leave.

And leave he did. For the next 10 years he traveled, hitchhiked and sailed ‘up the Nile and down the Amazon’. He went overland from UK to India, and covered North and South America, North Africa, Europe and Japan. He took photos everywhere, but it was in Japan that he started ‘ to build his images conceptually” by setting them up with models and props. “There is something very personal in doing this, as the composition and the theme is so specifically your own,” he says, then adds after further thought, “ I like it when the photograph resembles a movie. You’re overwhelmed and don’t understand it straight away, but gradually the image reveals itself as you pick up the clues. It’s a process of discovery.”

Films permeate his work. His favourite film makers are Tarkovsky and Antonioni. “I don’t really understand what they’re about, but I keep going back to them ,” he muses.

He reads extensively about the artists he likes in order to understand what motivates them. “I then take what I find interesting and rework in into my own work. Nearly all of my ‘Milano’ series (of photographs) was driven by Antonioni’s films – the space, the emotions, the images and the secret violence.”

Among Christopher’s favorite photographers is Robert Frank. Unlike Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose graphic design he finds cold and devoid of emotion, Frank, he feels, manages to have both the graphic composition as well as emotion and poetry. “It’s not enough to put the camera in front of something and take a picture,” he says,” There has to be a greater conceptual framework underpinning the images.”

When he finally returned to Australia, he entered Victoria College Prahran where he studied under John Cato, Paul Cox and Athol Shmith. Eleven years after graduating, he applied for the job of the Head of School, at the time of John Cato’s retirement. Though warned of the odds against him as the other candidates were far more academically qualified, he won the job because of his enthusiasm, his large body of work, and the numerous international exhibitions he had held.

The basis on which he accepts students to VCA Photography is the same as the basis on which he applied so long ago to head the school - a display of passion and curiosity for the art.

The kernel of his philosophy at VCA is to encourage students to follow ‘their own voice’.

“I don’t believe in gurus, I don’t believe that there is this one person who knows it all and passes his so called wisdom on to his disciples. I don’t want clones of myself; I want students to follow their own path.” He tries to find out what excites them and then guides them as to how to best achieve their aims. He also stresses the importance of self discipline and self confidence. “ It is easy for artists to lose focus once they had finished their studies and their school is no longer there to provide support and direction. It is essential that they continue with their work after completing their studies. Artists need to make art. I know that if I didn’t do it, I’d be difficult to live with ”.

Technique is not something that is stressed at the school. It is something that should be utilized to materialize the concept. “I’ve seen wonderful 5 x 4 shots about nothing. Technique can be overrated,” he says. “You either learn the technique as a means to an end or you employ people who are experts in the field to carry out your ideas. I don’t believe students need to know everything. I don’t print my own colour work, I send it to the lab. A lot of art is about directing [others]. You can’t learn ideas, they are your own, but you can learn how to delegate work to others to execute them.”

VCA differs from other photography schools in Melbourne in that it is an art school where students are closely surrounded by a variety of art disciplines, including sculpture, painting, ceramics, print making, dance, drama and film making. In addition to these, Christopher feels that each of his staff members (Janina Green and Louise Hubbard) ‘has a very different approach to making art’, and provide diverse view points. This he believes broadens the students’ horizons. In keeping with the spirit of the school, he works to ensure that the VCA Photography Department does not have a ‘House Style’.

There is a Helmut Newton saying that he often quotes in class: “If you rest, you rust”.

A cautionary warning ?

Christopher Koller will be in a group exhibition at Gallery 101 at 101 Collins Street, Melbourne which opens on the 16th of April and will run till the 14th of May.

He is represented by M33’s Helen Frajman.