Dystopia / Dean Sewell | Dean Sewell
Inferno is the best known section of Dante’s three-part epic, La Divina Commedia. It is a long poem - more than 14,000 lines, depending on the translation. Few make it through Purgatorio and on to Paradiso. So it is in life. So it seems in Dean Sewell’s Dystopia.
"You really have seen some awful places" the writer David Marr joked recently as he leafed through Sewell’s portfolio, pausing on the brute colour of his Hillsdale photographs. "But none more so than this place".
The joke, of course, is that Sewell grew up there - that this is his Paradiso, love-letter to the suburbia that raised him, and it looks like a beautiful hell. That is the strength of Sewell’s photography - the ability to wring beauty from horror. "Really?" Marr recanted. "They are wonderful pictures".
After the Black Saturday bushfires burnt out 173 lives, Sewell found Steel Creek in Picasso’s Blue Period. There, also, was the incredible resilience of man. Or at least his concrete ornaments. In one picture the Australian flag flies inverted over a flame-gutted house. It is not clear whether this is a distress signal or a show of wonk nationalism - or that there is much difference in Sewell’s mind anyway. Fire, for him, is visceral. What it leaves behind is interesting.
But in his colour studies, Sewell sails through his Purgatorio - "The little vessel of my genius now/ That leaves behind itself a sea so cruel". Shadows steal the head off a red coat. One woman’s hair is another man’s cardigan. The soothsayers, one imagines, walk backwards.
The hostile beauty of Australia, which informs so much of Sewell’s photography, becomes the disembodiment wrought by its cities - the absurdity of this land. That is what Sewell does. He revels in the Australian Ugliness. Never condescending, always sensitive, teasing out the sublime in what most judge to be awfulness.