Exhibition review: Leave Only Footprints, Tamara Dean

A survey of the photographic artist that spans over two decades of her practice.

Tamara Dean originally worked as a photojournalist for The Sydney Morning Herald, before exhibitions like Leave Only Footprints (Monash Gallery of Art, MGA), but quite a number of her photographs have that vulnerable, Pre-Raphaelite quality of a Renaissance painting, or even a photograph by the gritty poet of the canvas, Bill Henson.

Many of the figures in the exhibition aren’t figurative though. Instead they focus on the natural world. Dean says, ‘I create symbolically charged works that aim to bridge the separateness that we humans create in our minds between ourselves and nature.’ This is true of Endangered, a series of works that was the result of an educational weekend on Heron Island, funded by the Climate Council. Dean fought her fear of the ocean to take some beautiful shots, which act as a counterpoint to the action pictures of nude or semi-clad swimmers in an image like Ebenezer Rock Drop from the series The Edge. 

Some of the exhibition’s most beautiful natural photos are taken closer to home. High Jinks in the Hydrangeas shows the intense beauty of found landscapes close to the artist’s home in regional New South Wales. The close-up of the hydrangeas, alive with its dusky mauve petals framing a figure in a mauve dress, is particularly lovely. 

These photos also show how COVID forced artists like Dean to embrace creative limitations. The social distancing rules meant that she could not work with models and so was forced to turn to herself, her friends and her family as subject matter.

The video work Dysrhythmia has a score audible throughout the gallery space and contrasts the orange bushfire ash in the sky with a close-up of a model’s face and another fine silt of purple powder. Despite the powder-throwing incident reminding me of a similar incident with coloured powder and the Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, it’s a powerful work that shows how Dean’s home was transformed into a refuge. 

All the exhibitions at MGA contain thoughtful details, and the most thoughtful detail of Dean’s practice is the scent she has designed with scent designer Ainslie Walker. Originally created to accompany the installation Here and Now at the University of New South Wales, the scent has earthy notes that complement the stunning atmosphere created by the landscapes.

Read: Book review: Her Death Was Also Water, Allen C Jones

Leave Only Footprints has poise, character and human drama, as well as compassion for the natural world. Like an endangered species, it should be enjoyed, protected and loved while there’s still time. 

Leave Only Footprints, Tamara Dean
Monash Gallery of Art, Ferntree Gully Road, Wheelers Hill Victoria,

Curator: Anouska Phizacklea 

Leave Only Footprints will be on display until 19 February 2023.

Vanessa Francesca is a writer who has worked in independent theatre. Her work has appeared in The Age, The Australian and Meanjin