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From Russia With Love

A stopped watch means that I almost miss my chance to speak to acclaimed Melbourne photographer and gallery owner Matt Irwin. Thankfully a timely reminder is sent through by his PR lady and I jump to my phone and start dialing. A slightly long-winded apology later, Irwin and I have relaxed into the steady flow of a conversation, with formal niceties by-passed and his impending exhibition From Russia With Love as the central focus of our conversation.

With his business now in its 21st year, this year marks 3 years since his gallery Matt Irwin Photography (on Flinders Lane) opened - with this solo show his debut in his newest space. Before we start discussing the finer details of From Russia With Love, Irwin takes the chance to introduce his space, "I don't know if you have been to the space, but upstairs, when I say upstairs I mean the ground floor, is more of a retail sort of space and then downstairs is where we have experimented with all sorts of different things. We have done plays as part of the fringe festival, we've had events there, and we've done training there. It is also an extension of the retail space upstairs, we've had various artists' exhibitions and now mine so, it is the first themed one but there has been my work there in various shapes and sizes the whole time we have been there. I suppose I am largely known for the Melbourne stuff, that is what I do and have been doing for the past 21 years."

 

With his work having been omnipresent since the space opened, Irwin realises how he is thought of within the profession. Rather than further raising his profile in the area he is already celebrated, he saw this solo exhibition as an opportunity to demonstrate a different angle to his work. He continues, "This was partly about showing a different side of my work that was more photo-journalistic. It has a lot more people in it that you see in my other work. I also felt that the images were really timeless and interesting. We were work shopping the ideas and we came up with the From Russia With Love theme and it all just sort of came together, if that makes sense?"

 

Having travelled the world as a photographer, Irwin has within his portfolio series of images from nearly every continent of the world. However, with his current exhibition focusing on Russia, the conversation moves onto how he approaches a trip and what he hopes to capture in an image. "For me, I get excited about juxtaposition, about people about showing the rawness of life and existence, which Russia was fantastic for. I like to see opulence next to poverty as it tells such a great story."

 

With his description of Russia already aligning with expectations of the vast Eastern European land, it has to be asked whether he approaches each country with expectations, and if so, whether they alter his approach to capturing the essence of a nation within an image. After a little contemplation, he responds, "I definitely travel with my eyes open. I try not to go with an expectation artistically. I might go with a personal expectation that it might very cold or very unsafe, those sorts of things, but I learnt pretty quickly as I went off on lots of adventures around the world that countries were often not what you expected them to be. They presented different things. I am there looking for the cues, for things that say this is Russia or this is Mongolia or London. The things that make it unique."

 

Though Irwin tries to approach each destination with an open mind, with his goal to capture the essence of a culture as he sees and understands it, it is hard to escape pre-determined notions. When asked to describe Russia as he saw it, he veers to the personal as opposed to the artistic, as he explains, "It wasn't what I expected. When I grew up in the 80s and the 90s, it was the iron curtain and the end of the iron curtain. The threat of nuclear war was very strong and the Russians were very much illustrated as very hard. That was when I was a teenager. Then to go there are meet the people and stay with the people, to get drunk on vodka with the people and have a really beautiful experience, I found that it was a very warm place and they were very much like us. They experience the same highs and lows." With his own expectations redefined, it is clear that Irwin hopes his own images have captured the heart and soul of Russian life and in their own way, may help to alter the perceptions of others.

 

From Russia With Love is on display at the Matt Irwin Gallery from Thursday 11 August until Thursday 26 August. For more details visit mattirwin.com.au.

BY DAVID HUNTER