Harry Culy: Mirror City

Mirror City is Harry Culy’s ‘gothic love letter’ to his hometown Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington. Returning after several years living abroad, Culy found the city strange and alien. The project is an attempt to come to terms with this ‘new’ environment, reconcile his memories with his current experiences, and speak to a broader, collective state of being and anxiety shared by the young people who live, work and face an uncertain future here. Everything and everyone feels haunted, dislocated and melancholic.

Mirror City is a shadow or dream world, one step removed from the ‘real’. It unfolds through open-ended associations and connections established within single photographs and then played out across the larger series. There is no chronology or singular narrative. Culy roams across photographic genres and modes, taking in portraiture, landscape, still-life, documentary, the directorial and street photography, and then fuses these with a raft of filmic and literary devices and references. The entire project is, in many ways, a quest or search for the intangible—something felt or experienced rather than seen. All of these images are shot on black and white film with a 4 x 5 inch field camera, and then printed in the dark room. Where such photographs are often read for their ‘truth’ or ‘historical’ value, Culy turns them into a space for fiction, imaginative play and speculation. He strips the world of its colour and slows it down to a standstill to reveal deeper possibilities.

This laundromat is one of only a few sites that appear in Mirror City. These ‘real’ places that Culy encountered as he wandered the streets are presented as anonymous and desolate non-spaces that seem indifferent or even hostile to the humans they share space with. Boarded up doorways, interiors viewed through windows, fences and parking lots seem to block any hope of passage or movement, both physically and symbolically. 

Here, Culy unusually takes us indoors. He focuses on the crude trope-l’oeil painting on the laundromat’s back wall that depicts a landscape seen through open windows. It was presumably painted to offer an escape from the drudgery of day-to-day urban existence, but finds itself half-covered by a clothes rack, bisected by electrical cords, watched by a security camera, and dependent on a cooling fan for any breeze. There is no escape here. Culy instead lets us see the humour, pathos and even beauty held within these contradictions. His photographs function in the opposite way to this painting. They offer us a dark, lyrical mirror to our world rather than a window to somewhere else.