News from the Sun: Justine Varga

It is not enough for me just to gaze onto the world.

—Justine Varga[1]

Justine Varga’s use of the latticed window takes us back, right back to the origins of photography, and back to her own recent past—the controversy surrounding her winning the Olive Cotton Award for Photographic Portraiture in 2017. Her winning work, Maternal Line (2017), is a portrait of Varga’s grandmother, in which she never simply ‘appears’. Her presence is instead embodied within the photograph and through the photographic process, starting with a series of inscriptions she made onto the negative with pen and saliva. Maternal Line was called an imposter, neither a portrait (it did not hold a ‘likeness’) nor a photograph (it is a cameraless exposure). Called on to defend the decision and the work, Varga and judge Shaune Lakin characterised its exchange between artist and subject as far more intimate and profound than any simple likeness could capture. The long history of photography made without a camera was also patiently explained, and its resurgence in contemporary practice tracked. But, they were fighting a vehement tide of popular and professional opinion about what photography is and should do. Varga argued that her photographs, and the medium in general, can easily become ‘a victim to blindness’, a blindness caused by ‘the way the majority of us view photographs as “windows onto another place”’[2].

Varga’s follow-up series Areola (2018) features multiple images of a window, and includes photographs made both with and without a camera. It traverses a range of photographic practices, histories, and possibilities to complicate the experience of the photograph. It is less a continuation of the defence, than a manifesto for an expanded sense of photography—‘photography in the round’, she calls it.[3] Refusing to be victim to this blindness again, these photographs defiantly mark out their own territory.

Varga turns less towards the window than against it—especially the idea of photography it has come to embody. The window was one of photography’s first subjects and key to the experiments of the medium’s inventors such as Henry Fox Talbot. Then, it served an obvious practical purpose, providing sufficient light for exposures to be made. Now, it has come to symbolise an idea of photographic vision that binds the medium to realist modes of representation: to what we see, the here and now, and the moment—whether decisive or not.

Varga’s window is put under different pressures. Her four Lattice works originate from a single negative, featuring a curtained window in Varga’s London flat. Lattice #1 is brooding and dark, except for a soft glow emanating from the other side of the window and the slither of light easing its way through a slit between the curtains. But the photograph quickly jolts us away from reading it as image. Light radiates across and envelops the entire print. Extending beyond the edges of the image, it reveals the depicted light source to be an illusion—the product of something else. Attention shifts from the window to the heavy black border framing the image (while also throwing it off-centre pictorially and symbolically).

This border is made as light passed through the negative in the enlarger onto the photographic paper. All the works in Areola bear this imprint, sometimes accompanied by traces of the tape or of the fingertips of the artist that held things in place through the process. Enlargers are conventionally used to patrol the edges of the image, crop out anything extraneous, and hold the light within it. But Varga lets light spill across the entire print to reveal something other than image—the photographic apparatus and process that produces it. Light becomes an element contested between image and object, process and outcome—a way to make an image and also potentially to destroy it.

Each Lattice work is an iteration. The same negative-image passes through different stages or states—constantly becoming something other, and always foregrounding the processes of its own making. The image and the symbolism of the window recedes, transforms, and disappears under the various manipulations it is subject to. Varga employs repetition to break down rather than assert the primacy of the image, along with the codes of representation that fix it and the histories that privilege it.

These manipulations all play out on the surface of the photographic print, which is affirmed as the primary site of encounter between artist, work, and audience—not simply an image through which we see the world. ‘The window’ becomes a concrete element rather than a metaphor. It is also one of a number of architectures embedded within Varga’s photographs, which chart the physical spaces they and she have passed through in the course of their making. These architectures include domestic and studio spaces (windows, doors, hallways), the body of the camera, the frame of the enlarger, the physical frame that houses the print, and the gallery it is exhibited in and into which it often bleeds through installation elements. All attest to the concrete yet contingent relationships her photographs have with the physical world on this side of the window.

The other bodies of work in Areola are cameraless exposures that don’t take the image as their starting point, but also move through different states to explore a hybrid space somewhere between image and object. The three iterations of Leafing started as an exposed 4 x 5 negative. Varga imprinted her ink-and-pigment-smeared palm onto the negative to make Leafing #1. The negative was then inverted and reversed to become Leafing #2. The third iteration, Leafing #3, combines the two earlier states; its holographic glow a product of the superimposition process. A similar haptic process propels the Inscribing series. For Inscribing #1, Varga worked directly onto an exposed negative. She rubbed saliva into that negative to make Inscribing #2, and flooded this second state with light through a lengthy exposure process for Inscribing #3. All are hand printed as large-format photographs, the largest determined by the maximum dimension of the photographic paper Varga works with and the scale of the human body.

Varga shifts the photograph through various material and symbolic states. She often starts with—but violates—the negative, the cherished centre of the conventional photographic process. Her negatives are overexposed, touched, marked, smeared, spat on, scratched, used, and reused in order to become a site of real transaction with their maker and the world. The world is directly inscribed into the negative, rather than simply having its likeness captured on its surface.

Ideas of photographic time, closely bound to the negative, are similarly defied. Rather than capturing some ‘decisive moment’, Varga’s photographs manifest the time-based and time-bound actions of their own making. Her use of extended exposures pushes the conventional single take into an accumulation of minutes, hours, days, even months (the negative for an earlier work Desklamp (2011–12) was exposed for over a year). Further, her reworking and overlaying of negatives collapse different moments into what appears to be a singular photograph, but is always multiple and multiplying. Time is treated as a malleable, physical force operating on and present within the photograph—stretched, compressed, or suspended within or between works.

Varga makes visible elements that are normally hidden when we look at a photograph—often in the services of image making. Her strategy expands outwards to expose the even more insidious gendered and cultural ideologies sitting behind assumptions about the nature of photography. She sheds and undercuts the authority traditionally claimed by the photographer as the detached eye standing behind ‘his’ apparatus, totally in control of the process and of the world on the other side of the viewfinder. Her own position shifts, but is always embodied and subjective. At times, she is behind the camera, but always subject to the workings of the apparatus and the process—welcoming chance effects and mistakes. At other times (and at the same time), her body and actions are inscribed within the photographs—but never as the passive female subject of art history who is there to be looked at. Varga’s photographs never claim mastery over the world or the process. They present themselves as contingent upon and produced through tangled exchanges with physical, technological, historical, and ideological forces—a world that cannot simply be seen to exist on the other side of the window.

Each of these transgressions of the ‘photographic’ push Varga’s work towards other media. Where earlier work explored photography’s sculptural potential, Areola makes a direct pact with painting. Varga blurs and contests the boundaries between two mediums that were once both formulated around the window metaphor, but which have diverged as painting found ways to move beyond representation. Varga’s transformation of small negatives into immersive colour fields that use gestural marks and traces of physical actions to index their own making is more than simply a painterly effect. It is a strategic intervention into the territory of painting to extend photography’s agency.

Varga’s method of working directly onto the negative is also a form of drawing (she won the Dobell Drawing Prize with a photograph in 2019). Performance and conceptual modes are also invoked in the ways her photographs reveal their dependence on the direct actions of the body, physicality, labour, duration, endurance, and the apparatus. Varga puts those other media into the service of photography, while offering a few challenges in return. To various degrees, each of these art forms calls on photography to document its own events and actions, to provide ‘a window’ onto something more substantial happening on the other side of the lens. Varga uses other media to contest photography’s boundaries from within, and to shift how it is seen from the outside.

Areola establishes ‘a genealogy of photographs’.[4] These photographs share a familial relationship, existing as different stages or states of one another, products of shared histories and experiences. The artist connects with the works in similar ways; she shares her DNA with them. They are ‘complex autobiographical objects’.[5] The genealogical dimension of Areola also embraces that earlier exchange between artist and subject/granddaughter and grandmother in Maternal Line. Varga’s grandmother remains a presence felt rather than seen in Areola, and in all of Varga’s work. One of two negatives used in Overlay was taken inside the hallway of her Sydney home, where Varga was living at the time and where Maternal Line was made.

Varga’s photographs map multiple genealogies. One returns us to Fox Talbot standing in front of his bay window at Laycock Abbey in 1835, as Varga faced the window of her flat in 2017. The line she draws back to Fox Talbot also projects him forward. Inscribed on some of the first photographic negatives, his famous windows now look and act differently. They become deliberate acts of art making, rather than just a technical achievement enabling the ‘capture’ of the world by this thing we have come to call photography.

Published in News from the Sun (Wellington: City Gallery Wellington and Bad News Books, 2020), 7-10.

[1] Justine Varga, artist talk, City Gallery Wellington, 15 November 2019.

[2] Justine Varga, ‘Maternal Line’, Photomonitor, Varga and Lakin discuss the photograph and controversy in ‘The Maternal Line: Justine Varga’, Artlink,

[3] Justine Varga, artist talk, City Gallery Wellington, 15 November 2019.

[4] Justine Varga, artist talk, City Gallery Wellington, 15 November 2019.

[5] Shaune Lakin, ‘The Maternal Line: Justine Varga’, Artlink,