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Simon Obarzanek

In Simon Obarzanek’s 80 Faces he displays a penchant for a detached type of collecting. Over the past three years he has amassed an archive of over one thousand faces, all full frontal head and shoulders portraits taken against a neutral background. Slightly disconcertingly, he coolly describes his compulsive hunting around for faces; he has no interest, he says, in the character traits of the subject he shoots.

The photographs are all taken outdoors. The sitters, are all aged between 14 ­- 17 years, the majority from Victorian state schools, others in congested areas such as train stations, concerts, agricultural shows and shopping centres. Obarzanek spends five minutes with each subject, and generally does not know anything about him or her. Yet, as anonymous and general as the photographs may be, each of his faces is unique. In displaying them as a group, in a grid or in a straight line, paradoxically it is individuality, not sameness that emerges.

Obarzanek is a formalist. His interest in each sitter lies in recording, compiling and ultimately re-presenting the face at its most basic, as a shape, a uniform series of elements that don't come in any standard format, almost an abstraction. Parallels can be drawn between 80 Faces and the work of photographers including August Sander, Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Bettina Rheims, Thomas Ruff and Chuck Close. Each of these made a series of portraits of anonymous sitters (or sitters identified only by their first names), using a standard format, which have challenged fundamental historical presumptions about the ability of photography to reveal personal or individual truth in a single image.

Excerpts from an essay by Magda Keaney, for the exhibition catalogue Contemporary Australian Portraits held at the National Portrait Gallery at Commonwealth Place, Canberra, 2003.