Hayley Millar Baker is a photographer, archive delver and image-maker.
But perhaps more than anything, she is a storyteller. The Melbourne-based artist is well-known for her surreal black and white compositions that brim with nostalgia and familial memories, conceptualised from the perspective of her Gunditjmara and cross-cultural heritage. Through the lens of her own analogue photos and those taken throughout history, Millar Baker seamlessly intertwines the past and present through meticulous digital editing processes, where images are placed and layered on top of each other, echoing the complex narratives she tells. I caught up with Millar Baker ahead of her solo exhibition There we were all were all in one place (opening at UTS on Tuesday 13th April) to discuss how she navigates the darkness in order to find the light.
Hey Hayley, how are you doing? I believe you’ve just touched down in Sydney for the opening of your new exhibition There we all were all in one place next week?
Hey Chloe! I’m good, I’m busy which is great after the year that was 2020. And that’s right, me and the whole fam—husband and two babies—just touched down in Sydney bright and early this morning. It’s been a while, Sydney, but I’m back!
The show brings together five different series of your photographs made between 2016 and 2019. This is a big moment for you—it’s the first time you’ve had an exhibition like this and your first solo in Sydney too. What has it been like to see it all come together?
I remember when the conversation started back in 2019 with UTS Gallery curator Stella Rosa McDonald, about bringing all of my work together for an early career survey exhibition. My reflex response was ‘Am I allowed to do that!?’ The short answer was, ‘Yes, we can do whatever we want!’ And so, There we were all in one place was conceived and it’s been such a great journey building the exhibition and accompanying catalogue and learning experience.
I’ve shown several of the series in Sydney on a few different occasions. A Series of Unwarranted Events was exhibited in the MCA Australia’s 2018 Primavera, Cook Book was exhibited in UNSW’s 2019 John Fries Award, and I’m the Captain Now in the 65th Blake Prize. But this is the first time ever, not just in Sydney, that all five bodies of my work have been brought together and exhibited in one place.
Going back to the beginning, what originally drew you to photography as a medium?
I think I was about eight when I got my first camera. It was a disposable camera my mum and dad gave me to take on my school camp. It didn’t have a flash, so everything was really dark, but I loved it. By the next school camp two years later when I was eleven, my parents got me my first automatic film camera. Then fast-forwarding to high school at fifteen, I got my first digital camera. Moving into university I invested in a beginner grade DSLR to shoot my subjects that I would go on to paint (I was a painting major). So, from that first disposable camera way back when, I’ve never been without a camera since.
I’m very hands heavy in my making processes, so I didn’t consider photography as a satisfying fit for me until I accidentally figured out how to handle the making of my photographs in a manner that reflected how I handled the making of my paintings.
Every image you make is informed by your Gunditjmara and cross-cultural heritage. You reauthor intergenerational histories, pulling archival photographs apart and bringing them back into newfound context. Some of these historic images were taken by your grandfather. Where were they originally taken, and was his interest in photography always known to you?
Growing up I never heard the end of how my mum was constantly forced to smile in photos for her dad on his shoots and that’s why now she hates taking photos. I’ve never actually seen the photos she was talking about though. To be fair I’ve seen many different takes of a Cornflakes ad he recruited his three daughters for, and you can tell by the umpteenth take none of them wanted to pretend to love Cornflakes anymore! So that’s more or less the origin story of how I knew Pa was a photographer.
The archives of his that were passed on to me were thanks to my Nan, and are taken from all over the world. Pa was in the Australia Air Force so there are collections from when they moved to Penang Malay, travels to Italy, studio portraiture, all over Victoria between Portland, Sale, and everywhere in between and beyond.
Working with both your analogue film photography and digital editing processes of existing images, your compositions hover somewhere between hypothetical histories and lived realities. Can you tell me a little bit of insight into your creative process?
My work is often caught between the idea of hypothetical histories and realities, but I actually make work concerned with constructs of memory… remembering and misremembering. I look at who the memory, experience, or story belongs to and see where I can take the narrative. Sometimes the narrative stays true to its original form, sometimes I heighten the memory, dramatise it, add some sugar, or I look at the story from a different perspective. My work is all about the story and memory and where I can take it, respectfully.
My process always starts with months of research. I try to fully inform myself from every side to be well across whatever story, and then it takes a million trial and errors until the visual clicks and the work just flows from there. The whole process of developing a new body of works takes upwards of a year from initial research to finished images. Oh yeah, and I shoot according to the story. So I travel a lot to get the shots I need on location.
Your practice also highlights the reparative potential of photography, particularly in your series I’m The Captain Now, where you directly take control and reclaim your family’s past. What’s the journey like from you selecting images to work with to then recontextualising them?
I’m the Captain Now is the first photographic series I made back in 2016. It’s one of my favourite bodies of work and that could have something to do with the fact that I had no idea what I was doing when I was making it, and because there was no end goal or seriousness about it, I was having fun with it. I didn’t take the photos in the works myself, so I wasn’t critical of the shots available. I had what I had developed and scanned from my Pa’s archive and I just sat down one day and started playing with them on Photoshop. I had a great time making those works. They are by no means beautifully crafted, and I think that’s another reason why I love them. They are so not perfect!
An image is never guaranteed a place in my work. I’ve learnt through trying to force images in that I love and it just not working despite me refusing to acknowledge that it won’t work. It all depends on what’s going to work and not fighting that process.
The series has an unnerving tension. Faceless shadows move behind closed doors, a small girl stands precariously atop the corrugated roof of a carport, snakes slither next to the tires of children’s bikes as they ride across a front lawn… I’m struck by your ability to hone this palpable atmosphere in your photographs. What led you to pursue these stylistic choices?
I’m the Captain Now is reflective of my mother and her sister’s childhood, thus being the characters in the works, but it’s also super reflective of my childhood. The scenes set in I’m the Captain Now looks a lot like me and my cousin’s childhood; riding around paddocks, catching reptiles, climbing all sorts of things, being out bush with the emus, and yes, even a ton of stories of creepy shadows. The main idea behind the works was to imitate family albums and construct family photos that looked like they could be real until you realise they aren’t. And in that sense, the photos could belong to anyone, anywhere in Australia, until you start to pick up the specifics that gives this family a particular identity and consequently a complex and dark history.
Your work comes from such an intimate place. Artists aren’t often included in conversations around burnout, but I can imagine that working in this may be quite emotionally fatiguing at times. How do you navigate the deeply personal aspects of your practice?
Yeah, I’ve learnt the hard way. From 2016 to 2019 I dealt with a lot of intergenerational trauma through my work, but I worked through it, and I would like to say I’ve done my best to heal from it. I made A Series of Unwarranted Events when I was pregnant with my first. I can tell you that being pregnant and reading and listening to detailed accounts of massacres and violence towards my mob and family was not an easy job. The series was really important to make though. I’m so glad I persevered and finished the works and now they belong in important collections that will look after them for the rest of time. The final series that finishes the chapter that is, There we were all in one place is The trees have no tongues in 2019. For me, this series was one of the more difficult works to create. On one hand, I wanted and needed to honour and respect my great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother, but on the other hand, there was a lot of acceptance and understanding to take on. I’m so lucky that I have my Nan who is a total no-nonsense woman, and she has taught me a lot about how to be neutral and non-subjective when creating and understanding the who, what, where, why, and how’s.
In your exhibition I Will Survive currently showing at Vivien Anderson Gallery in Melbourne, you’ve inserted yourself into the landscapes you’ve shot. What steered this decision to become physically present in this new way?
I planned for 2020 to be a big and magical year of growth and change and all things great. So, when I entered a new decade in my life (I turned 30) at the beginning of the new decade that was 2020, I was really motivated to switch up my practice and tell stories that belonged to me and were my own. To be honest, I’d spent four years really focused on quite sad stories of my grandmothers and I can never escape the trauma that’s embedded in my family and our history. All of my work up to now has helped me to understand, heal, and explore different perspectives of these stories. And also, I have two young children and I want to create a legacy for them that isn’t drenched in sadness or trauma. Because I’m sure as hell they’ll both be fighting for their futures and rights throughout their lives so I don’t want to surround them in any more than what they already will have to take on. So my answer is, I needed lightness, and I want lightness for my children.
And what’s next for Hayley Millar Baker?
A lot more biographical work! I said in 2020 that going into the new decade I wanted to focus on my own stories and experiences and grow my storytelling techniques. So that’s what’s coming up starting with I Will Survive. I’m also heading into a bit of film work this year and, fingers crossed, that’ll continue on for the next couple of years!
Hayley Millar Baker’s There we all were all in one place opens at UTS on Tuesday 13th April 2021 from 6- 8 pm and runs through to 4 June 2021.