Tall Poppy Syndrome Photographs by Amy Stein & Stacy Arezou Mehrfar Published by Decode Books, 2012.
How can a country with spell-check-busting town names like Mollymook, Ulladulla, Bendalong, and Dubbo reject individualism? How can an island that doubles as a continent, populated by fantastic creatures like kangaroos, koalas, and Crocodile Dundee, be inclined to suppress the exceptional?
But -- tall poppy syndrome -- there it is. Things that stand out must be cut down to size. Conformity rules. Keep your head down. Not a typical American value set, though we Midwesterners tend to know a thing or two about modesty. Emily Dickinson, from her house in Amherst, shunned tall poppies, too.
I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us -- don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
(Two self-effacing young women -- "Mates II, Grenfell," plate 9 -- might have Dickinson's verse as a motto.)
The collaborative pair of Stein and Mehrfar has asked us to trust that their images in this new volume reflect their search for evidence of this self-suppression in the cultural landscape of New South Wales. One -- Stein -- is an outside observer (attuned, as her past work has shown, to the nuances of cultural landscape), while Mehrfar, born in the United States, has lived for some time in Sydney, the state's capital, so some Aussie street smarts guide her. (There are no attributions in the book, so the photographers have taken up the anonymity mandate as well.)
I find them a credible team. I admire the sense of compression in their work. I particularly enjoy their Becher-ian typologies, printed four-across on fold-out spreads, of trees pruned within a centimeter of survival and miners safely glowing against the darkness that is their workplace. These are showcases of assimilation that, in the capable hands of Stein, Mehrfar, and book designer John Jenkins III, reflect socio-cultural norms.
Yet within all assemblies, nuances of character seep into view. Child surfers, students in school uniforms, rugby players families huddled together at a picnic table -- all of these beg for, and reward, close attention. There is distinctive beauty in this collection of poppies, but it must be celebrated horizontally, not vertically.
Come to think of it, the low-lying topography of New South Wales resembles my Midwestern plains. I wonder if I have relatives in Gundagai?
George Slade , a longtime contributor to photo-eye, is a photography writer, curator, historian and consultant based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He can be found on-line at http://rephotographica-slade.blogspot.com/