Paul Batt

Paul Batt April 2008

Take me out tonight
Because I want to see people and I
Want to see life
Driving in your car
Oh, please don't drop me home
Because it's not my home, it's their home, and I'm welcome no more
The Smiths - There Is A Light That Never Goes Out (1992)

You may be photographed using an ATM and itís not an issue, video cameras in King St are there to catch the random football player and his mates shooting guns and whilst at a service station, cameras are mandatory to snap the odd drive off or hold up. Normally we donít give these recording devices a momentís thought; we donít care, weíre too busy to.

In Paul Battís recent series of photographs Service Station Portraits 2006 - 8, he captures a moment that is uniquely situated in contemporary society. Exorbitant fuel prices, infrastructure collapse and the 24-hour lifestyle are logged by Batt when refuelling drivers have let their guard down. The driverís otherness to the viewer becomes clear at this point, theyíre generic in their actions yet unique in their reactions - a contradiction for sure.

Contemporary Australia is a nation of contradictions. Melbourneís population swells at an extra 1500 people a week. The perfunctory clogging of the roads, the overcrowding and unreliability of the public transport network and an inner city packed to the hilt, have all come together to form a bulbous mass primed to explode. Yet at night the streets are empty and a solitary figure can separate from the herd and stand testament to the exhaling strains of capacity. Itís this kind of ebb and flow of the transitional tides that can make for interesting viewing. The only problem with being a voyeur in this kind of environment is finding enough time to digest the spectacle of silence.

Service Station Portraits 2006 Ė 8 relies on capturing those moments we would rather fill with other distractions. Observing and documenting a 24-hour service station and its patrons would normally be associated with a security firm rather than a professional photographer. What could be of interest there, is he waiting for that perfect shot when the servo is held up or a celebrity is caught with their pants down? Neither is important to Paul Batt. His interests lie in the everyday; when time drags on and a form of grey time emerges.

Capturing the everyday has a solid, historical grounding within photography. William Eggleston and Walker Evans are pioneers in the field of which Batt wears their influences proudly on his sleeve. Finding interesting images within banal scenarios and the gritty reality of what goes on around us can equally be applied to either Eggleston or Batt. The dodgy block of flats (that were built far too close to a major Melbourne artery) supply Batt with enough reality to make lesser artists recoil to the safety of the nearest cafť. The ultra-slow shutter speed (3200) and distance from the subjects create a grainy truth to the images. We know they are real and unstaged; the reactions and poses are natural and oblivious of our voyeurism. What comes across in this series are the apprehensions expressed by the characters refilling their enviro-killers; unaware that they are being documented as specimens - outdated and outmoded - to be observed some time in the future as spectacles of curiosity in much the same way as we view Walker Evans Depression era photographs.

A couple of obvious stereotypes spring to mind when considering the kind of person willing to photograph unsuspecting targets in the darkness of night. A paranoid ex army reservist or a depressed agoraphobic would fit the bill. Surprisingly, it isnít perversion or fear that compels him to lurk in the dark. Battís methods of capturing his subjects are driven by an ambition for reality. To photograph a person when they are at their most vulnerable isnít an easy task. Refilling the car after a hard, long day at work is a chore that is reluctantly endured and carried out in a mechanically reflexive way, yet when Batt snaps these ordinary people he strives to give them anonymity, a lack of uniqueness or banality about their endeavours. Ironically itís the struggle for the perfect banality of the everyday that is a character trait suited to Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellisís American Psycho, one we hope is not replicated to itís murderous conclusions by Batt.

Other obvious comparisons can be made to Alfred Hitchcockís Rear Window or Michael Hanekeís Cachť (Hidden) where the central characters observe and construct fictional scenarios based on the circumstantial evidence before them. Batt contrastingly hides away in the shadows of his North Melbourne apartment waiting for an absence of fiction. To notice Battís camera directed at you from a darkened window at a higher elevation would be enough to warrant a call to the police (or a well thrown stone). To avoid detection, Batt applies techniques honed from copious amounts of time mastering the latest first person shooter on his games console. Counterstrike, Call of Duty and Rainbow Six can all lay claim to adding a little bit of extra know-how in Battís intelligence gathering skills. He wears all black and leaves a light on in a distant room as a distraction from his hiding place. The eye cannot adjust to a darkened space when compared to a bright one; our iris just isnít made for that. Batt has created the perfect hideout.

Future generations will be able to look upon Service Station Portraits 2006 Ė 8 with wide-eyed bewilderment. The concept of willingly polluting the environment would seem as out of place in the future as smoking in a hospital is to us now. The expressions and blunt banality of it all will echo the images of the Great Depression. It will be hard for them to imagine what it was like, yet itís the otherness Batt has captured that will endure. Itís the otherness of present day life that will become the otherness of an entire society in times ahead.

Brendan Lee April 2008