Photography teacher Wendy Catling has taken time off work to complete her Master of Arts - Photography. She has worked in many areas of the arts, and traveled and worked overseas. The timing is perfect for her to fill in the gaps in her photography practice, make industry connections and a new circle of friends. Wendy talks about developing her artistic style in a new direction, using aggressive weed behaviours as a metaphor for domestic abuse in her research project, and why she cried when her school granted her study leave.
'Approaching Storm' 2014 by Wendy Catling
When did your passion for photography begin?
Photography was always something that I did out of interest, during my travelling, while working in theatre, and documenting my growing children, but without having the confidence to call myself a photographer. When my children started school, I got a teaching diploma and began teaching textiles and art to secondary students. The love of photography never subsided and so when the opportunity came up to take over the position of leading teacher of a run-down photography department in a large private school, I leaped at the chance and learnt what I needed to know as I went along.
Tell us about your photography practice?
In 2007 I started making cyanotypes which incorporate digital negatives and found object photogram effects. I was attracted by the similarities between printmaking and cyanotypes, especially working with an image that is constructed as well as composed, the physicality of the process and the tactile qualities of working with fabric and art paper. With this master’s program I am taking the opportunity to develop my style in a new direction. At the moment I am working almost exclusively with digital, macro photography and using studio lighting quite a bit.
The Fortnite Club 1992 - standup comedy club where Wendy (front and second from the left wearing a hat) worked with some rather famous comedians - including Bill Bailey, Alan Davies, Mark Billingham and Andy Lindon.
Over the years, you have worked in many creative industries including stints in London, what did you do?
I have always had the feeling that anything was possible and all interests should be explored. So, after completing my BA (Printmaking and photography), I dabbled in millinery, jewellery design, illustration and dressmaking while pursuing a career as a textile designer. I travelled to London in the late 1980s and became involved behind the scenes with fringe theatre, comedy improvisation and stand-up comedy. For 5 years I was an improvising lighting and sound operator with a popular improvisation group, Spontaneous Combustion, while also working as administrator and technical director for London Theatresports.
What is your current job?
I have been teaching at Wesley College for 15 years and am Faculty Coordinator of Visual Arts. I have taken study leave to do the Masters at Photography Studies College. At Wesley I have enjoyed developing the photography course (pun intended!) and in particular I am proud of the passionate support for darkroom and digital technologies that students and colleagues now share.
Wendy with her students at Wesley College Melbourne.
Why did you take time off to do your Master of Arts - Photography?
I love teaching but increasingly I have felt the frustration of the long hours and exhaustion leaving little time to make my own work. I believe it is invaluable for teachers of art to have the time to develop their personal practice and to bring that experience to bear in their teaching.
Why did you decide to do your Master's?
Making and showing a body of work at Ballarat International Foto Biennale in 2015 was such a positive kickstarter for developing confidence in myself as an artist. I was aware of gaps in my skills and knowledge, and was keen to push myself further as an artist. Obviously, some concerns about being an older person going into the Master of Arts - Photography program did cross my mind. Would I cope with the theoretical reading and writing component after so long away from university? Am I too old to be trying to establish myself in the art world? For several years I have gravitated towards stories of women, and men, having creative success late in life. When my head of campus gave me permission to take time off for this course, I spontaneously (and embarrassingly!) wept. That was when I knew how much I had repressed my need for creative challenge.
After Image 2018 by Wendy Catling.
Why was this the right time for you to go back to studying?
The timing couldn’t be better, actually. My partner and I paid off our mortgage last year. Our children are now adults living their own lives, which apart from the mental space now available after bringing up twins, also leaves plenty of physical space for us both to have studios in our roomy family home in the suburbs. Having a supportive partner who also works in the arts, (he is a film sound designer, teacher of sound design, composer and digital artist) and understands the creative process, not to mention his absolute confidence in me, has been wonderful.
Were you able to adjust to the workload and assignments?
After 15 years of working 10 hours a day plus 2 hours of travelling it is an absolute luxury to be able to focus almost entirely on my project. The discipline of working so hard for so long as a teacher has meant that I have no trouble devoting myself to research, learning new skills and experimenting with my camera. So, in all these respects being an older student has been really beneficial.
The Weed Garden 2019 by Wendy Catling.
What are you enjoying the most about the program?
I love the opportunity to share and obtain feedback on my work and I appreciate the input of such experienced and supportive staff. All of the teachers have exceptionally broad and up to the minute knowledge of contemporary photographic practices, philosophy and trends because of their contributions as curators and writers in the arts in addition to their personal creative practice as photographers. Additionally, I have found them to be really supportive, relaxed and approachable. Right from the get go I had the sense that the connections made during the course would not only be great industry connections but also great friendships and that is proving to be so. For me to have found a new social and professional circle at my time of life is amazing and invigorating.
What are some of the skills you have learned?
During the first semester I took advantage of free access for Masters students to the undergraduate classes to build up my studio lighting and Lightroom editing skills. One of the key skills developed during the program so far has been presentation of work and talking about the project. As a teacher and tour guide I am well used to public speaking; however, discussing my ideas and my work for an audience of peers, supervisors and other photographers was initially intimidating but now this is also a growing skill and one that I knew I wanted to develop before starting the course.
'Adult Content' 2015 by Wendy Catling.
Tell us about your Master's research project?
My current project continues to explore my long-standing interest in issues of domestic abuse and the ramifications of intimate partner violence for families and for society. I am doing a lot of research from reading state and national government reports, and theoretical texts on affect theory in the arts to interviewing a forensic psychologist. I am fascinated and shocked by the Jess Hill’s recently published book ‘See What You Made Me Do’ (2019) and I have been documenting the traumatic personal experiences of my mother. The destruction to people’s lives through dysfunctional and abusive relationships is a huge issue which affects the health, well-being and potential of so many women and children. I am using the metaphor of aggressive weed behaviours to explore my ideas visually.
Tell us about your print at the National Gallery of Australia?
They have one which is a three-colour soft ground etching called Town Runes. This was one of the prints I produced during my final year at Monash University when I did my BA. I editioned the print at the Australian Print Workshop with the assistance of the renowned Australian master printer, John Loane. One copy which had been archived was fortunate enough to be included in a collection given to the Australian National Gallery, when APW closed. I have seen it digitised on their website and it gives me a thrill to know that it is there.
Would you recommend PSC's Master's program and why?
Absolutely. Choosing PSC for my Master's has been one of the best decisions of my life. I remember coming away from my first meeting with Daniel Boetker-Smith (PSC's Higher Education Course Director) and feeling very strongly that it was going to be the right course at the right place and at the right time of my life. That has certainly proved to be the case. The collegiality with fellow Master’s students and with tutors has been amazing and builds confidence. Access to learning new skills, support from the lovely Jill in the library, encouragement and helpful critiques from supervisors who genuinely have your best interests at heart and are also highly skilled and well connected are all a part of the experience. The course is designed to encourage networking and making contacts with others working in the art photography and photobook industry. This too is something that I hoped to gain and it started within the first few weeks! I couldn’t be happier.
Self-portrait by Wendy Catling