The Mercurial Photos of Ralph Kerle - Trophies or Gifts

by Dr Gary Willis, artist, academic and artistic confidante.

It is a question that I imagine most photographers must have faced, ‘Do I hunt my images down like a trophy or do they offer themselves up to me like gifts?’  Several years ago Ralph Kerle was a recreational kayacker.  He found paddling around the tidal backwaters of Middle Harbor on Sunday mornings gave him tremendous peace of mind.  That’s all – he had no other agenda.

One such Sunday morning Ralph was religiously paddling between Seaforth and Castlecrag; the waters were mercurial, not a breath of wind nor a cloud in the sky.  Suddenly he was stuck by an image waving at him through the water as if in a mirror gently rolling with the swell.  It was the reflection of a moored yacht.  The vividness of the image left him spellbound.  Eventually he reached for his phone, opening his camera app. framed-up the image took a snap and promptly forgot about it.

It was sometime before he got around to uploading the shot to his hard drive but when it opened up on his monitor he was staggered by the image.  It wasn't the scene he had remembered.  The camera had stripped the image of all familiarizing context and left an image with a life of its own.  Since then Ralph has been mastering his cameras and developing elaborate processes to facilitate such images.  We might be tempted to imagine the photographer out on Middle Harbor hunting down his images like trophies; but that is not how Ralph describes it. 

Ralph recognizes his practice has evolved on the basis of a two-fold process;

1. The act of kayaking, as a meditational practice of clearing the mind and letting go.

2. The process of photography as awaiting the moment when the landscape calls for its capture.

The question that Ralph muses upon is a variant on the chicken and the egg conundrum: Is it the state of mind that enables him to recognize these images or do the images offer themselves in response to his mindset.  Clearly the images exist independent of the artist but without a specific mindset, Ralph wonders if he would ever be able to see them.

I am beginning to think these images are generated from a liminal space somewhere between my primordial subconscious and the ephemeral real that defines our unique existential experience?  Have I, through the deeply meditational experience of kayaking, solo on Sydney Harbor, tapped into a source that is otherwise lost to our everyday consciousness?  And if so what is this mysterious phenomenon – how can I define it?

Ralph credits the nascent sensitivity that comes of his meditational outlook for his ability to recognize these images; is it only in this state that the landscape offers itself up to his camera.  Ralph has no illusions about himself as the creator; that role clearly belongs to nature, he candidly explains.  Ralph sees himself, as the one fortunate enough to have to have been ‘given’ the image and here is that question of ‘gift’.  Derrida maintains by definition ‘gift’ cannot not belong to the exchange economy.  One cannot barter for a gift; a gift is not only impossible it is ‘The Impossible’, he explains evoking George Bataille.[1]

Ralph’s mission onto Middle Harbour in his kayak on his regular paddles entails a letting go.  In effect he gives everything away for that time out.  These have been the terms of his deliverance for some years now.  It is not an offering made in hope of exchange, but a sacrifice made to his meditation without hope or expectation.  This act of sacrifice is what sets in train the transformation of his state of mind and only in this state can he seem to appreciate the gifts of nature.   

Henry Hart, founding editor of Vesrse poetry journal and poet himself, acknowledges the ‘gift’ entailed in all art & poetry sets in train a moral force that engenders an equal and opposite response. The work of art exists between two economies, he explains, the gift economy and the market economy.  However, although a work of art can exist without a market, Hart insists, ‘a work of art without gift is not a work of art’.[2]

Gary Willis PhD

Artist and Academic

(Montague 2016)

[1] Jacques Derrida ‘The Gift of Death’, ( USA, Chicago University Press , 1995,)

[2] Henry Hart, ‘Poetry as Gift,’ Swanee Review, Vol 122- No. 1 Winter 2014. (Johns Hopkins University Press,) Pp 55 74..

Ralph Kerle's Journey on Water

by Damian Smith, International Art Critic, Melbourne, Australia

Water is the commonest symbol for the unconscious. The lake in the valley is the unconscious, which lies, as it were, underneath consciousness, so that it is often referred to as the ‘subconscious,’ usually with the pejorative connotation of an inferior consciousness. Water is the ‘valley spirit,’ the water dragon of Tao, whose nature resembles water- a yang in the yin, therefore, water means spirit that has become unconscious.” (Carl Jung, Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, paragraph 40)

Water Sarcophagus, Kangaroo Valley, Australia 2014. Image by Ralph Kerle


Artist Ralph Kerle may well have been reflecting on the words of Swiss psychotherapist Carl Gustave Jung (1875 – 1961) when he began his exploration of water. Yet it was no theoretical prompting that compelled this Melbourne-born artist to set out on his arduous kayak adventures across the waterways of Sydney. Rather it was the dark edge of the psyche, clinical depression the likes of which resisted all modern pharmaceutical remediation, which compelled Ralph Kerle to take himself to the sea.

For those of us who have grown up in Australia there is a casual appreciation for the spiritual significance of water. We swim in it, surf on it, dive beneath its surface. But we are weary of water, especially the ocean with its sharks, box jellyfish, stingrays, sea snakes, crocodiles and pernicious undertows. Yet for all of these forces and cohabitants we see water as that great purifier of the spirit. To be in it is to be rendered physical, strained and immersed. Water renews us.

The terrain that Kerle’s photographs depict is a region of Sydney’s waterways known as Middle Harbour. Though separated from the larger Sydney Harbour the anchorage shares many of its features. Think of Sydney Harbour and one tends to picture the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Opera House, or the vast blue expanse celebrated by the painter Brett Whiteley (1932 – 1992). But as Kerle’s photographs attest, there is more to a place than the aerial view alone. Up close and personal one encounters something approximating an intimate relationship with nature. That one might find this experience in a major metropolis is perhaps a testament to the quality of Australian cities, yet it also requires a certain level of mindfulness. For Kerle the contemplation of water is as much about observing as it is about a way of being present with oneself and with the world. Hence his attraction to water is multi-layered.

Unfinished Surface 1, Long Bay, Middle Harbour, Sydney, Australia, 2015

Unfinished Surface 1, Long Bay, Middle Harbour, Sydney, Australia, 2015

The liminal edge of the sea, especially when viewed from a low-slung kayak, brings into focus questions about the precise nature of reality. Where does one element end and the other begin? Such musings are hard to ignore when observing those instances where Kerle records fleeting distortions as the kayak displaces the liquid surface. In works such as Unfinished Surface I, 2015 it is hard to determine if one is observing a distant watery horizon or a close up of a sky blue yacht. Similarly in Mast on Blue Water, 2014 whether one is beneath the water or above it is ambiguous at best. This disruption of the pristine reflection, which bends what we might otherwise perceive as an untrammelled mirror suggests the possibility of illusion. If what we are seeing is only a trick of perception, then reality we must conclude is not fixed; the mind must be implicated in its creation.

Ruminating on the effects that characterize his work and indeed how it registers in the mind, Kerle notes, “At first sight, the brain is forced to reassess how it sees these shapes; how the shapes created by nature reflect an abstraction questioning the way we perceive and make sense of our world.  As a result, the brain forms new neural pathways of association offering deeper insight into the aesthetic world and its potential to influence the way we think, see and communicate.” This remodeling of the brain’s neural pathways effectively reshapes the contents and habits of the mind. By extension the act of creation enables the artist to assume a role of co-creative participation within the field of perceived reality. 

That art might be a means to reshape our relationship with the world, to the extent that the act of creation may have a lasting impact on the quality of our mental well-being is as remarkable as it is inspiring. Indeed it enables one to draw a link between creative practice, not only as an aesthetic activity, but also as a process that has practical implications in terms of how one cultivates inner dialogue and experience. While Kerle is by no means the first to have made a link between mental affliction and the attendant conditions of perception, his work is redolent of the possibilities of personal transformation. It is an idea that is extensively expounded upon in the context of Buddhist philosophy, especially in the Mahayana tradition. Indeed one such pundit to speak at length on this topic is the renowned teacher, Tenzin Gyatso the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. He suggests, “Just as in the inner world of mental and cognitive events, every moment of experience comes from its preceding continuum and so on ad infinitum. Similarly, in the physical world every object and event must have a preceding continuum that serves as its cause, from which the present moment of external matter comes into existence.”

With these thoughts in mind Ralph Kerle’s photographic impressions of Middle Harbour appear to us not only as reflections of nature. Rather they speak past the possibility of continuum, and not only of our place within the ceaseless flow of time, but also of our ability to be actors within the conditions of our existence and to shape our relationship to the world. I can picture the artist in his kayak, gliding effortlessly through the serene waters of Middle Harbour, waiting patiently for those perfect moments of light, colour and form that characterise his practice to coalesce in the frame of his lens and even as the results of that patient vision wash over me I am reminded always of the transformative dimensions of Kerle’s practice.

List of Works Reviewed

Sea Dunes, The Doorways to Reflection, Orange Water. Red and Grey on Water, The Heart Beat of Reflection

Art Critic

Damian Smith is an arts writer and curator whose involvement in the visual arts spans more than twenty years. His interests encompass Australian contemporary art and Asian contemporary Art. In 2009 he established Words For Art, a consultancy specializing in cultural discourse and the visual arts. As a specialist in Australian modernism, Damian has been a guest curator at institutions including the National Gallery of Victoria and Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne. He is the author and editor of multiple arts publications, spanning Australian art from colonial times to the present. He has written monographs and museum catalogues internationally, most recently for the Today Art Museum , Beijing. As a Curator for China Art Projects, Beijing, He has worked on numerous exhibitions in China, Australia and the UK.