Christmas is a time for frosty snowmen, a thousand and one images of Santa Claus, and good cheer all around. Of course, all three of those only really happen in a bunch of countries that actually deal with snow. The rest of the world simply subscribe to these jolly winter images despite not really having any winter.
But there is a vast difference between a nice, cool though non-wintry Christmas (like the one happening in the Northern Hemisphere), and Christmas happening at the height of the hot season, as in the case of Australia. With such an upside down reality, is it really any surprise that world-renowned Australian photographer Trent Parke would be coming up with such a twisted, unpredictable homage to Christmas using nothing but the amazingly mundane images of suburban life?
It all started in 2004 when Trent moved his growing family from Sydney to Adelaide, his partner Narelle’s hometown and where her family currently resided. In next to no time they were living the idyllic suburban life, something completely new to Trent. It wasn’t until he went to the mall one day and got an innocent enough haircut that he realised how much things have really flipped.
“New hair for a new start,” he had been told by the hairdresser. Trent would find out soon enough that his “new start” would involve some kind of stomach flu and repeated vomiting throughout the course of 15 hours. But what made this whole event so important was the epiphany Trent reached while he stared down a red Christmas tree bucket which had doubled as his barf bag. This, he said, was when it hit him how strange everything really was – Christmas, families, and suburban life.
From 2004 to 2008 Trent then amassed a number of photos documenting his family’s growth and their journey through suburbia, all in the bright shiny backdrop of Christmas. He curated these into his book The Christmas Tree Bucket: Trent Parke’s Family Album. At its core, it is a weird and wondrous Christmassy package wrapped in red and gold.
The book features page after page of seeming inanities and snapshots of the most ordinary events in a suburban family’s life. There are children piled on top of each other in play as children are wont to do. There is an uncle or a dad barbecuing complete in a hotdog costume. There is a brother standing by the pool while outfitted in a neon green suit that would make Borat proud. There are friends gathered at a table; friends just chilling around. And then of course there are the injections of holiday imagery scattered among the family photos. A Santa-shaped piñata, a Christmas tree, a Christmas wreath hanging on the door, Santa himself walking in the corridors of the house. A bald Christmas tree with its leaves all fallen off. His young son carrying Santa’s decapitated head. A dead rat.
Combined, the seeming ordinariness of all of Trent’s images amidst the backdrop of Christmas create an almost dark, surrealistic look into the realities not only of suburban life, but also the holidays, and, ultimately, people during the holidays. There’s a bit of dark humour and satire in the work in that it presents such unglamorous and almost base imagery of one of the most glittery events of the year. But browsing through the photo essay, a sense of wonder and fascination cannot be denied, and it is palpable even in the photographer himself.
There is simply something captivating about the stories each image wordlessly narrates, and something fascinating, albeit mind-boggling, about the photo essay as a whole. It is such a stark and honest portrait of human nature, and such a witty and hilarious painting of the holidays.
The series ends with everybody in different states of passed out after all the holiday festivities. “To all a goodnight” the acknowledgment reads. Indeed it is. Merry Christmas.
Julia Escan0 – Shoot The Frame
Photographer: Trent Parke