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photo-eye Book Reviews: Oculi

Oculi, Photographs by the Oculi Photography Group. 
Published by Hardie Grant Books, 2010.

Reviewed by Tom Leininger
Oculi Photography Group Oculi
Edited by the Oculi Photography Group
Hardie Grant Books, 2010. Hardbound. 264 pp., 250 color 11-3/4x11-1/4".

In 2000 a group of Australian photographers formed a collective and created a website showcasing their work. It was an outlet for newspaper photographers to get their personal work out to the world. The group was not formed as a commercial venture. While the membership of Oculi has changed over time, the mission of the group has stayed the same: make amazing pictures showing the drama of everyday life. The front flap of the self-titled book that celebrates their 10 years of existence sums them up simply, "...a collective of photographers whose distinctive styles capture the beauty, wonder and struggle of everyday life."

The aesthetic of the group is contemporary, the work presented lives in the gray area between journalism and art. The book helps connect the dots between each photographer and in total you are able to see why each is in the group. Each photographer stands on their own, but they have a shared vision much like the photographers at Agence VU, who distribute their work in Europe. Each photographer is strong on his or her own, but the group improves them all.

Oculi, by Oculi Photography Group. Published by Hardie Grant Books, 2010.

Three well-written essays explain how the collective was founded, the conditions and times of the founding and how it has survived over the years without being centered on making money. David Marr's opening essay does an amazing job of describing the habits of the working daily newspaper photographer: "They pack their cameras every morning and head out into the streets in a mood of refined despair. The fine pictures they bring back are passed off as accidents. They mask their pride and grumble." (It certainly describes me when I worked at a newspaper.) This is reason enough to band together in hope and work for bigger things. In general, journalism has been their springboard for capturing the greater drama of life, be some of those dramas bigger than others.

Current members are Donna Bailey, James Brickwood, Tamara Dean, Jesse Marlow, Nick Moir, Jeremy Piper, Andrew Quilty, Dean Sewell, Steven Siewert and Tamara Voninski. I met Voninski when I was a student at Western Kentucky University. I remember Voninski creating images that went beyond the typical American photojournalism standards. She has continued to do so and her newest work is visually complex in terms of its content and formal elements. One of her images in the book, "The Old Country: USA 1991," was made when she was in college. The image still holds up 19 years later and gives a hint as to what Voninski's current is, layered with content and poetry.

Oculi, by Oculi Photography Group. Published by Hardie Grant Books, 2010.

Oculi, by Oculi Photography Group. Published by Hardie Grant Books, 2010.

The highlights for me in this large book are Jesse Marlow's walking wounded, James Brickwood's interpretation of parkour, Tamara Dean's lyrical take on rituals, Steven Siewert's pigeon racers and Tamara Voninski's black and white dream world. It is the kind of book that you live with, go back to and find gems hidden in the pages. Donna Bailey's portraits and landscapes continue to draw me in as a go back to the book.

Dean Sewell, Andrew Quilty, Jeremy Piper and Nick Moir all have various current events represented in their work, another example of aesthetic being used to convey information. This collective is not just about style, it is strongly rooted in the substance of what they're pointing their cameras at. 

Oculi, by Oculi Photography Group. Published by Hardie Grant Books, 2010.
Similar collectives have sprung up in recent times, but I see Oculi as different. It could have something to do with them being Australian -- it could have something to do with their desire to not be commercial. I interpret it as a mix of the two. They have come together as a group and grown as individuals. The results of which are published here -- a book full of the small momentary dramas of daily life that surprises each time it is read.—Tom Leininger

Tom Leininger is a photographer and educator based in Denton, Texas. He received his MFA in photography from the University of North Texas. Prior to that he was a newspaper photographer in Indiana. His work can be found at