Katoomba photographer Tracy Ponich's commitment to documenting the isolation and solitude of lockdown has brought her recognition on a national scale, with her work Eleni and the Bookshop named a finalist in the 2021 Living Memory National Photographic Portrait Prize, organised by the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.
Ponich's startling black-and-white photo, taken at Megalong Books in Leura in May 2020, shows then-17-year-old bookshop employee Eleni Pringle in contemplative pose reading a book in the shop, just after it had reopened after being closed for a month. The photo was part of the same body of work that formed Ponich's recent exhibition Business Not Usual at Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, but did not feature in that series of pictures - although there is another work featuring Eleni, in a different position and with a different book, in that show.
Eleni and the Bookshop, Ponich said, aims to "capture the impact of the pandemic on our small businesses", yet she also notes that the image also taps into a more positive theme - the joy of reading and literature.
"I think this piece has an important message, whether it is part of the larger body of work or stand-alone, said Ponich, who works out of her Feathermark Studio in Katoomba.
"The portrait says, 'Here is a young person who is lost in the magical world of a bookshop, immersed in a turn-the-page book.' At a time when the screen takes over so much of our lives this is more precious than ever - but then, I am a hardcore book-lover."
Ponich was among 79 finalists in the competition, which invited entries on the theme of 'Living Memory', to reflect the tumultuous events of 2020. Among the judges was renowned Australian photographer and artist Bill Henson, whom Ponich said she is "in awe of", adding, "He is truly the master of light, shadow, and mood. It is an honour to become a finalist with such a distinguished panel."
I love to photograph a person whose face, or something about them, says there is a story here.
Light, shadow and mood are all qualities that Ponich has embraced in her ongoing exploration of portraiture, with the works created in Business Not Usual marking a significant step forward in her practice.
"I love to photograph a person whose face, or something about them, says there is a story here. Stylistically, I felt the Business Not Usual series had to be black and white and a little moody. I suppose that has become my style overall; I want to capture a moment and deliver a sense of timelessness, even nostalgia."
Like so many artists, Ponich has been relying on presenting her work virtually during lockdown, with both the National Portrait Gallery publishing her work on its website, and Blue Mountains Cultural Centre facilitating artist talks involving Ponich via Zoom.
"The virtual opportunities are definitely a positive at a time like this," she says. "And I can also share good news: Business Not Usual will be exhibited again at the Cultural Centre in early 2022."