Monthly Archives: July 2009

Returning to the real world

My oh-so comfortable Converse skateboard shoe footprint in the red pindan dust of the Kimberley

After three weeks of shooting publicity and production stills here in Broome, it’s time to return to the real world. No more 4.30am wake-ups, twelve hour days working in red dust and 30 degree heat. Monday, it’s back to what remains of the Hobart winter,  perhaps even a little snow…but best of all, back to the family. 

But not before breaking the journey across the continent with a stop-over in Perth to catch up with old colleagues and friends. There’s a lunch booked in Fremantle for Friday, that I’m looking forward to. The collective photographic experience of those around the table will probably total several centuries.  Much wine and anecdotes to flow…of course.

I’m going to miss Broome. But I’m hoping that I might get re-called to shoot again later in the series. It’s been a great experience.

Just time today to photograph one more scene on location, final backup of files on external drives, packing and perhaps a swim at Cable Beach…the first chance I’ve had to hit the ocean in the three weeks I’ve been here. I’m going to miss the cameraderie of the crew. Thanks for making it such a great assignment, guys! 

Yesterday's location in a pindan quarry
Yesterday’s location in a pindan quarry

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A Saturday afternoon near Broome

Red pindan dust on the road to Crab Creek

Red pindan dust on the road to Crab Creek

Working on children’s television series in Broome in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Not much time to blog, not much time to shoot for myself, but caught this shot on the road to Crab Creek this morning.

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Photography: is it really art?

Art photography?

Art photography?

There is little argument these days, that photography is an art…but now the slicers and dicers, the nigglers at defintions, like to make a distinction between “high” art, “fine” art, and just plain old ordinary, everyday art. I think these are the same bunch of nit-pickers, who like to make the subtle distinction between documentary photography and photojournalism.

Better writers (and better photographers) than me have wrestled with this for years and have failed to come up with any answers that I find satisfactory. I’ll warn you now, you’ll find no answers here, only more questions? So if you are seeking enlightenment, perhaps this might be the point to take up yoga, or Buddhism.

Whenever this subject comes up, I immediately dive for my adopted manifesto to quote this:

“We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

All art is quite useless.”

For those of you with a literary pre-disposition, you might recognise this as the closing lines of the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Like many statements by “the Divine Oscar”, it was designed to provoke; which is exactly why I like it. I think it has a particular resonance in relation to the photograph, in that some would say that a commercial photograph would fall outside the realm of art. But is that always the case? I don’t think so.

Now a good example of this is the work of the artist/potter. If they make a set of coffee mugs, are they “art”. I’d say sometimes, but very often the utilitarian function gets in the way. Who wants to drink coffee from cups that continually require a heightened appreciation of their value? It should be enough to appreciate the coffee, though I won’t dispute the fact that a beautifully designed container can enhance the experience.

Now a perfect contradiction of Oscar’s statement is Marcel Duchamp’s exhibition of a urinal, which he exhibited in 1917, and titled “Fountain”: ). It was Duchamp’s recognition of this utilitarian object as art that made it art (art in the eye of the beholder), but it was the context that made it art.

Fountain by Marcel Duchamp

Fountain by Marcel Duchamp

“Fine” art seems to be a pure construct of the academic, a description designed to enhance their status in a similar way that cookery teachers describe their subject as “food technology”, or in former years “domestic science” or even “home economics”. Photographers also use the term to glorify their craft (I use the term deliberately). Not satisfied with being called merely photographer, they choose to describe themselves as “fine art photographers” as though this description was their to bestow on themselves. Insecurity? Probably.

“Fine” art also implies a succumbing to the pretentious limited edition/archival print/gallery circuit where the “artist” is purely reliant on the good will of critics and what the collector decides is fashionable. Being dead is a great career move for the artist…as no more emphatically evidenced by Michael Jackson’s recent departure. Good one, Michael!

I have always been under the impression that to describe yourself as an artist was somewhat presumptious. Maybe I’m wrong but surely this accolade should come from one’s peers and the appreciators of your work after a lengthy period of application to producing a significant body of work. It should not be a term to be self-adopted by the wearer.

If you think you have the answers I’d be delighted to debate them with you…

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On the road again…

This morning at 4.45am I was scraping ice off the car windshield in wintry Hobart, Tasmania.

Tonight I am 3100km away luxuriating in the tropical warmth of a Broome evening after a 30 degree (C) day. It’s so good to be on the road again and great to be able to avoid almost a month of a Tasmanian winter. Working as stills photographer on the the Northway Productions childrens’ television series, Trapped.

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It’s all in the look…

Wesley Patten, Redfern, circa 1980

Wesley Patten, Redfern, circa 1980

In the 80’s I was a member of the Australian photographers’ co-operative agency, Rapport. The offices and studio were in Redfern, the heartland of inner-city Sydney’s urban aboriginal population. During this period, I became involved with working with the community.

When the Redfern Aboriginal Legal Aid worker, Cec Patten, brought his young son, Wesley to the studio, I thought Cec might like some pictures. Wes didn’t take much cajoling to get him in front of the camera and he laughingly took his shirt off to pose as his then role model, Batman.

Shooting with a Mamiya RB67, I managed to get nine smiles out of Wes, before he decided he’d had enough. so I resignedly hit the shutter for the last frame of the roll, just to finish it off. It wasn’t until I was later going over the contact sheets, that I realised Wes had made me the gift of a picture that seemed to say it all. Proud, defiant, not going to pushed around. Take it or leave it, Mister!

Amongst other things, Wesley Patten grew up to be a talented professional rugby footballer.

(For those of a technical bent: the camera was a Mamiya RB67 with 90mm lens and the lighting was a single Bowens Quad studio flash in a large softbox. The film was Ilford Pan F.)


Filed under Australian, Photographer, Photography, Photojournalism, portraits, Rob Walls

J.H. Lartigue: what a blogger he would have made…

Woman with small dog walking in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris

Woman with small dog walking in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris

Sometime around 1970 I shared an elevator with an elderly silver-haired, dapper, twinkle-eyed, Frenchman. We exchanged greetings. We were both on our way to a lecture at the National Gallery in London. He was in fact the guest lecturer and his name was Jacques Henri Lartigue. He had come to prominence when a spread of his photographs had been published in Life magazine in 1963. At the age of 76, he was just reaching the peak of his career as a photographer. Richard Avedon had described him as “…the most deceptively simple and penetrating photographer in the history of photography”.

For the next hour or two this modest man charmed the audience, showed his pictures and talked about his life. Using a high quality Uher cassette recorder I taped his presentation and back in Australia used quotes from it when a photo magazine asked me to review his book, Diary of a Century. This was an edited selection of pictures from the astonishing 120 large format photo albums he had kept as a visual diary. Sadly the tape of that event no longer exists. I lent it to a director of the Australian Centre for Photography, where I lectured for many years, and it was stolen along with his car.

However, some of Lartigue’s comments from that lecture still survive in my review, which appeared in Camera Graphics Australia (Volume one-Number four, March 1972).

“In order to to have talent, one must be happy. In order to be happy, one must have earned happiness and it does not come without effort. By happiness I do not mean to be rich or spoilt, I mean, to possess a joy of living.”

“In order to be happy, I have my own formula. It is this: never, never be lazy. Eat well and that does not mean eat a lot. Sleep well, and in order to sleep well trake much exercise. Know how to breathe good air. Enjoy silence…this does not prevent one from listening to good music, but one must know the value of silence. Love God, and open one’s ears to his suggestions, which although they are often very quiet are there all the same.”

Questioned on technique he replied that he used neither rangefinder nor exposure meter. “I am able to estimate distance and exposure very accurately from experience”, adding with a grin, “But then you only see the successful pictures. there were very many that were unsuccessful”.

“Sometimes with the inadequate cameras and the very slow plates of the time, I would make my pictures and then pray very hard to God that He would make a miracle happen. I would go home and develop my plates and find that they were no good. In the end, the miracle took seventy years to happen; since it is these bad photographs that hardly came out that are regarded as the most beautiful of my collection”.

Asked whether he thought photography had advanced or progressed since he was a young boy, he replied: “It is not a matter of progressing, it is a question of the times changing and you reflect the time you live in. That is all.”

Whenever I revisit Lartigue’s pictures, I take away two very important reminders. The most important is the that the act of taking a photograph can be pleasurable and spontaneous. His pictures of family and friends also remind me that you don’t need exotic subjects or locations to make great pictures; good pictures can happen wherever you are and with whoever is close to you.

If you’ve never heard of Jacques Henri Lartigue, I recommend his work to you. Seek it out if you want to know the joy that can be found in taking photographs. If you know and love his pictures as I do, I suggest you revisit his pictures often. They will refresh your spirit and your eye…

As Richard Avedon wrote in the afterword to Diary of a Century, “…he did what no other photographer has done before or since. He photographed his own life. It was as if he knew instinctively and from the very beginning that the real secret lay in small things…There is almost no one in this book who isn’t a friend…no moment that wasn’t a private one.”

Lartigue and Richard Avedon. Photo by Florette Lartigue

Lartigue and Richard Avedon. Photo by Florette Lartigue


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