Monthly Archives: October 2009

Being Petty…Bruce that is…

In 1964, as I left my first photography job as an assistant at the Australian News and Information Bureau in Canberra, to join the staff of the new national daily newspaper, The Australian, one of my former colleagues called out, “You’ll be back. That paper won’t last six months.” The Australian, of course is still going nearly 50 years later…so is my subject of this photograph…and so am I.

Back then, as a newcomer to newspapers in those hot-metal days, I was fascinated by everything about the process of getting out a daily. I was also fascinated by the kind of people that worked in this crazy world. One of these, a tall, lanky, quiet individual seemed to spend his days in a corner of the editorial floor, doodling with pens on large sheets of paper while drinking muddy looking instant coffee from an old jar. This I discovered, was the already legendary Bruce Petty, the doyen of Australian cartoonists.

Between assignments I would stand and watch fascinated as ideas flowed from his head, down his arm and through his pen, an instrument that rarely seemed to leave the surface of the paper. Yet, there it would be half an hour later, a fully formed incisive, funny comment on the news of the day. Even in the clatter and noise of a busy editorial section, Bruce seemed to be able to drink coffee, conduct a conversation in his slow, low, laid-back drawl and simultaneously produce his brilliant drawings. The reason he gave for drinking coffee from a jar was that he could always rely on it being there when he needed a drink, whereas coffee mugs had a tendency to “walk”.

A recent cartoon from Bruce's pen illustrating Australia's escape from recession.

A recent cartoon from Bruce's pen illustrating Australia's escape from recession.

In the years after we both left The Australian, we came across each other from time to time, at book launches and at galleries, but it had been some time since since our paths had crossed when The Good Weekend Magazine asked me to photograph him in 1989.

We met at his terrace house in Birchgrove, an inner city suburb of Sydney and after a bit of catching up and discussion, I settled on this little verandah alcove, where he stored his bicycle. I chose it for two reasons; firstly the window light was good,  but even better was the eccentric arrangment of his bike hanging on the wall and the snaking line of the blind cord in the window. These accidental props were so like the style of his cartoons, Wildly bizarre bizarre mechanical arrangements and wandering lines that all connect in some way to make some kind of anarchic sense are a characteristic of Bruce’s unique style. It was only when I put him in front of the camera I realised that the juxtaposition of the bicycle wheel behind his head was a perfect prop to portray him as Saint Bruce, the patron saint of Australian cartooning; another of those serendipitous photo moments when all the elements seem to fall into place. Luck? Accident? Planning? Perhaps a bit of everything, mixed in with the ability to recognise and use a bit of blatant symbolism…

If you are interested in seeing more of Bruce’s recent work the following link will take you to a gallery at the Sydney Morning Herald: Bruce Petty Gallery

For those interested in technical matters,  both the portraits of Bruce Petty and Michael Kirby were made with a Toyoview 5×4 studio camera and were shot on T-Max 400 with a Nikkor 150mm W lens.

Bruce Petty portrayed as the patron saint of Australian cartooning © Rob Walls 1989

Bruce Petty portrayed as the patron saint of Australian cartooning © Rob Walls 1989

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

Photographing Michael Kirby…sober as a judge?

Supreme Court Judge, Justice MIchael Kirby

Supreme Court Judge, Justice Michael Kirby

In 1988, Australia’s bicentennial year, along with several other photographers, I was commissioned by the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine to work on a series of black and white photographs of notable Australians. From the list offered I chose two subject: cartoonist, Bruce Petty, and a man I had long admired for his dedication to human rights and a just society, the High Court Judge, Justice Michael Kirby.

While arranging that portrait session, I still recall my shock when his honour blandly suggested that a good time to take pictures of him would be at 5 a m…on a Saturday! Yes, he would be in his chambers catching up on work in the quiet hours of the morning as was his custom.

I was reminded of this long ago portrait session by the fact that this week I have been photographing a conference for the organisation Jobs Australia and the Honourable Michael Kirby AC CMG was one of the guest speakers. Last night it suddenly occurred to me that I should get him to sign a print. I went through my files and not only did I locate a print, but I found the actual one I had submitted to the Good Weekend…and still on the back was my original, dot-matrix printed caption.

Of the experience of photographing him, I find I had written:

“Saturday morning hangovers in Sydney’s Supreme Court building; mine Tequila, his Sancerre…sober as a judge?

During the hour our conversation ranges from happiness to Mrs Thatcher; love; Rembrandt; photography; especially Karsh of Ottawa; wine; and his mother who can no longer hold her head up in Kogarah now that her son has been named in some journalist’s list of the “100 Most Appalling People”…his tongue only ever leaves his cheek to float ideas that carry in their wake deep thoughts and a touch of the philosophical…

“Judging” the Polaroids…he turns the session into a collaboration.

His Honour, a civilised man, is probably in grave danger of giving the judiciary a good name…”

Twenty years on, this is how His Honour looked this morning while  delivering an address titled “All you need is love…” to the Jobs Australia conference in Hobart.

Retired High Court Judge, Michael Kirby speaking at the Jobs Australia conference in Hobart, 23rd October, 2009.

Retired High Court Judge, Michael Kirby speaking at the Jobs Australia conference in Hobart, 23rd October, 2009.

He signed my print…and in recalling his passion for photography, unasked, he volunteered to launch an exhibition for me. “Life is a two-way street, Rob.” he said. I would be most honoured to have my work launched by a man of such warmth, wit and humanity. Expect to hear from me Michael, I have in mind just the project…

Michael Kirby 2lr

A second portrait of Michael Kirby from the shoot. I prefer the less sombre mood of this picture. © Rob Walls 1989

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

Behind the mask…picturing politicians…

A triumphant Bob Hawke on the campaign trail in Sydney, 1983. I shot this on assignment for Newsweek. © Rob Walls

A triumphant Bob Hawke on the campaign trail in Sydney, 1983. This was shot on assignment for Newsweek. © Rob Walls

I’ve been photographing politicians in office and on the campaign trail since the time of Sir Robert Menzies. That was so long ago, I wore a suit and was still using a Speed Graphic. It would be three more years before I switched to more casual clothing and the ease and immediacy of the Nikon F.

While many photographers find political photography boring, I delight in the sport. And damned fine sport it is; working like a hunter, seeking that ephemeral split second, when the subject might inadvertently slip out from behind the polished public persona.

Photographing politicians needs the same finely tuned reflexes required for photographing sport. But I think it needs a much more highly developed recognition of “peak action” than is required in sports photography. The peak action of the political moment is far more subtle than the titanic, bone-crunching clash of footballers or the soaring leap of an athlete.  Blink and you miss it…and unlike sports photography, the players don’t repetitiously try to re-create that moment. The reality of politics for the photographer is that there are teams of minders running interference between you and the subject trying to ensure that the moment is not repeated.

If you need convincing that our quarry is aware of the power of the unguarded political moment, you need look no further than the attempt by politicians to rule that the only legitimate subject to be photographed within the Australian Parliament was the politician speaking at the despatch box. All those SMSing, snoring, yawning or otherwise diverting themselves were ruled out of bounds. Of course the photographers of the press gallery ignored this.

These are some of my pictures of Australian Prime Ministers of the last few decades…

John Howard in opposition circa 1984, before his advisers smoothed the rough sartorial edges © Rob Walls

John Howard in opposition circa 1984, before his advisers smoothed the rough sartorial edges © Rob Walls

Paul Keating wth that particular twinkle in his eye often displayed when taking delight in verbally skewering an opponent.

Paul Keating wth that particular twinkle in his eye, often displayed when taking delight in verbally skewering an opponent. © Rob Walls

Bob Hawke in vindictive mode. I always thought that underneath the smooth exterior lay one very good hater. I think I caught it here. © Rob Walls

Bob Hawke in vindictive mode. I always thought that underneath the smooth exterior lay one very good hater. © Rob Walls

Malcolm Fraser during the 1983 election campaign. Paul Keating described him as "Like an Easter Island statue...". Out of office, he revealed a much warmer personality.

Malcolm Fraser during the 1983 election campaign. When in power he was expert at maintaining the mask. Paul Keating once described him as "Like an Easter Island statue...with an arse full of razor blades". Out of office, he revealed a much warmer personality. Two weeks after this picture was taken, having lost the election, he actually wept on camera. ® Rob Walls

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

Irving Penn dies at 92…

Irving Penn by Bert Stern

Irving Penn by Bert Stern

For those of us who came to professional photography in the early 1960s, the major influences were Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Capa and Larry Burrows in photojournalism. But if you aspired to the path of photojournalism that included magazine illustration, then there was Bert Stern, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. With all the humility I can muster, if ever I could claim a photographer influenced my work, it would be Irving Penn.

I don’t remember how I first became aware of his pictures. Maybe it was through the pages of the Swiss design magazine Graphis that I used to obsessively borrow from the graphic designers at the News and Information Bureau in Canberra. His influence on me and several generations of photographers has been profound.

Half of my photographic life has been spent pursuing the ephemeral craft of the photojournalist; the other half as an illustrative photographer; always with Penn’s cool style and unwavering aesthetic hovering over my work. He, (along with Edward Curtis and Frank Hurley) was the catalyst for my portraits for Polaroid in Papua New Guinea. It was from Penn that I borrowed the idea using a daylight studio. My portraits were an unashamed homage to his photography there.

He died in Manhattan on Wednesday last, aged 92. I believe he will continue to influence generations of future photographers…

PNG Portrait by Irving Penn

PNG Portrait by Irving Penn

Food still-life by Irving Penn

Food still-life by Irving Penn

Hells Angels by Irving Penn

Hells Angels by Irving Penn

Kate Moss by Irving Penn

Kate Moss by Irving Penn

Sophisticated lips for L'Oreal, 1968 by Irving Penn

Sophisticated lips for L'Oreal, 1968 by Irving Penn

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Filed under art, News, Photographer, Photography, Photojournalism, portraits, Rob Walls

Centre for Documentary Practice online symposium

Seeking Justice – Social Activism through Journalism & Documentary Practice

The Centre for Documentary Practice invites you to logon and join the world’s first online journalism and documentary conference on October 15th 2009, starting 12 midnight (GMT).

Speakers include Ed Kashi, Jodi Bieber, Marcus Bleasdale, Shahidul Alam, Gary Knight, Adam Ferguson, Travis Beard, Michael Coyne, Masaru Goto, Jack Picone, Megan Lewis, and more to be confirmed.

On October 15th we will connect an international community of documentary practitioners and journalists for one day, to share stories, to stimulate discussion and debate about our discipline, and to inspire each other to continue the fight for justice.

Register now for this free online conference.

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Australian government publishes up-skirt photos…

Through regulation, restriction, misguided legislation and baseless fear, the documentary photographer’s world is shrinking apace. Corporations and government instrumentalities have commodified our landscape in ways that make spontaneous photography in many precincts illegal.

National parks, beaches, shopping centres, rock concerts, railway stations, airports and schools are all off-limits for a variety of reasons, some of which I have touched on elsewhere (Uluru and photography restrictions…). Throw in an ill-informed public, uneducated security guards and police misquoting half understood laws and no photographer today raises his or her camera without a sense of unease.

Which makes the publication of these photos in 1991 by Australia Post, as part of an issue of five stamps, to celebrate 150 years of photography, all the more ironic.

Bondi Beach, 1939 photo by Max Dupain

Bondi Beach, 1939 photo by Max Dupain

The beach photograph by Max Dupain epitomises the Australian beach lifestyle. It rightly occupies a place of honour in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. But can you imagine shooting something like this today without being pounced on by over-zealous beach inspectors or the police being called?

In 2006 Max’s son Rex was detained and threatened with arrest for shooting pictures on Bondi Beach. http://www.news.com.au/story/0,23599,20895457-2,00.html

The Wheel of Youth, 1929 by Harold Cazneaux

The Wheel of Youth, 1929 by Harold Cazneaux

Crouching down low to capture the curving energetic sweep of The Wheel of Youth, as he did in 1929 at Dee Why, would almost guarantee Harold Cazneaux’s arrest if he was making that picture today. After all there are children in the frame. The pedophile alarm bells would be ringing loudly.

The reality is, that no photographer in 2009 could expect to make pictures like this and not be challenged. But were times so very different? I’d be interested in your thoughts…

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Filed under art, Australian, Opinion, Photographer, Photographers' rights, Photography, Photojournalism, Rob Walls