Monthly Archives: January 2010

In the eye of the beholder…

I’ve recently been thinking about how a photograph can contain many levels of meaning. At the most basic level a photograph conveys its message from the objects within the frame and their relationship to each other. One of the hardest things a photographer must learn if their photographs are to be meaningful to others, is to separate themselves from the peripheral experience, the memory of the events and experiences surrounding a picture. Too often the photographer makes the mistake of thinking that the emotions that accompanied the making of a photograph are somehow automatically imbued within the picture.  Only when you learn to be objective about your work can you begin to make good photographs.

Some months ago, the wife of a friend asked me if I had a photograph that might make a good gift for her husband’s 64th birthday. In the late 1960s, as young and irresponsible men, we had travelled together in Europe.

Early morning, French Pyrenees, 1969

I went back through my negatives and found this photograph I had taken 40 years ago; it prompted me to think about the layers of meaning a simple photograph can contain. To the ordinary viewer this is just a picture of two men talking on a street corner in the early morning sunlight. Evocative enough in it’s own way, the astute viewer might guess that it is is somewhere in Europe; perhaps even deduce that it is somewhere in France. The picture is evocative enough in it’s own way; but to three people, it has layers of experience and memory that the ordinary viewer cannot possible access. This was the picture I decided would make the perfect birthday gift and I wrote this, a festschrift, as the Germans call it, to go on the back of the frame:

In the early spring of 1969, journalist, Tony Hewett and I persuaded Bruce Best that his soul would be spiritually enhanced by exposure to the sublimely soaring architecture of Antonio Gaudi. To be perfectly honest, his inclusion in this pilgrimage had a lot to do with the fact that he was the only one of our friends who owned a car. Tempting him with the suggestion that this would be a Tour de France Gastronomique, he took little convincing and soon we were ambling in his old Austin A 40 Estate, through the last of the spring snows of the French Hautes-Pyrénées. Barcelona bound.

With night coming on, we stopped at a plain but comfortable little hotel, in a tiny mountain village. The proprietor apologised that he was not prepared for guests so early in the season and all he could manage by way of food was some trout. The memory of that meal lingers as though it were yesterday. The freshest trout, grilled with almonds and served with a butter sauce, potatoes, salad, crusty bread and a flinty, dry, white wine. The stream, in which the trout had so recently resided, roared past just below where we ate.

After dinner we decided to walk off our meal with a promenade down the single street of the village. The night air was chill and hearing the rumble of conversation from a small, dimly-lit bar we went in to warm ourselves by the fire. Bruce suggested a Chartreuse as “un digestif” and soon we were deep into a comparative tasting of both the green and yellow liqueurs of those good Carthusian monks. Our indecisiveness over which was the better required several repeat rounds. At closing time, we tumbled back into the street and under a freezing, clear, starry sky stumbled back to the hotel.

We were woken the next morning by the sound of animated discussion beneath our window. Badly hungover, the hard light made us flinch. Below us, two men, one with the inevitable smouldering Gauloise glued to his bottom lip, the other in a classic beret, were chatting amiably in the slanting early-morning sunlight. I dived for my Nikon to capture this quintessentially French scene.

That my dear friend was looking over my shoulder when I made this photograph, means a lot to me. At a high point in our lives, this is where we were exactly 40 years ago. I hope it awakens many memories of that crazy, youthful expedition…to Barcelona and back…

Happy 64th birthday, Bruce…with love…

Rob, Hobart, Tasmania 2009.

As you can see this picture carries with it special memories for Tony, Bruce and me. They are inaccessible to anyone else…except perhaps in some small way, when the picture is accompanied by the text. It brings to mind photo editor Wilson Hicks’ dictum: “The basic unit of photojournalism, is one picture, with words“.

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Filed under art, Australian, Autobiography, Photographer, Photography, Photojournalism, Rob Walls, travel

Cruising the Whitsundays on the Solway Lass…

WARNING: THIS POST MAY CONTAIN STRONG SENTIMENTALITY. If you are allergic to such, please come back in a few days when there will be more down-to-earth postings.

Twenty years ago, on the 20th of January 1990, my wife Sulyn and I celebrated our wedding on Sydney harbour on the 127 foot, square rigged schooner, Solway Lass. Discovering that she was now cruising the Whitsunday Islands on the Great Barrier Reef, I booked a three day cruise on her for a second honeymoon.

This is Suzi giving her impression of a ship’s figurehead as I, with 10-20mm Sigma on my Nikon D90, nervously coax the bosun in closer under the bowsprit.

The Solway Lass making eight knots under sail

Did we have a good time? I think the smiles in this photo, as we cut a surprise chocolate cake presented to us by the crew, say it all. The 20th January, 2010 was in the words of Lou Reed “One perfect day”.

Sulyn raises a glass of champagne as we cut our anniversary cake. Topping and tailing 20 years together with two superb parties on the Solway Lass was just...neat!

Solway Lass’  Skipper Paul Creswell, was not just chosen for his film star good looks, he is also a skilled mariner and a charming host.

Skipper, Paul Cresswell, steers the Solway Lass to a safe anchorage in the late afternoon sun.

To describe the trip without resorting to hyperbole is just not possible. Sulyn says she has to keep pinching herself to believe that only four days ago she was diving alongside Green Turtles in the Whitsundays. All I can say is that I’m not going to wait 20 years before I go back…sometimes this photographer’s life reaches near perfection.

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Tough times ahead for graphics professionals

In an article in the Los Angeles Times, James Rainey paints a gloomy picture for photographers and graphic artists. Perhaps he’s not saying anything we didn’t already know, but I’m kind of glad that I’m now at the back end of my career, rather than just starting out. This must be what it was like to be a portrait painter around the time of the invention of photography…as artist Paul Delaroche is (probably apocryphally) supposed to have said in 1839, on seeing a Daguerrotype, “From today painting is dead!” (a more balanced view of Delaroche’s opinion can be found here in Robert Leggat’s “History of Photography”.)

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Child pornography and the artist…the new puritanism

The New South Wales government is considering laws that could severely inhibit and restrict artists working with children. Story here.

Surely laws already exist covering the production of child pornography? To give  government and/or police the right to be the arbiter of artistic standards is an act of repression that defies common sense and would undoubtedly ensure severe restrictions on freedom of expression.

The story in the Sydney Morning Herald quotes NSW Council for Civil Liberties president Cameron Murphy, who said that removing the artistic merit defence would infringe on genuine artistic endeavour. Mr Murphy said: ”The problem is getting sensible policy in this area, which is compounded by people becoming emotional to the point of being irrational.”

A lot of the hysteria over the photography of Bill Henson derives from the very ignorance of the kind of people who would be making judgement on the work of similar artists. Are they aware that Edward Weston’s lovingly explicit nude photographs of his son Neil are available in any bookstore in Australia that stocks good photography books? You can view these pictures here, (WARNING: they are of male child nudity).

Weston’s work has always had a sensual quality about it but pornography is in the eye/mind of the beholder. There is a specific instance I know of where a woman cancelled her subscription to a British fine art photography magazine because in her view they had published pornography. This picture was also by Edward Weston. This was the photograph:

Nautilus Shell 1927 by Edward Weston

Weston himself, in his published journals, mentions that people’s response to this picture often referred to its sexual nature, yet he has stated that at the time of making the picture sex was the furthest thing from his mind. Even if there is some subliminal Freudian connection, the reality is that this is a photograph of a sea-shell…and nothing more. Any other interpretation is purely in the mind of the veiwer. (As an aside: In 1968 I talked with his son Cole about buying a print of this picture. He wanted $US60. Cole told me he was coming to London and would bring with him a print. He never turned up. I wish I had pursued it further. A vintage print of this photograph sold at auction for $US1,105,000 in 2007).

Could you too fall victim to the new puritanism? It’s possible. About eight years ago I took this photograph of my daughter in the bath. She was about four years old at the time. It hangs framed in our hall:

Cassie bathing

Parental love, her innocent poise and the ethereal beauty of her long hair drifting around her in the bath water, were what moved me. It was a moment I treasure and a picture that I think transcends the mundanity of the family snapshot. I am certain that in that instant my motivation was no different from that of Weston when he photographed his son.

I think we need to beware this dangerous retrogade slide into artistic repression. Governments should never be taken at their word.

May I remind you of the words of Hermann Goering, “…it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.” Substitute “artists” for “pacifists”. The meaning is the same…

“We should remember that an important index of social freedom, in earlier times or in repressive regimes elsewhere in the world, is how artists and art are treated by the state.”

Actor Cate Blanchett, Nobel prize winning author Jan Coetzee, Museum of Contemporary Art director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor and eminent Tasmanian economist Saul Eslake  in a letter to the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Minister for the Arts, Peter Garrett, May 2008.

In his essay “On Indignation” published By Melbourne University Press 2008, that wonderfully lucid Australian author, Don Watson wrote:

“…if some decent people get indignant about pictures of naked children in works of art while others just as decent don’t, is that because the second group are less decent in the matter of  children or because the first group are? Are the second lot simply insensible to the moral danger the first lot see, or are the first lot compensating for disturbing feelings the pictures disturb in them?

I would number myself among those people who don’t feel indignant about it, while conceding that they are not in every case morally vigilant or as strict with themselves as they should be. They do not feel themselves threatened by pictures of naked children, they do not feel their children are threatened  by them and, perhaps because a bit of nakedness really never hurt anybody, they do not feel that the child in the photograph is threatened. It might be for these reasons that the matter does not spark indignation; it might be because they feel indignant about too much else, or because stupidity or cultural theory have left them without the capacity to feel indignant about anything; or it might be that they have an aversion to particular kinds of moral indignation–especially the kind which cannot co-exist with ambiguity; a sense of humour, or any other sense that might grant us tolerance and self-awareness. There is always a sense with the morally indignant that their real aim is to console themselves.”

Don Watson, On Indignation MUP 2008.


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Somewhat surreal…

A relic of future archaeology?

A year or so ago I rescued this shop-window dummy from the recycling shop that is an adjunct of our city dump. Far too handsome to become landfill, mounted on an old tree stump, he has been doing sterling service as a rather metrosexual, garden sculpture-cum-scarecrow. For fairly obvious reasons we have christened him Vincent de Milo.

For some months, I’ve been thinking of photographing him in various locations. Yesterday, he had his first outing to the beach where, inspired by the remnants of the Statue of Liberty sticking out of the sand in the final scene of Planet of The Apes, I visualised him in the role of some future archaeological find. What next for Vincent? Watch this space…

Vincent in his more prosaic job as garden watchman

Back from the beach: Vincent in his more prosaic role as garden sentinel.

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Thinking about work…

Painters at work, Melville Street, Hobart

Painters at work, Melville Street, Hobart

I’ve been thinking about the subject of work at lot lately. Some would say I prefer to think about it rather than perform it. But it occurred to me there are still many jobs that can’t be computerised. These two painters painting the window frames of this old Georgian store in Melville Street Hobart this morning,  can probably feel comfortable in the knowledge that their jobs are unlikely to be overtaken by the digital revolution, any time in the near future.

Camera: Canon Powershot G11

A POSTSCRIPT: driving past the day after, I see that the beautiful remnants of the words “Furnishing Warehouse” have now been sanded off the timber facade. Sad! But they still  live on in this photo.

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