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”.
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…
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.