Tag Archives: large format

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


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

The Harley Davidson of cameras…

Bikers, Tamworth, circa 1982

Bikers, Tamworth, circa 1982

Long before digital photography was there to provide me with everyday excitement and enthusiasm, whenever my work became stale and predictable, I would try to introduce a change of pace, subject or format to freshen up my eye. Sometime in the early 80s, I suggested to my then assistant, Frank Lindner, that we take a trip to the annual Tamworth Country Music Festival, to see what it was about.

For change of format from my usual 35mm work, I borrowed a 5×4 Pacemaker Speed Graphic from my good friend and colleague, Simon Cowling, and with a couple of Grafmatic backs loaded with T-Max 400 set off on the 600 kilometre drive to Tamworth.

We arrived mid-morning and drove around the city looking for picture opportunities. We drove all over town looking at all these boring, cowboy-hatted, line-dancing types and country yodellers, but just couldn’t get excited about the subject. Now don’t get me wrong. I like country music. The real thing, American country music, that is. I just don’t enjoy the derivative Australian version that masquerades in pseudo-American accents as the voice of rural Australia. But that’s another story, and will probably get me a whole lot of rude comments from Slim Dusty or Lee Kernaghan fans. To me, Tamworth lacked authenticity, and I wasn’t in the mood to make pictures taking the piss out of imitation cowboys.

In cruising through town we had both taken a sideways glance at a particular noisy pub. The Locomotive Hotel had been adopted by biker gangs as their headquarters for the weekend and the noise of their rioting could be heard for several blocks. Neither of us said anything. But on our third pass, I said to Frank, “What do you reckon?” The answer he gave was probably not the one I wanted or needed. “I’m game if you are.” Now, we were committed by our egos, come what may.

Finding a parking spot nearby we tried to insinuate ourselves quietly amongst this rough and rowdy crowd. As we arrived they didn’t seem to take much notice of us, but they were too pre-occupied throwing beer cans at a singer on a makeshift stage on the back of a truck and also, as we were, distracted by biker women who were flashing their breasts. Frank and I tried to look as tough as we could. Anyone knowing Frank is probably laughing right now. I at least had the advantage of size, but in reality there was no disguising the fact that we were soft civilians. I also had that Speed Graphic hanging like a baby coffin from my left hand and in my mind it now took on the dimensions of the Polaroid 20×24 camera (and I’ve been lucky enough to shoot with that monster too, but that’s another story altogether). Discrete photography was never an attribute of the Pacemaker Graphic.

Frank and I separated to look for pictures. In less than ten minutes, he was back having been immediately robbed of his cash in the hotel. Luckily they let him keep his cameras.

Things were looking decidedly perilous. After about half an hour of trying to get up enough courage to take pictures, some burly bikers bailed me up, eyed the Speed Graphic and demanded, “What the fuck is that?” This was it, I thought. The moment when I’m kicked to the ground and stomped to death by a crowd of enraged bikers.

Seeking an appropriately conciliatory response, I felt a sudden surge of adrenaline. I briefly weighed up my chances of using that big camera as a weapon. I’d once seen one used to knock out a photographer, but that’s yet another story. I immediately thought the better of it. Suddenly, inspiration! Trying desperately to conceal the quaver in my voice, I said, “I guess you could call it the Harley Davidson of press cameras. It’s called a Speed Graphic”…a couple of beats while this information penetrated their beer and dope-soaked brains…”Shit mate, that’s cool. Take our photo!” they ordered.

I didn’t hesitate. Desperately struggling to hide the trembling of my hands while cranking away at the rangefinder I got away a couple of frames. They bought me a beer…

PS If you are old enough to remember using a Speed Graphic, please feel free to add your memories of this wonderful camera…


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