Every quarter I have been writing a piece for the APS Focus page in Australian Photography magazine. This is my latest piece, published in the September 2018 issue now in newsagencies.
A Photographic Biography
A traditional portrait essentially only shows what we look like at the moment in time when it was taken. An environmental portrait reveals more because it includes something of the environment in which we live or work. The more skilled and imaginative the photographer the more interesting a portrait will be for the viewer to study.
However, what if we want to show the viewer of a portrait much more? I asked myself this question when I began thinking about how I might portray myself in the context of a visual autobiography. A what?
Well, why is it that biographies must be in the form of the written word, perhaps illustrated by a small number of relevant family photos? Why can’t it be reversed so that the photographic medium becomes the principal information, perhaps “illustrated” with a small number of relevant words?
As my thought processes took some shape, it occurred to me that I could identify some key points throughout my life (or someone else’s) from its starting point through to the present (a little like chapters in a written biography). Each key point could then be illustrated in a series of photo montages.
The next question was how to structure each montage. I have always thought of peoples’ lives as journeys and, since most journeys involve traveling along roads, I had the idea of using an image of a section of a road as the background to each montage. Of course, journeys can also be taken by train or plane or boat – so images of railway lines or sky or oceans could also be used as the backgrounds.
The next step was to consider how to lay out other images to form the montages. To develop this concept for my own autobiography, the answer for me was easy. Because my surname is Rope, I could photograph pieces of rope to superimpose somewhere on the road background and then add other images relevant to each identified point on my life journey.
Since this is the reverse of the traditional approach, I would also need to write a few words to go with each composite image. Perhaps the real challenge for we visual artists?
The viewer who studies the composite images when completed will see places where I have lived, schools I have attended, people who have been a significant part of my life at various times, images revealing things that have been important to me, items that I have made and photographs of significance for me.
The composite images would need to be available in a sufficiently large size for “readers” to adequately see all the elements within them, including any text that was superimposed.
Printing each “chapter” at, say, A2 would certainly help. That would mean creating a very large photo book for the coffee table or holding an exhibition of the completed biography or decorating all the walls of your home with the large prints. Alternatively, the biography could be “read” on a sufficiently large monitor.
I have only just commenced my autobiography project but have “drafted” a small number of composites which, as with the chapters of a written biography, may be re-worked to get them right.
The limited space on this page does not lend itself to reproducing a detailed composite. However, it should be sufficient to show the basic elements of a montage about my voyage to Australia as a child migrant. It has an English beach at the top, an Australian one at the bottom and ocean in between. It shows a statue of children stepping ashore at Fremantle where I first set foot on Australian soil, and the year when I did.
The complete composite also includes the ship on which I travelled, its name, a newspaper report about the gale when docking in Melbourne, and some rope. The draft accompanying words read:
10-pound Poms to a country with boundless plains to share
Vomiting all the way through Bay of Biscay
Via Gibraltar, the Suez Canal – going the wrong way
shout those who couldn’t hack the new life, and Colombo
Sharing a cabin with dad and five other men
Bread and jam for children passed on to parents
Bus from Fremantle to Perth on a stinking hot Sunday
No shops open and many annoying flies
Gale force winds in Melbourne break tug ropes as we try to dock
Then a road journey to Western Districts and a new home
My long and close involvement with the Australian Photographic Society and other areas of photography is certainly worthy of inclusion in my autobiography, but I’ve yet to work on it. Perhaps the Society’s annual convention at the Gold Coast this September might provide another image for inclusion? Will I see you there?