Beforehand – the private life of a portrait

Photography Review

Various Artists | Beforehand – the private life of a portrait

National Portrait Gallery | Until 14 February 2021

Beforehand – the private life of a portrait is about the backstories behind iconic works from the NPG collection and the creative and social process of making a portrait. It features excellent works in a variety of media, including thirteen photographic prints.

Entering the exhibition, the first things visitors can read is about storytelling. We are told a portrait captures a person’s presence in time as well as space; tells a story about lived experience – at times conveying a sense of the subject’s past and future. I suspect the vast majority of portraits, including selfies captured by smart phones today, tell very little about lived experience. However, those who are serious about creating good portraits would do well to think about telling their subject’s stories.

The exhibition takes us to the creative journeys behind the portraits, showing us working drawings, studies, scrapbooks, sketches and footage taken in studios or on location. Interviews with artists and sitters tell us much more; revealing relationships and connections between the two parties that generated the story being told.

An interview with champion woodchopper David Foster provides an excellent example of storytelling. Foster is pictured before a tree that he says has witnessed all the years of his family and the legacy of their championships. Photographer Jacqui Stockdale responds “Wow, what the tree saw” and uses that as the title for her image. The collaborative nature of their relationship produced a portrait capturing the essence of Foster’s story.

What the tree saw: David Foster 2018 © Jacqui Stockdale. Collection: National Portrait Gallery. Commissioned with funds provided by the Sid and Fiona Myer Family Foundation 2018.

Greg Weight’s portrait of contemporary artist Lindy Lee shows her standing within one of her own installations. Weight is present with Lee and has captured her much as he might capture a landscape, connecting us with her creativity.

Lindy Lee 1995 © Greg Weight. Collection: National Portrait Gallery. Gift of Patrick Corrigan AM 2004. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program.

Ian Lloyd has also photographed leading artists throughout Australia. His portrait of the acclaimed indigenous artist Gloria Petyarre was taken as she applied layer on layer of dots on a canvas. The resultant image is remarkable, revealing clearly who she is: “an Anmatyerre woman from the Atnangkere country, near Alice Springs”. It is her country, her family’s country, the country she loves. Lloyd shows how his subject has touched and shaped many others.

Gloria Petyarre 2005 © R. Ian Lloyd. Collection: National Portrait Gallery. Gift of the artist 2010. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program.

When cyclist Anna Meares and photographer Narelle Autio met ahead of their shoot, both were delighted to learn that neither wanted Meares wearing lycra or riding her bicycle. Both wanted an image of who she was, rather than what she did. The image taken amongst the trees and rocks in the Adelaide Hills clearly shows something of her toughness; the dress she wears shows her femininity.

Anna Meares 2018 © Narelle Autio. Collection: National Portrait Gallery. Commissioned with funds provided by King & Wood Mallesons 2018

Peter Brew-Bevan’s image of the Artistic Director of the Australian Ballet, David McAllister, is stunning. It most successfully portrays the elegant motion of ballet, whilst delighting McAllister by showing what he describes as a “pensive moment”. The image reveals much about Brew-Bevan as well. His own energy is a major part of the shot’s energy, so it becomes a self-portrait of him as well as a portrait of McAllister.

The Dance David McAllister 2016 © Peter Brew Bevan. Collection: National Portrait Gallery. Commissioned with funds provided by The Stuart Leslie Foundation 2016

In a similar way, Hari Ho’s portrait of Dadang Christanto is a document of a powerful moment of performance in both of their practices. All who have seen Christanto’s Heads from the North in the National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden, will immediately see and relate to Ho’s intentions here.

Most of us have followed Jessica Mauboy’s career, either closely or at least with some interest. David Rosetzky’s portrait splendidly conveys her energy. Every portrait in this exhibition reveals something of the stories of the subjects and it is well worth spending time with each work, thinking about what is revealed about lived experiences.

This review was first published in the Canberra Times of 30/1/21 here. It is also available on the Canberra Critics Circle blog here.

Standard

Australian Dreams: Picturing our Built World

Visual Arts Review

Various Artists | Australian Dreams: Picturing our Built World

Exhibition Gallery, National Library of Australia | Until 31 January 2021

Australian Dreams: Picturing our Built World shows how visual artists have documented and interpreted Australia’s buildings for over 200 years. The works are exclusively from the National Library’s extensive collections and include many of our best artists; those whose names and images are known by all art lovers, some less familiar.

Entering the gallery, I was immediately immersed in a stunning photo wall of 48 images, selected from the vast 25,292 collected for the Regional cities and major towns project, which documents the architecture of hundreds of Australian towns. There is a dark moody image of the closed railway station on the Kulwin line in Wycheproof. And there’s an image of Toowoomba’s closed Camera Obscura – how many remember sitting inside as the cylinder wall rotated noisily and you saw significant buildings below in the ancient crater where the city is situated?

Inside the gallery, there are many more wonderful photos, prints, drawings and paintings. Captions are not needed for famous buildings, such as Canberra’s Shine Dome and Parliament House but, for most of us, are necessary for a Surry Hills street, a deserted farmhouse on the outskirts of Maitland during the major flood of 1955, a home by Lynchford railway tracks, a scarred tree in the front yard of a suburban Canberra house, and a miner’s hut in Lithgow Valley.

A miner’s hut, Lithgow Valley, New South Wales, ca. 1885 © Charles Kerry

There are other delights in display cabinets – contemporary photo books documenting Oxford Street, Masters stores, and ordinary homes. How I longed to pick them up and turn their pages! There is a slide show from Wes Stacey’s archive – homesteads, timber buildings, and the architecture of historic towns and settlements.

Visitors to the exhibition explore the colonial era, when European artists produced paintings, prints and photographs of streetscapes and major public buildings in the new cities and towns, and on frontier properties. Conrad Martens’ striking watercolour of Craigend in Sydney is a feature.

Then we see the first decades of the twentieth century, when artists such as photographer Harold Cazneaux and wood engraver Lionel Lindsay created romantic images of old Sydney, the bush and grand colonial buildings. These images were influenced by the revival of etching in printmaking and a more impressionistic approach to photography.

Going home, Doohat Lane, North Sydney, New South Wales, 1910 © Harold Cazneaux

Later, modernism began to dominate – whether the subjects were post-war architecture or familiar old streets. We see compositions utilising strong contrasts, sharp forms and lines. Olive Cotton’s Fire Escape clearly displays her techniques as expressed in a 1938 magazine interview: “The lighting, the relation of the various objects to the shape of the picture, and many other factors can be changed by the individual, and this is where discernment and personality come into the picture.”

Fire Escape c.1935 © Olive Cotton (1911–2003)

The final images in the exhibition demonstrate how many of these artists found something compelling in buildings where ordinary lives played out, in various states of use, disuse, demolition and destruction. They also created images communicating why buildings are worth seeing and saving.

William Yang, a third generation Australian Chinese, has developed an international reputation as a photographer and performer. His art is about the telling of stories, often writing words on the surfaces of his prints, as in his image of Canberra’s School of Art after a hailstorm in 2007.

Hail #5, School of Art, 2007. From the series – Breathing the Rarefied Air of Canberra © William Yang

Other great images that appealed to me were Maggie Diaz’s Higgins Boys, Charles Bayliss’s Sydney Technical College Building Exterior, Wolfgang Sievers’ Olympic Swimming Pool, and John Bertram Eaton’s Steps in a Courtyard. Go see for yourself and think about what other buildings are worth going to see again or should be saved for future generations.

Sydney Technical College Building Exterior, 1889, 2 in Photographs of Premises Occupied by the Board of Technical Education of New South Wales, 1889 © Charles Bayliss (1850-1897)

This review was first published by the Canberra Times of 23/1/21 here. It is also on the Canberra Critics Circle blog here.

Standard

Migration

This is a description of the journey when I migrated from England to Australia in 1950

Our human family had not increased when mum and dad took what I consider to have been a most courageous decision to emigrate to Australia, where they hoped their sons would have better future life opportunities.

A Document of Identity in lieu of a passport was issued to dad for travel to Australia as an approved migrant accompanied by mum and their two children, myself included.

So, late in 1950, we sailed from Liverpool on the MV Cheshire, a ship which had seen service as a troop transport in World War II and, later, was to be used in a similar role during the Korean War.

MV Cheshire

So, for around five weeks, my home was on the seas. We travelled south past France and Spain, with a majority of the passengers including me being horribly seasick for the first several days. The ship had no stabilisers, so it rolled horribly in the waves. Then we went past Gibraltar and through the Mediterranean Sea, through the Suez Canal, the Gulf of Suez, and the Red Sea to Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka), and across the Indian Ocean to Australia.

My memories of life on board are again fragile. I know that dad, Alan and myself were in a cabin with five other men, whilst mum was elsewhere with a group of women. I also know that the children were given bread and jam as a treat each day. We rushed to line up for ours then took them to mum and dad so they could have them, before returning to the queue for a second time.

On board the MC Cheshire

We stopped at Port Said (Egypt), where locals in small boats rowed out to our ship and plied their wares of fresh fruit. Purchases were hauled up in baskets that were then lowered back down empty. As we passed through the Suez Canal, we passed a ship going the other way, and some of its passengers were disgruntled British people who had tried Australia and called out to us that we were making a mistake.

We stopped again in Aden (Yemen).

At Aden
Dad, mum, Alan and me at Aden

We also stopped at Colombo (Ceylon) and took a short land trip south of there to Mount Lavinia.

Ead, mum, Alan and me at Mount Lavinia
Mum (back, far right). Me and Alan (front, far right) at Mt Lavinia

When we crossed the equator there was a fun ceremony to mark that. On other occasions we wore fancy dress for events that brightened the journey.

Alan in “fancy dress”

After completing our crossing of the Indian Ocean, our first Australian port was Fremantle. Some people, including friends mum and dad had made on board, disembarked at Fremantle to begin their new lives in Western Australia.

Our destination was Melbourne, which we reached on the fourteenth of December. We were greeted by a wild storm which almost prevented the tugs from getting us to the wharf. As a result, we – and the rest of the Melbourne-bound British migrants still on board – did not disembark until the morning of the fifteenth. Some continued on to Sydney.

Melbourne’s Sun newspaper told the story on page 2 of the tugs’ difficult task:

The passenger lists held by the National Archives of Australia show the four of us. They also show the four members of the Pfur family, with whom we remained in contact for many years:

After disembarking, we were met by my aunt Mary & uncle Tom and cousins David & Margaret, and by Tony Wilson – a member of the family that was to be mum and dad’s employers and who had sponsored us as assisted passage migrants.

Met at Port Melbourne. Back- Uncle Tom, Mum Eileen, Aunt Mary, Dad Jim. Front- cousins David and Margaret, Alan and me.

We were driven by Tony what seemed an incredible distance in the Wilson’s Armstrong-Siddeley utility to our new home on their property of Bundoran, near Glenthompson and Dunkeld in the Western Districts of Victoria.

Before settling into this new home and jobs we were to spend a short period, including Christmas of 1950, with dad’s sister, Mary Brown, and her family on another property in nearby Victoria Valley, in the Grampian Mountains. Aunty Mary and Uncle Tom, plus cousins David and Margaret, had themselves migrated in 1949, having in turn been enticed to join Tom’s brother Charles, who had come to work with the Methodist Church and had become its Minister at Dunkeld.

One of the things I brought with me from England was a copy of “Bobby Bear’s Annual” – a book given to me by the Browns inscribed “With love and best wishes to dear Brian from Uncle Tom, Auntie Mary, David and Margaret. Dec. 1949. Just as we were leaving on ‘SS Raneli’ for Australia”. Minus its front hard cover, that book remains in my possession.

Not too many years later, although I don’t remember the date, I received another bible. It was a gift from a grandmother, but the inscription is in my mother’s handwriting – not doubt because she would have purchased it in Australia on behalf of grandma nanny still living in England.

And, so, my new life in Australia began.

Standard

Early Life In London

This is an account of my early childhood

The home address mum gave when registering my birth on 12 March 1942 was 39 Fairview Road, Tottenham, London, N15. I don’t know whether we ever lived there. I do know that during World War II mum and I spent a lot of time living with mum’s sister Nell Ridley and her eldest children, who were also very young, but I’m not sure at whose house that was. Mum was evacuated a second time to Bragborough Hall, Northamptonshire for the birth of my younger brother Alan James Rope (on 9 June 1943) when I was just 15 months old. I presume I went with her. Dad got army leave again at that time.

When clearing out mum’s last independent living residence at the time she moved into residential care in 2016 we came across my baptism certificate and a letter written at the time. It revealed I was baptised in our local Congregational church on 22 March 1942 (just 19 days after birth), whereas I had previously heard a story about being baptised in a Presbyterian church close to where my dad’s sister Mary lived one day when we went to visit her.

The Minister, Rev Henry Donald, wrote out some words by the abolitionist, author, and Congregationalist clergyman, Henry Ward Beecher and provided them to mum and dad at the baptism.

I believe this to be an architectural drawing of the Stamford Hill Congregational Church:

Below is the earliest photograph I have of myself and I wonder whether it was taken on the day I was baptised.

Here are some other early photos of me (at least I’m pretty sure they are of me and not my brother):

My first memory of a home where all four of us lived as a family relates to 60 Ravensdale Road, Stamford Hill, London, N16. The house at that address has long since been demolished and replaced by housing commission bungalows. When we lived there it was a large, somewhat ugly, building with three families occupying different floors, despite an internal staircase via which each family could freely move into their neighbours’ apartments. We had the basement and ground floor. The view from the basement’s rear windows was straight into a wall, into which was set a flight of steps leading up to the back garden area. This image taken from Google maps shows 63 Ravensdale Road at the left. It and the adjacent houses look very much what I imagine our house was like.

Although we lived at this address until I was eight years old, I have only a few memories of it and suspect they only relate to things I was subsequently reminded of by mum and dad. There is a story of a big Guy Fawkes Night bonfire in the back garden area when someone’s nylon stockings were set on fire by a lit jumping jack. And I know we had pets, including a golden retriever dog that got distemper, and a couple of goldfish named after two of my uncles. There also were pet mice in a “house” with installations for them to exercise and play on.

Whilst living here I attended the Craven Park School. I started there on my fifth birthday, which apparently was the practice in England at that time. I’m told that Mum walked me to school that morning through a couple of feet of snow. My reports show that I was a good student, placing 1st in my class in both December 1949 and July 1950.

This latter report also records that my Religious Knowledge was “V. Good.”

The Bible

I do not consider myself to be a bible scholar, although it has been a part of my entire life. Here is a montage of inscriptions in my various bibles overlaid on a photo I took of another youngster reading a bible and an illustration from one of mine:

I do not know when I would have been given my first bible but, no doubt, it would have been an illustrated version considered most suitable for a young child at the time.

I certainly received an illustrated bible when I was just 7 years old. The Ravensdale Road Methodist Sunday School that my brother, Alan, and I attended presented me with one in 1949. As we lived in Ravensdale Road we didn’t have to go far to Sunday School. The sticker inside the front cover records that I got 43 marks, presumably in some sort of bible test. I don’t know how many that was out of – if it was 100 my knowledge wasn’t so good, but if it was out of 50 then I wasn’t doing too badly.

I received another bible just one year after the Sunday School prize. In 1950 our family left London and sailed from England to Australia as migrants. The 177th London Life Boy Team, of which I had been a member gave me a bible as a farewell gift.

So, that is when I left England heading towards a new life in the Great Southern Land known as Australia.

Standard

Best of 2020 – Photography

This aticle was published on page 20 of The Canberra Times of 5 January 2021 and on their website here.

When I wrote a similar piece to this a year ago, I expressed a hope that we could look forward to a lot of great photography to enjoy with our 20/20 vision.

Despite everything, there has been a significant number of good public photography exhibitions throughout our city. I have reviewed 24 of them for this newspaper, plus one that was held in Goulburn. There are a number of others that I have seen but not reviewed here, as well as a few more that I missed.

How were so many exhibitions possible with the restrictions imposed on galleries? Seven of the reviewed exhibitions commenced before any restrictions. Only one was totally online. Others took place during periods of restrictions, but galleries were innovative in their approaches. And now the remaining restrictions create no real barriers for galleries.

Having commenced an excellent online gallery, Photo Access continued to use it in conjunction with physical exhibitions whilst visitor numbers were greatly restricted. The use of recorded conversations with exhibitors, audio and video pieces contributed by other exhibitors, and posting links to ArtSound FM interviews was an innovative and clever response. Some other galleries also went online with virtual exhibitions.

Their substantial outdoor space also allowed Photo Access to conduct openings outside letting small numbers go int the gallery at a time during those openings. One exhibition was actually “hung” in the outside space for its duration.

Another outdoors gallery came into being during the year, with the establishment of Exhibition Avenue on the ANU campus. The first, and still continuing, exhibition there is photography that can be viewed 24 hours per day. The passing foot traffic is substantial so I expect many people have looked at the works on display, whereas they may not have visited an indoors gallery space.

I continue to be disappointed when some galleries provide inadequate background material regarding exhibitions. I appreciate that there is a cost involved in commissioning an essay about an exhibition – but it is a modest price to pay for something that can make a significant difference to visitors (even if only published online rather than in a printed catalogue).

It was disappointing that restrictions prevented the Canberra Photographic Society from properly celebrating its 75th anniversary during 2020. We were denied the opportunity of seeing something special.

A year ago, I mentioned that two locals had been finalists in the 2019 Mullins Conceptual Photography Prize (MCPP). I expressed my hope that we might go one better in 2020 and see a local winning that or another of the major photography Prizes. Well, it happened. Canberra photographer Judy Parker took out the $10,000 Prize. And several other locals were also finalists. Two other Canberra photographers took out prizes in a national 2020 Photobook of the Year competition.

And, even better, two photographers received 2020 ACT Arts Awards. Sophie Dumaresq received an award for her exhibition ‘The Hairy Panic’ at Nishi Gallery during Art, Not Apart, comprising photographs of a land art installation on grasslands surrounding Lake George, plus tumbleweed sculptures. Two images from that exhibition were finalists in the 2020 MCPP, and one a finalist in the Goulburn Art Prize.

Hairy Panic, Untitled #15 © Sophie Dumaresq

Grace Costa received an award for being the driving force behind the exhibition ‘The Journey Through’ by eleven Canberra region artists at Photo Access, showing the results of exploring, confronting and sharing their personal stories during an eight months’ long workshop.

Now let’s hope that 2021 brings us more great photography exhibitions, events and achievements, including the successful emergence of new local talents.

Standard