Mervyn Bishop, the exhibition

Photography Review

Mervyn Bishop | Mervyn Bishop, the exhibition

National Film and Sound Archives | Until 1 August 2021

This exhibition is drawn from the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) collection and Mervyn Bishop’s private archive; and enriched by sound and moving images from the NFSA. It features iconic photographs that derive from his career as a photojournalist, alongside personal images of family and friends and intimate portraits of members of the Aboriginal community.

H. Thomas, C. Dixon, K. Smith ACT from the Mervyn Bishop archive 1976 35mm colour slide 2.5 x 3.5 cm National Art Archive|Art Gallery of New South Wales © Mervyn Bishop Photo: AGNSW

There are also images of Bishop by other photographers, cameras from his personal collection, sound and moving image about him, and other videos providing context. So, it is not simply an exhibition of the artist’s imagery. It is an exhibition about the artist, one of Australia’s most prolific and influential photographers, who has significantly influenced our collective understanding of Australia’s history.

Bishop himself has said: ‘Photography has been my life, my passion for 60 years: the art and technique, the stories I’ve witnessed and captured. I’m glad to be able to share my life’s work with the public’.

Born and raised in Brewarrina, Bishop was encouraged by his mother to take his first photograph. After witnessing the ‘magic’ of the developing process, he became passionate about photography. In 1963 he successfully applied for a four-year cadetship at The Sydney Morning Herald and became Australia’s first Aboriginal press photographer. In 1971 he won the News Photographer of the Year Award with his front-page photograph, Life and Death Dash, 1971.

There is no need for me to assess the quality of Bishop’s images; others have recognised his skills many times over many years. I will simply say that his body of work is amongst the most significant by any Australian photographer.

Inevitably displayed is the iconic image from 1975 when the (then) Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, poured a handful of earth back into the hand of Vincent Lingiari, Gurindji elder and traditional landowner. This image became an icon of the land rights movement and Australian photography.

Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pours soil into the hands of traditional land owner Vincent Lingiari, Northern Territory 1975, printed 1999 type R3 photograph 30.5 x 30.5 cm image; 33.9 x 33.9 cm sheet Art Gallery of New South Wales Hallmark Cards Australian Photography Collection Fund 1991 © Mervyn Bishop/ Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Photo: AGNSW

But there is so much more. A wonderful shot of womenfolk at Bowraville includes Aunty Elaine Kelly wearing a cloth nappy around her face to ease toothache pain. Women attending a home management course at Yuendumu are portrayed sensitively in a fine moody image. Another of a woman balancing precariously on a wooden plank, holding a pot of water over a submerged cord supplying electricity to neighbours is a moving portrayal of living conditions for Aboriginal people in 1988.

There are important documentary images of well-known and important people, including Lois O’Donoghue and Oodgeroo Noonuccal. Other featured people include Roslyn Watson, one of the first Aboriginal ballerinas, and June Barker, an Aboriginal educator and story keeper.

Lois O’Donoghue CBA, AM, and Oodgeroo Noonuccal 1974, printed 2008 gelatin silver photograph 30 x 30.4 cm image; 40.4 x 50.6 cm sheet Art Gallery of New South Wales Purchased under the terms of the Florence Turner Blake Bequest 2008 © Mervyn Bishop Photo: AGNSW
Roslyn Watson 1973, printed 2008 gelatin silver photograph 40 x 30 cm sheet Art Gallery of New South Wales Purchased under the terms of the Florence Turner Blake Bequest 2008 © Mervyn Bishop Photo: AGNSW

And there are other more simple or gentle portrayals, such as Bob with his tiny catch at Shoalhaven Heads. An early work from 1966 portrays two of the photographer’s cousins when he visited Gundawera, a property near Brewarrina, where his grandfather, father and uncle once worked. It tenderly portrays a special and fun moment on a boat. It is a precious memory for Bishop, just as our old family photos are precious for each of us.

Cousins, Ralph and Jim, Brewarrina 1966, printed 2008 gelatin silver photograph 30 x 40 cm sheet Art Gallery of New South Wales Purchased under the terms of the Florence Turner Blake Bequest 2008 © Mervyn Bishop Photo: AGNSW

We are shown an excellent film about Bishop, directed by Warwick Thornton. And a home movie dating from c1957-8 of Bishop with fellow altar boys and Brothers at Brewarrina’s Christchurch, Church of England.

And when you have explored and taken in all of that, you can sit down and watch a curated slideshow of images from Bishop’s personal archive of over 8000 photos, taken during his 60 years of taking them. Like most photographers of his generation, he liked to host ‘slide nights’ for family, friends and neighbours. They were most fortunate people.

This review was first published by the Canberra Times here. It is also published on the Canberra Critics Circle blog here.

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