My Photography, Personal Story, Photography Story

The Book Launch

I’d helped him move his stock of books in boxes to Canberra’s The Street Theatre earlier in the week, then we transported a final box of pre-sold copies ready signed for each purchaser arriving at his request around 2.30pm on the day of the book launch. He was already there set up at a small table underneath the permanent installation on the wall commemorating the man who the book is about. Nearby, a theatre staff member was ready to start selling copies for him to sign as purchasers brought them to his table.

Joel Swadling at the book signing table © Brian Rope

The book If This Is The Highway, I’ll Take The Dirt Road – the Formidable Encounters of David Branson Esq. was written by my stepson Joel Swadling, hence my involvement – although I also knew the late David Branson, and all his family are also my friends. I’ve written about Branson and Swadling on this blog previously here. My concluding sentence then was “I’m looking forward to the attending both the 20th Anniversary Concert and the book launch, reading/hearing the interviews, reading the reviews – and completing my own reading of the book.”

By the time the launch date arrived I had attended the Concert and read almost to the end of Act One in the book. Both had added to my “looking forward to” mood. My wife and I had been on tenterhooks after having been deemed casual contacts of a grandson who contracted the Covid virus earlier in the launch week’ forcing us to have tests – thankfully negative. A positive result would have prevented us attending both the concert and the launch.

A publicity shot I prepared was displayed on monitors in the foyer/bar area of The Canberra Theatre before, during and after the 20th Anniversary Concert by Mikelangelo & the Black Sea Gentlemen, plus their guest Fred Smith.

My publicity shot on display © Brian Rope

Also displayed were numerous photos of David Branson taken by ‘pling.

From video of ‘pling’s images of David – as used in my publicity shot and on cover of the book © Brian Rope

But here we were at the appointed time on the appointed day, with many people gradually joining the crowd in the theatre foyer, purchasing drinks from the bar, purchasing books, getting them signed by the author and greeting numerous friends – some from other places than Canberra, and some not seen for years. What to do first was the challenge. For me, it was getting my camera out and starting to document the event – book selling, author signing, friends mingling. One of the first images shows Dominic Mico, whom I got to know personally when heading the (ACT) Arts and Recreation Branch way back in 1987. I went to many of Mico’s events at Canberra’s TAU (acronym for Through Arts Unity) Community Theatre. Later, Mico was founding director of the National Multicultural Festival. And here he was getting his copy signed.

Dominic Mico watches Joel sign his copy of the book © Brian Rope

There’s my wife Robyn Swadling speaking with our friend Pauline Everson, who has come along with her neighbour at Goodwin Ainslie Retirement Village.

The sales table – Pauline Everson in green, Robyn Swadling in multiple colours © Brian Rope

And there’s Paul Branson, who will be speaking during the launch – reading his own words about brother David from the book.

Michael Simic (aka Mikelangelo) is here too – ready to perform. He’s talking with Iain Campbell Smith – Australian diplomat, singer/songwriter and comedian. He performs under the stage name Fred Smith in Australia. Smith has been described as ‘Australia’s secret weapon’ in international diplomacy. As a career diplomat, he served for two years in southern Afghanistan. Working alongside Australian soldiers in Uruzgan Province, Fred’s second career as a musician came to the fore, his guitar serving as a bridge not only to the troops, but also to the people and tribal leaders of that war-torn region. His song, ‘Dust of Uruzgan’, captured the hearts of many serving in Afghanistan. And he authored a book with the same title.

Joel Swadling signing a book, Michael Simic, Fred Smith & friend in conversation © Brian Rope

A little after the scheduled time we began moving into the theatre for the launch. I headed in early to get a front row seat where photography would be easy. The woman beside me and I thought we knew each other. It was Kate McNamara – poet, playwright and critical theorist. For almost ten years she worked as a dramaturg with David Branson’s Splinters Theatre of Spectacle. But I probably had met her through her involvement with TAU, alongside Mico.

Seated on stage are David Branson’s sister Liz Bishop and brother Paul Branson, together with Louise Morris (Branson’s partner at the time of his death), and our author Joel Swadling. At one end of the front row are Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen, including the other Branson, Pip (aka Rufino), waiting to perform.

Liz Bishop, Paul Branson, Louise Morris & Joel Swadling © Brian Rope

Elsewhere in the theatre are other members of the Swadling and Branson families. Joel’s father Paul and wife Janet Scott, brother Anthony and partner Sarah Powell, and brother Justin with partner Rache(l) Pettit and their children Jasmine and Riley. That damned pandemic has prevented brother Adam from being present. Margaret Hunt (previously Branson) and her husband David, Paul’s wife Jeanette Watts, Pip’s wife Megan and their children Denholm and Holiday. They are all here.

The doors close. Louise approaches the lectern. She speaks lovingly of David and praises Joel for his dedication and persistence in bringing the book to fruition. Joel replaces her at the lectern, welcomes us all, thanks key people and delivers a short speech, starting:

I’m not going to give a long speech, because the readings I’d like to give are self-explanatory. But I really must thank the management of the Street Theatre, particularly Dean and Carolyn, who’ve so graciously organized this event; as well as Cathy Winters, in helping me to plan the running order. I’d also like to thank my friends, Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen, for agreeing to play for us. I’ve had several compliments on my book’s title. But I can’t take full credit, as they’re cribbed from Michael’s song, “In Carnival Time”: “If this is the high life, I’ll take the dirt path”.

And concluding:

For this book couldn’t have been produced without the direct involvement and support of our entire community. Of course, I want to thank you all for being here today. But I know equally that there are many who wish they could be but aren’t able. I think in particular of Patrick Troy and Peter Wilkins. Also, some who have passed from our number in the time it’s taken me to finish the book: Phillip Crotty, David Unwin, Renald Navilli, and ’pling (whose photographs so graciously accompany my pages). This, of course, is a celebration of the magnetic force of David Branson. But it’s equally a celebration of the upward spiral of the community which he so richly engendered. As David would have said, “Love you, love your work!”. So please, raise your glasses and toast: “Creative Community!”

Louise Morris speaks © Brian Rope

Those in the audience who happened to have a glass of something in their hands raised them as directed. Joel then invited Mikelangelo and friends to sing us a song. They take the stage and perform below a projected poster for the book featuring the image of David Branson. In their inimitable style they entertain us and speak of David. They then take seats at the rear of the stage.

Mikelangelo introduces the Gentlemen © Brian Rope

Next Joel invites Liz, Paul and Louise, each in turn, to join him. He reads his own words from the book, whilst they read words spoken by them years ago when interviewed for the book. Words that Paul later tells me he didn’t remember saying. All of this is well received by the large audience.

Liz Bishop reads, Joel listens © Brian Rope
Paul Branson reads, Joel listens © Brian Rope
Louise Morris reads, Joel listens © Brian Rope

After that it is Fred Smith’s turn, accompanied by Pip. Fred sings his new song about David whilst a video of ‘pling’s images of David plays on the screen above him. Pip plays his violin beautifully to accompany Fred. This is a truly emotional moment for all who were closest to David, indeed for everyone. Then Pip speaks about David and what he meant to him. More emotion!

Pip Branson plays violin whilst Fred Smith sings © Brian Rope
Pip Branson speaks about David © Brian Rope

To bring the actual launch to a close we are treated to more Black Gentlemen, ending with Mikelangelo being unable to resist removing his jacket and throwing it (landing at my feet), waving his arse at us all, then climbing into, over and onto the audience.

Black Sea Gentlemen finale © Brian Rope
Applause as the Gentlemen depart the stage © Brian Rope

Joel thanked everyone and invited all to return to the foyer for refreshments. Later in the foyer a friend confided to me that he thought Mikelangelo took the focus off Joel. I replied – but it is exactly what David would have done when he had such an opportunity.

Thanks, from Joel © Brian Rope

Back in the foyer Joel signed more books, we ate provided food, drank more, laughed, cried and talked until the staff packed up around us and, eventually, closed the doors. All a bit of a blur really!

More book signings by Joel © Brian Rope

Gemma Clare, who plays cello with The Gadflys amongst other groups, is speaking with Louise Morris – and I do believe that is Marc Mowbray, the Piano Guy, with them. Nearby, there’s a smiling Helen Musa, OAM – art journalist and critic, Canberra City News Arts Editor, founder and Convenor of the Canberra Critics Circle, consultant at the Asia Pacific Journalism Centre.

Louise Morris speaks with Marc Mowbray and Gemma Clare with cello – Helen Musa smiling on right edge of frame © Brian Rope

Rev. Dr. Bruce Stevens – founder of Canberra Clinical and Forensic Psychology, currently providing pastoral care to folk from St Margaret’s Uniting Church in Hackett which the Swadlings, Bransons, and Bishops all have connections with – says he enjoyed it immensely. Sue Wilson – who recognised Bruce Stevens and says he saved her life at a difficult time – also had a great time.

Megan – wife of Pip Branson – and their children are having fun. Simon Clarke – lay preacher at St Margaret’s – is in animated conversation with Margaret Hunt.

All a blur – Margaret Hunt speaks with Simon Clarke © Brian Rope

John Goss – chair of the church council at St Margaret’s and Mark Bishop – husband of Liz – are catching up with her and with Rev Paul Swadling who used to be the Minister at St Margaret’s.

John Goss, Mark & Liz Bishop, Paul Swadling © Brian Rope

There’s Fiona Edge – graphic designer (whom I first met when she did design work for the Deafness Forum of Australia when I was its CEO for 10 years) and with personal links to ‘pling (Kevin Prideaux, 1955-2018) who was deeply respected within the arts community for his continued passion, love and support. His photographic legacy is an immense record of the Canberra theatre/music scene from 1970s – 2010s. It is his photographs that feature in Joel’s book and on Fred Smith’s video of his song about David.

Ben Drysdale – actor, director, drama tutor, musician, events coordinator and Creative Producer at Canberra’s Rebus award-winning, mixed-ability Theatre Company in Canberra, which seeks to stimulate social change and healing and with which Joel performs – is enjoying a beer whilst chatting with Fiona Edge and Fred Smith.

Fiona Edge, Fred Smith and Ben Drysdale © Brian Rope

The book launch was over. Joel had much to be pleased about – not the least the large volume of book sales! His family and friends were proud of him. And the launch was a fine celebration of David in a place where he is permanently remembered.

David Branson memorial plaque © Brian Rope
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My Photography, Personal Story, Photography Story

David Branson (aka Señor Handsome)

David Branson was born in Melbourne in 1963 and moved with his parents to Canberra in 1965. He was a regular churchgoer and a church youth group member at St Margaret’s Uniting Church in Hackett, an inner north suburb of Canberra. From 1970 onwards, I knew him (and his family) through the church. He was a good friend to me and my now wife when our previous marriages to others from the church ended.

David has been described as a dynamic thespian and theatre-worker. He worked with community groups, youth theatres, repertory theatre, and groups of his own devising to create innumerable productions. He played the violin in the Canberra Youth Orchestra and in various local bands.

In 1985 David, together with Ross Cameron, John Utans and Patrick Troy, founded Splinters Theatre of Spectacle. The company staged several large productions, sometimes involving hundreds of people, fire sculptures, giant puppets and large moving metal sculptures. Early performances were at a now-demolished weatherboard cottage in the Canberra suburb of Downer, the Causeway Hall at the suburb of Kingston, and backyards in the inner north. They made good use of crowd manipulation. During his time with Splinters, David was involved in more than twenty productions including Cathedral of Flesh (1992) – winner of Best Promenade Theatre Performance Award in the Adelaide Fringe Festival.

After theatre studies in Melbourne, David worked as an actor with many different companies including La Mama, one of Melbourne‘s oldest and most fondly regarded theatres. As a director he staged The Threepenny Opera and Handel’s Ariodante. His Ribbons of Steel used a mix of archival material, interpretive art, sculpture and photographic exhibits, to mark the closure of Newcastle’s BHP steel works. He remained with Splinters until 1996 when he became the Artistic Director of Culturally Innovative Arts, which he founded with Louise Morris.

David remained a Canberra identity, dividing his time largely between Canberra and Melbourne. In Canberra he hosted the Terrace Sessions at the Terrace Bar and the Salons at the Street at the Street Theatre, where many avant-garde performances were staged. He thumbed his nose at the establishment but won a Canberra Critics’ Circle award in 1998. More than once, he was described as the “Mayor of Canberra’s underbelly”.

On 3 March 2001 (coincidentally, my birthday), David performed at the launch of Canberra’s Multicultural Festival in the city’s Civic Square. I was there and managed to squeeze into the large crowd close enough to take some photos of him from the rear.

An upright David Branson performing at the launch of the 2001 Multicultural Festival © Brian Rope
An inverted David Branson performing at the launch of the 2001 Multicultural Festival © Brian Rope

Tragically, later that year on 11 December, David died in a car accident whilst on his way to a last-minute Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen concert rehearsal. Under the pseudonym Señor Handsome, David was a founding member, and violinist, of the cabaret group.

A few days later I was part of an over-capacity crowd of over 200 people attending his funeral at St Margaret’s, spilling outside. And a large crowd performed and attended memorials at the Street Theatre in Canberra (which I also went to) and the Trades Hall in Melbourne. Branson Street in the Canberra suburb of Dunlop in the Belconnen region of Canberra is named after David. A plaque was placed on the ACT Honour Walk to commemorate David as part of the first group of honourees in 2005. And there is also a plaque in the foyer of the Street Theatre.

The Black Sea Gentlemen comprises five stellar performers whose roots run deep in the Canberra music scene – Michael Simic on guitar, Pip Branson (one of David’s younger brothers – who took his place amongst the Gentlemen) on violin, Phil Moriarty on clarinet, Guy Freer on accordion and Sam Martin on double bass. The group has packed houses from the Sydney Opera House to London’s West End, releasing four albums and building a dedicated following in Canberra and around the world. During the Easter 2015 National Folk Festival in Canberra, I photographed them performing to an enthusiastic full house.

Michael Simic (Mikelangelo) performing at the 2015 NFF © Brian Rope
Some of The Black Sea Gentlemen performing at the 2015 NFF,
Left to right: Guido Libido, Rufino (Pip Branson), Mikelangelo © Brian Rope

On 11 December 2011, the 10th anniversary of David’s death, the Black Sea Gentlemen joined with The Street Theatre to hold a tribute afternoon of performances, stories, music and a barbecue in the forecourt. Now, 20 years after David’s death, the band will again pay tribute to their friend, brother and founding member with a very special one-off David Branson 20th Anniversary Concert at the Canberra Theatre Playhouse on Friday 10 December 2021.

The following day (the exact 20th anniversary of David’s death) the Black Sea Gentlemen will perform again in the foyer of the Street Theatre during the launch of a biographical book about David.

The author, Joel Swadling, holds a Graduate Diploma in Writing from the University of Technology Sydney. He is also one of my stepsons. And he was a close personal friend of David Branson, and part of St Margaret’s church. Joel lived for a time in a flat at the home of David’s mother, a place where David himself had previously lived. Whilst there, Joel sorted through boxes of material about David’s involvements in the arts scene, particularly relating to Splinters Theatre of Spectacle. Joel was the archivist on the arrangement and description of those David Branson Papers at the ACT Heritage Library.

Joel’s book about David is titled If This Is The Highway, I’ll Take The Dirt Road – the Formidable Encounters of David Branson Esq. Soft and hard cover versions of the book will, of course, be available for purchase at the launch; also from “all good bookshops” in Canberra and online. There is also an e-Book option online.

My wife Robyn, Joel’s mother, assisted greatly with the book, transcribing all the author’s interviews. I had a modest involvement – assisting Joel to place wonderful photos by the late Canberra performance photographer, Kevin Prideaux; helping to create the cover design; and taking the image of Joel that he used as his author’s photo.

Author Portrait © Brian Rope

Joel dedicated the book to his “two loving mums”, Robyn and Margaret Hunt. He also both of them and myself in his acknowledgments. And it was very special to read mention of Robyn and myself in Joel’s personal reflections on his friend at the front of the book.

“Around the same time, my parents divorced, and my mother formed a relationship with a man from the church community. Confused and angry, I turned to David for advice. ‘He’s a good man. You’ve got nothing to worry about.’

In the early years of their relationship, they were pretty much ostracised from their friends and former church community, but David always greeted them in public with jubilant affection, and this remains my mother’s overriding memory of him.

I have enjoyed a full and rich relationship with my stepfather for close to twenty-five years. I can’t help feeling that David started us on this path to familial fulfilment.”

With the book complete and an initial stock of copies delivered to him, the next task for Joel (and others) has been to organise the launch and promote both it and the book. Posters and postcards have found their way to bookstores, assorted businesses frequented by folk who would have known David, St Margaret’s church, The Street Theatre, notice boards and more.

Joel Swadling pointing to his book poster that he put up on a Dickson wall © Brian Rope

Interviews with Joel have been, or are being, conducted – including by Barbie Robinson for her Living Arts Canberra podcast, and Arne Sjostedt (aka Fealing) for The Canberra Times. Copies of the book are being reviewed by some Canberra arts scene critics who knew, and greatly admired, David.

I’m looking forward to the attending both the 20th Anniversary Concert and the book launch, reading/hearing the interviews, reading the reviews – and completing my own reading of the book.

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Photography Story

Lyndall Gerlach – Photography & Digital Art

Canberran Lyndall Gerlach studied eight years of Fine Art, Education and Graphic Design. She majored in Ceramics, Printmaking and Design, exhibited her paintings and drawings over many years, and was featured in Artist Palette Magazine in 2003 – described as “deliciously opinionated, clued-in and arty”. She designed the Barrenjoey High School Badge and won an Australian Branding Design Award.

When Gerlach was a graphic design student in the 70s, photography involved chemicals, red lights and black bags, a mysterious and wonderful process. In 2019, after 44 years away from photography, she was lent a camera. She soon decided photography was her media, discovering a love for it and digital art, a niche she is happy with, which fulfils her creative needs. The brushes and pencils were put away.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is lily-aethiopica-arum-2-the-tango-kiss-c2a9-lyndall-gerlach.jpg
Lily Aethiopica arum #2 The Tango Kiss © Lyndall Gerlach

Gerlach says “I like to make the ordinary, extraordinary. Photography for me is capturing what I am thinking or feeling, exploring something interesting, or creating something different that ‘talks’ to someone, and provokes thought or appreciation of the subject …contemporary artists have never been so free to explore the boundaries of fine art, or photography. Photography is at last free to be a creative medium, not just a medium that records a moment in time”. “For me, a good photographic image must always engage the viewer either emotionally or intellectually.”

Desaturating Rhinoceros 2019-2020, from the “Endangered and Desaturating” series © Lyndall Gerlach

Just one year into her new medium, and using the borrowed camera, she was a finalist in the 2020 Mullins Australian Conceptual Photography Prize. This year, she has again been a finalist in the Mullins, been commended for several works in the Australia’s Top Emerging Photographers competition and the Mono Awards, and been featured on the LensCulture website and in FRAMES Magazine’s Digital Companion.

Earlier this year Gerlach revisited previous old park haunts in Sydney that gave her solace amongst environmental chaos. She found herself wrapped in memories, jangled by the pace and close quarter living, but exhilarated by the geometry and design. The city pulled at her sense of design and curiosity. She explored movement in deep, water views – often reflecting splashes of light and drifts of fast-moving patterns on the buildings.

A resultant series of 12 exquisite composite images, City-ness, are all about structure, in architecture, town planning, and society. They can be seen here. Gerlach says “In every image of this body of work there is the same visual element representative that is representative of the city’s underlying and inescapable structure. Composed of two strong vertical lines and several rectangular shapes that represent the city’s windows and building structure, the element binds photographic images across layers of meaning.”

Night City-ness #1, from the City-ness series © Lyndall Gerlach
City Park 1, from the City-ness series © Lyndall Gerlach

FRAMES is an international community created in 2020 by an independent publisher in Switzerland. The publisher’s team produces a quarterly, 112 pages, printed photography magazine; “because excellent photography belongs on paper”. It features work of both established and emerging photographers of different genres and mediums.

They also publish a weekly newsletter. Then they have an App that delivers two carefully selected images every day to smart phone users, with the stories behind the shots and photographers’ advice. And the monthly Digital Companion Gerlach was featured in, plus a Podcast on which they talk to photographers about their images, experiences and personal stories. Now Gerlach has been featured on the Podcast, in a 43-minutes piece, a significant achievement for this reborn photographer.

Kingston Foreshore – Waters Edge, from the “Kingston Foreshore” series © Lyndall Gerlach
Ribbons 10 – Milky © Lyndall Gerlach

Gerlach is adamant “it is not ever the accolade, but the journey that is the reward. What happens along the way is sharing life and growth”. Nevertheless, she deserves these accolades.

This article was first published in The Canberra Times here on 09/10/21.

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Reviews

A Young Black Kangaroo

Photography Exhibition Review

A Young Black Kangaroo | Dean Qiulin Li 

PhotoAccessonline| https://www.gallery.photoaccess.org.au/young-black-start

A Young Black Kangaroo by Dean Qiulin Li is an ongoing photographic project documenting people and stories from the public housing community in Woolloomooloo. Li is an early career artist deeply committed to a humanitarian photographic practice.

Let me deal with the title first. Woolloomooloo is thought to have been derived from a local Aboriginal, possibly Gadigal, word meaning a young black kangaroo. The artist uses this translation to reference the area’s colonial history.

I lived in Potts Point for a short period in the late 60s and walked through Woolloomooloo each day going to and from work. I loved exploring and getting to know it – in a general sense only.

In February 1973, the Builders Labourers Federation placed a two-year long green ban on the area to stop the destruction of low-income housing and trees. It succeeded and 65% of the houses were placed under rent control. Most Australians living at that time would know of the ‘Loo because of the associated media coverage.

Children were often encouraged to commit the difficult to spell name to memory through spelling rhymes, one of which includes:

It’s easy to say, I know very well,

But Woolloomooloo is not easy to spell.

Double U double O double L double O M double O L double O

A catalogue essay accompanying the exhibition suggests that browsing through the entire image series is like visiting your neighbours. The artist “tells stories as if reading a book to you, carrying you along with memories and emotions”. Li himself says his project is “about flipping common perspectives of public housing residents on their head, showing the true side to life. It is an exploration of the underlying stories within the four walls of what one calls home.” Both are excellent descriptions of this exhibition.

In another catalogue essay, Rozee Cutrone shares her personal story of becoming a resident, revealing that she has “been vilified, ridiculed, judged, physically attacked, had my home set on fire, undermined and underestimated.” That one story alone is a great reason for Li’s exploration.

Amongst the sometimes charming, other times confronting, images we see Rayson, with his striped shirt styled with those glasses, revealing something of his teenage years. There are many simple moments on display, giving viewers a sense of déjà vu.

Faith was photographed in her living room. A well-known indigenous activist who fights for the rights of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islanders, as well as the minorities in Australia, she and Li had a few cigarettes together in her backyard whilst she shared some of her bitter past.

Then there is Daniel and some of the pigeons he feeds, Ike and his guitar, as well as Ronny and his collections room. There is Con with his dog, and a view through his window. Tyriesha and Oscar show us how they cuddle. Sabrina poses in front of her boyfriend’s painting of their favourite characters Joker and Harley Quinn. Rayson shows us a photo of himself with Elvis.

Richie, a retired drag queen sitting in his designer couch, says the movie “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” was based on his life.

Richie, 2019 © Dean Qiulin Li

There is a flamingo is inside Richie’s kitchen.

Flamingo, 2019 © Dean Qiulin Li

And Ayesha, a famous transgender dancer in Kings Cross from the 70s to 90s, says there is a documentary online about her life.

Ayesha, 2020  © Dean Qiulin Li

There are so many stories here. They have been woven together wonderfully. There would be many more, but the selection shown certainly successfully portrays these public housing residents of the ‘Loo.

This review was published in the Canberra Times on 25/9/21 here and on the Canberra Critics Circle’s blog here.

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Personal Story, Photography Story

A Child’s First Photos

I took my first photos on my first camera when I was nine years old. I probably had taken a few on my mum’s camera before then, but I don’t know for certain. I’ve recently realised that my son, Darren, took his first photos when he was eight.

In 1978 my then family embarked on a major holiday lasting six and a half months. My then wife, Denise, kept a detailed diary of our adventures. Recently she started another journey to create an illustrated book of the trip. She contacted me seeking photographs she might use in her book. Searching for possibilities I came across a few rolls of film negatives taken by our son, including some taken in 1977.

They are not superb photos, but neither were my first ones. It was great though to rediscover Darren’s early images; a reminder that we all can start our photography journeys early in life. Of course, not everyone really continues on their journey. For some, such as me, it becomes a passion – and we constantly strive to do better. For others, such as Darren, it does not develop into anything particularly special in their lives. Nevertheless, it is interesting to look at some of his early images.

Darren’s sister, Melinda, with their paternal grandparents, Jim and Eileen, outside our then home, Canberra, Christmastime 1977

Denise and me at her parents’ coast cottage, Malua Bay, NSW, Australia, Christmastime 1977

Jim, Jamie, Meg and Wendy (friends traveling with us) and Denise, Royal Circus, Bath, England, April 1978

The old church, Norton St Phillip, England, April 1978

Jamie (top), Melinda (bottom left) and Wendy, Norton St Phillip, England in April 1978

Melinda, me and Denise, Stonehenge, England, April 1978

Melinda, Denise, my cousin Peter with one of his children, me and Peter’s wife Paula with their other child, at home, Plymouth, England, April 1978

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Photography Story, Reviews

Negotiating the Family Portrait

Review of Photography

Marzena Wasikowska | Negotiating the Family Portrait

Canberra-based photo artist Marzena Wasikowska has built a name for herself over the years. Since 2000, when she completed her Master of Visual Arts at the ANU, she has had more than a dozen solo exhibitions (as well as being in numerous group exhibitions). Her works are in several public collections, and she also has been publicly commissioned on a number of occasions. Wasikowksa has been successful in various major competitions, including being a finalist in the National Photographic Portrait Prize (NPPP) five times.

Now, Wasikowska has been selected as one of the winners in the 2021 Lens Culture Street Photography Critics’ Choice Awards. Joanna Milter, Director of Photography at The New Yorker selected the series Negotiating the Family Portrait 2011-2021 for an Award. Experts, such as Milter, explored entries from across the globe to select their top three personal favourites. There’s no jurying as a panel; just choices made individually by each of the expert critics.

Images were submitted by photographers from over 150 countries and twenty-one critics chose individual photos and series that captured their hearts. Explaining her choice of Wasikowska’s series, Milter described the images as lively and noted that the artist “purposely captures those instances before everyone is in place. Yet she understands that the presence of a photographer changes everything; even in seemingly offhand moments, her subjects are performing for her camera.”

The ten images in the series have been captured over a decade – indeed it is five of them that have been finalists in the NPPP. Wasikowska says the series title summarises how she thinks about the act and procedure of making family portraits for public viewing. As we all should be, she is keenly aware of the discussions and negotiations of private and public – what to exhibit and what to keep private. She suggests, and I agree with her, that image makers tread a fine line when contributing to the dialogue of family portraiture while revealing something candid but not uncensored.

We have all experienced difficulties taking photos of getting people to smile, not hold fingers above heads, and not hide behind taller folk. Wasikowska has solved those problems. Whilst saying she longs for them to be the actors in her images, she also expresses her hope that each photograph holds the essence of a genuine, personal event, for herself and each of them. These annual portraits of her immediate family are a highlight of her portrait photography, summarising the previous twelve months.

In one image, every family member has brought their year’s story to the table.

Negotiating the Family Portrait 2015-16 – A study of history, myth and identity family © Marzena Wasikowska

In another, one of two young children appears to be struggling in the arms of the adult holding them, most probably longing to be put down and set free to again explore the camera equipment now being used to capture them.

Negotiating the Family Portrait 2018 – Chaos © Marzena Wasikowska

And then another image is filled with visual symbols for the conflicting extremes associated with this dreadful pandemic affecting each and every one of us in various ways; some the same for us all, others different for particular individuals.

Negotiating the Family Portrait 2020-21-A COVID Kind of Day © Marzena Wasikowska

It is a delight to see these ten images together. They start with a relatively simple, yet exquisite, image of just two of the family.

Negotiating the Family Portrait 2010 – Long Distance Conversation 1 © Marzena Wasikowska

Along the journey we see far more complex groupings of much larger gatherings of family members, in which the theatricality and performance style truly shines through.

Negotiating the Family Portrait 2012 © Marzena Wasikowska

We are members of an audience. Some may wish they were videos rather than just one still image of a moment frozen in time. But these are the precise moments that the artist selected and wants us to see.

This article was first published in the Canberra Times on 4/9/21 here. It is also on the Canberra Critics Circle blog here.

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Autobiography, Personal Story

My Family’s Migrant Experience

I have previously blogged about my entering this world here and about migrating to Australia here.

This piece is about an interview I recently did for a project called New Humans of Australia. That project seeks to reduce discrimination towards migrants, especially refugees, through the powerful medium of storytelling. Inspired by the iconic Humans of New York, New Humans of Australia was started by Nicola Gray, an Australian writer, who wanted to share the many fascinating stories she heard while working with refugees and migrants. The people behind the project believe it is becoming more and more important to tell the true stories of migrants – the difficulties they overcome and what they contribute – in order to celebrate multiculturalism, and to make new arrivals feel welcome on our shores. Any person who migrated to Australia is welcome to contact the project and offer to tell their story.

Nicola Gray spoke with me on 21 July this year via Zoom from her current home in Portugal. It wasn’t so much an interview as an opportunity to tell my story, with Gray asking a few questions along the way. I enjoyed the experience very much. The process took almost one hour and was video recorded. After the audio is transcribed, Gray produced a short version of what I said and emailed it to me to check for accuracy and to suggest any changes. It is meant to be as short as possible, and to sound like the person telling their story is speaking not reading.

The next step usually is to have one of their photographers take a photo of you. Looking at their list of photographers I saw a Canberran whom I know and thought it would be likely she would get the assignment. However, because of another story falling through at the last moment, Gray needed my photo quickly and asked if I could have a family member take one and send it to her the next day. Regarding the photo, the requirements were “landscape, not portrait (meaning you have to turn the phone to the horizontal position), outdoors, preferably with a tree or a bush behind you but not essential, no sunglasses, not too dressed up smiling, or thoughtful.”

Being home alone at the time, I opted to take a selfie. I headed outside into the common area of our townhouse complex where I could stand before some bushes high enough to be behind my head. Battling blustery winds, I quickly took a few shots. Back indoors I realised that my glasses had darkened automatically in the bright sunlight so had effectively become sunglasses. So, after they had lightened up, I put them in my pocket and went back outside intending to put them on at the last moment and repeat the exercise. Some more quick selfies and back inside – only to realise I had forgotten to put the glasses on before taking the shots! Back out for a third time, then I called it quits and sent Gray three shots with and without glasses for her to select from.

She chose to use the image without glasses – almost didn’t recognise myself having worn specs for so many years!

The next step was for me to provide some old family photos to Gray. I sent these nine images from my family archives:          

For her finished story, Gray chose these three images:

Mum wearing her London bus conductress (clippie) outfit in 1941
Dad, mum, me (left middle), brother Alan, sister Jill (born in Australia in December 1951)
Children playing cricket at our first Australian home, Bundoran, Western districts, Victoria in 1951

The finished story can be read on https://newhumansofaustralia.org/stories/ or on https://www.facebook.com/NewHumansOfAustralia/. There have been 126 comments about it on the Facebook page and 37 people (myself included) have shared it on their own Facebook pages.

Gray also produced a short video clip of me speaking from the interview. I posted a link to it on my Facebook page here.

Eventually my story will be published in one of a series of books that New Humans of Australia is publishing. I have acquired Volumes 1 and 2 which are available now at https://newhumansofaustralia.org/shop/. Volume 3 is nearing completion. Volume 4 (which is where my story is likely to be) is probably a couple of years away yet.

You can read all about the project at https://newhumansofaustralia.org/ and can even become a patron or express interest in telling your own migration story. All patrons receive a free copy of one book and get all new stories emailed direct to their inbox.

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My Photography

Community of People

Earlier this year Photo Access in Canberra conducted three workshops, each spread over several weekly sessions, in which participants explored the idea of Canberra as a community of people, a built environment, and a physical landscape. Sixteen artists created new works responding to three of Canberra’s landmark photographers – Marzena Wasikowska, Edward (Ted) Richards and Ian North – each of whom are featured in Canberra Museum and Gallery’s current exhibition, Seeing Canberra. The result was the Canberra Re-Seen exhibition.

I participated in the workshop about Canberra as a community of people. Inspired by Wasikowska’s interest in capturing the human qualities of Canberra, we explored the idea that a city is best understood through its people. We had the added benefit of Wasikowska herself leading our workshop.

My approach was to make portraits in different styles to anything I had previously done. If I were to Re-see the people of Canberra, I thought that using a different approach (for me) was a way to do it. Instead of seeking to make traditional portraits concentrating on faces, I looked for groups of people interacting with each other whilst out and about in a variety of places – private home gardens, indoor venues, public spaces. I sought images that revealed something of those people from their interactions. Rather than simply show what the subjects look like, I was exploring elements that would provide viewers with facts or clues about each person’s characteristics – what are they interested in, how do they live these parts of their lives. Along the way I photographed individuals and some couples as well, because I saw opportunities. I also tried other approaches, including smart phone selfies so beloved of young folk and the creation of composites.

In June 2021 I reviewed Canberra Re-Seen here. I had two prints in the exhibition but did not show or discuss them in the review as it is not appropriate to review one’s own work. Here are my two works and just a few words about each of them.

Braddon Nightlife © Brian Rope

Braddon Nightlife is a composite combining opposite sides of a young woman using a smart phone near a queue to a popular night-time venue. It suggests to me that she is interested in such venues, in dressing up for a night out and in keeping in contact with at least one other person.

Keeping Clear © Brian Rope

Keeping Clear shows two people who walked in front of my camera and settled down before an emergency exit. It suggests to me that, at that point in time at least, they were simply focussed on what they wanted to do – possibly revealing something of their characters.

There is a possibility of a book being published about the works created by all sixteen workshop participants and it may include other works not shown in the exhibition. If that proceeds three more of my images may be included. Here they are with a few words about each of them.

Enlightened Connections © Brian Rope

Enlightened Connections shows people at the Enlighten Festival. There are several stories intertwined here – the fellow in the centre appears to be photographing a young woman under the rainbow in the bottom right corner, whilst three other young women take an interest in what he is doing. To the left of the frame is another couple, who may or may not be connected to the others. Are they waiting their turn to take a photo under the rainbow? Perhaps all that is revealed about them is that they enjoy a night at Enlighten in casual dress?

Look – up in the sky © Brian Rope

Look – up in the sky shows a large group of people gathered in Kings Park (between the Boundless Playground and Kings Avenue) socialising over drinks one late warm afternoon in February. There are many separate stories – the man in the centre with the beer belly, the trio on the right where one man is playing with his phone, the children exploring in the background where rabbits live, the couple on the left where the man is gesticulating with his hand, and (most strongly) the fellow pointing up towards the sky at something we cannot see (which provides the image title). It shows me how Canberra people dress, interact and enjoy themselves outdoors on a summer day in the 2020s.

Asleep, Awaking, Alive © Brian Rope

Asleep, Awaking, Alive is a composite of nine fun self-portraits purporting to show the transition as I wake from sleep, slowly open my eyes, do some facial stretches, then make myself presentable for the day ahead. What does it reveal about me apart from what I look like, both dishevelled and neat?

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Reviews

Canberra Re-Seen

Photography Exhibition Review

Canberra Re-Seen | Various Artists: Peter Bailey, Andrea Bryant, Abby Ching, Annette Fisher, Susan Henderson, Tessa Ivison, Peter Lamour, Caroline Lemerle, Louise Maurer, Greg McAnulty, Aditi Sargeant, Eva Schroeder, Sari Sutton, Beata Tworek, Brian Rope and Grant Winkler

Photo Access | 10 June – 10 July

Disclaimer: the author of this review has two works in the exhibition but received no payment for the review.

Earlier this year Photo Access conducted three workshops, each spread over several weekly sessions, in which participants explored the idea of Canberra as a community of people, a built environment, and a physical landscape. Sixteen artists created new works responding to three of Canberra’s landmark photographers – Marzena Wasikowska, Edward (Ted) Richards and Ian North – each featured in Canberra Museum And Gallery’s current exhibition, Seeing Canberra.

The result is this exhibition, Canberra Re-Seen. There is also an online gallery showing the same works plus others by the participating artists. And there are two solo exhibitions showing simultaneously, both of which explore aspects of portraiture: A Surrounded Beauty by Sarah Rhodes, and Portrait by Melita Dahl

Inspired by Wasikowska’s interest in capturing the human qualities of Canberra, one group explored the idea that a city is best understood through its people. They had the added benefit of Wasikowska herself leading their workshop.

A second collective, led by Wouter Van de Voorde and with Richards’ involvement too, investigated Richards’ interest in documenting the character of Canberra’s little-known places. They shot on 35mm film and created darkroom prints in response to Richards’ dramatic black and white style.

Working with documentary photographer David Hempenstall, a third group explored the ideas of Ian North’s early 1980s images of Canberra suburbs – vistas both bleak and beautiful.

It is difficult to individually comment on all the works in Canberra Re-Seen, so I will just look at particular works that attracted my attention for various reasons.

The highlight for me is Eva Schroeder’s Metamorphis. Born and bred in Canberra, Schroeder has, like me, seen enormous changes in our city over the years. Researching, she learned that 2-4% of Canberra’s community identify as Trans and decided to portray a Canberran transitioning from one gender to another. Her triptych shows Norgaria, who has chosen to use prosthetics, wigs, makeup, and costumes to reveal her real self by entering the world of Cosplay.

Metamorphosis © Eva Schroeder

Then there is Louise Maurer’s beautifully constructed Weetangera II, 2021. That suburb is, like most, in a state of rapid change due to infill. Maurer’s constructed composite image speaks to the importance of the green spaces and native ecosystems, and also speaks for those who tirelessly seek to maintain them as our garden city becomes a thing of the past.

Weetangera II © Louise Maurer

Andrea Bryant’s Maria is another fine standout. It is a portrait of a long-term neighbour, “a strong and feisty woman”. An internationally recognised scientist, she is portrayed heartily laughing. Several other gallery visitors pointed to this work as one they loved.

Maria © Andrea Bryant

Another very strong contribution is Beata Tworek’s series of collages, which respond to North’s innovative and optimistic colour treatment of deserted streetscapes with austere monochromes reflecting disdain for their lack of individuality.

Ambivalent collage 2 © Beata Tworek

Grant Winkler’s Denman Prospect is very much about the bush landscape disappearing as new suburbs creep over it, replaced by homes and other buildings with what remains of nature being “moulded and manicured”.

Grant Winkler © Untitled (Denman Prospect DSCF6388)

Peter Larmour took 3D images of landscapes. His Southern Anaglyph (dye sublimation on aluminium) is worthy of close examination.

Southern Anaglyph © Peter Lamour

Sari Sutton’s Fyshwick is also interesting. She ventured to Fyshwick and photographed “the abstract, asymmetrical sculptural qualities” that she found,  “unjudged and un-romanticised”.

Untitled (Fyshwick) © Sari Sutton

And, inspired by the playful use of lines and geometry in Richards’s Dancing in the Mall, 1964, Sutton also sought images incorporating strong stripes – exploring the same general area near where the Monaro Mall once stood.

Untitled (Civic Stripes 2) © Sari Sutton

Other standouts for me were Annette Fisher’s Abstracts, and Tessa Ivison’s interestingly titled Pastorals.

4 Abstracts, 2021 © Annette Fisher
Pastoral #1 © Tessa Ivison

This review is also on the Canberra Critics Circle blog here.

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