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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Reviews

Living Memory – NPPP 2021

Photography Review

Living Memory – NPPP 2021 | Various artists

National Portrait Gallery | Until 16 January 2022

Group exhibitions can be awkward to review because of the diversity of imagery subject matter and quality. This exhibition has a specified theme but, like all themes, it was open to wide interpretation and, unsurprisingly, the images in it approach portraiture in differing ways. Overall, the quality of the prints is high as we would hope in such a show, although I was disappointed with a small number.

So, what is on display in this, the 15th annual National Photographic Portrait Prize (NPPP)? With its Living Memory theme having been set to acknowledge the seismic events of 2020, it was hoped entries would offer a powerful and historic visual record of the year that was and would capture the unique ways in which we as individuals, and as a nation, responded to it. Many of the images on display certainly show both the photographers and their subjects responding to the dramas of 2020. Others, though, do not – in my view. Nevertheless, the diversity and quality of the artwork combines in a powerful visual exhibition.

In shows such as this I always look for works by locals and other people whom I know personally, and images by artists whose work I have long admired. This year I found a familiar work by local Marzena Wasikowska – A Covid kind of day, from her series Negotiating the Family Portrait 2011-2021. I wrote about that series here earlier this year, noting that this is the fifth time an image from the series has been a NPPP finalist.

I also found two images by Canberra Times photographer Dion Georgopoulos, both taken after the firestorms and previously seen published in this newspaper. I consider Wandella Firestorm, 2020 to be the more powerful of the two but The Salway Family is also a fine portrait with a father and nephew placed before a devastating background.

Wandella Firestorm © Dion Georgopoulos
The Salway Family © Dion Georgopoulos

One of the represented photographers whose work I always appreciate is Tamara Dean. The Goodall Boys, 2021 came from Dean finding beauty in her immediate environment and being inspired to create photographs of the people and places she was surrounded by when unable to venture further afield. That is an experience most artists shared in 2020.

The Goodall Boys © Tamara Dean

Two of the most powerful images displayed are side by side and both feature emotionally charged situations. When Rachel Mounsey photographed Max, 2020 her subject said ‘All has been erased. Nature has to come back through a black, blank canvas. It’s a lamentable game of survival, but beautiful to watch.’ The resultant image successfully conveys that. Alongside it is Matthew Newton’s Anna, 2020 showing peaceful activist Anna Brozek standing determined, tall and proud on the remains of a logged tree in Tasmania’s precious old growth forests. Her message could not be clearer.

Max © Rachel Mounsey
Anna © Matthew Newton

But what of the winner and other awarded images? I have read considerable commentary elsewhere about the winner – a familiar scene (of a farmer walking towards a dust storm), hard to understand why certain photos win these types of Prizes, what does it reveal about the person? Whether or not those are valid comments, there is no denying the emotion the winning work and other awarded images convey.

There are numerous works in this diverse exhibition that we all need to study and explore, especially the few type C prints such as Kalyanii Holden’s beautiful The Cat’s Out Of The Bag.

The Cats Out Of The Bag © Kalyanii Holden

I could not look at one work as it had been covered. The person depicted has recently passed away. I applaud the Gallery for respecting Indigenous cultural protocols while the person’s family and community are consulted regarding their wishes.

This review was published on 6/11/21 by the Canberra Times here. It is also on the Canberra Critics Circle blog here.

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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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Reviews

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.

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