Imagined Emotional Landscapes is on the wall in Kogarah
– The making of a Group Exhibition at St. George Leagues Club Photographic Society!
This is the story about the making of pictures. As such the story is one of words. The heroes of the story are the pictures now on the walls of Kogarah Library until 22nd May 2016. This is the story through one person’s eyes, of how they got there – mine!
One of the joys of the changing chapters of life is that at certain points in a lifespan you choose to try something you’ve never done before. I spent more than four decades working in the sales and marketing area of photography. I had started to make pictures with a camera on my eighth birthday. It took me three wasted rolls of film before I could even load the film properly. In my gap year between school and university I acquired a movie camera and, travelling in southern Africa, made a mini-documentary on the lives of Rhodesians (now Zimbabwe) living under a unilateral declaration of independence. Looking at it now it was more like a travel promotion than any form of photo documentary. I had no concept of visual story-telling. It was but a tentative first step up the ladder of picture making, a ladder that had many missing steps and several falls through the years.
I tried a bit of harder-edged reportage later that same year, during the heady revolutionary days of 1968 at an Oxford Conservative Association rally when the visiting speaker was the controversial Enoch Powell. Just weeks before he had made the famous ‘Rivers of Blood” speech in his constituency in Wolverhampton-South West, England. The staff photographer for the Oxford Mail and I were the only two people to come with cameras. His image made the front page of the Times the next day. Mine was poorly focused, even less well-purposed and the negatives are long lost with multiple country and house moves.
I was deeply fortunate to marry into a family of three generations of expert portrait and landscape photography. My late father-in-law Philippe Halbwachs, from Mauritius, had a way with people that produced magic, intimate and engaged portraits. His landscapes, painstakingly prepared in trying humid conditions in tropical Mauritius, were black-and-white tonal marvels that didn’t need colour to express the great open spaces and bright beaches of this special Indian Ocean Island. Try as I might, my efforts were but a shadow of his outstanding images. But there were some tiny forward steps, nonetheless as I followed some of his guiding principles.
The thought of exhibiting my own efforts was something I spent decades shying away from. I worked with Australia’s leading picture editors in our sponsorship of the Nikon Australian Press Photographer of the Year Awards. I was only too conscious of the gap between my pictures and the award-winning excellence that is Australian press photography. Working with Commercial and Wedding Photographers too, in various associations with the Australian Institute of Professional Photography, I began to get a glimpse of some of what it takes to make a picture as opposed to taking a picture. I learned from great story tellers such as the late David Moore, and sat with picture editors as they judged the national press pictures of the year each December.
A long-standing colleague in my service team, an expert opto-mechanical craftsman, Ken Forbes told me about his black and white images that he was showing in his camera club, St. George Leagues Club Photographic Society. I asked him to bring in some prints to the office. They were absolutely fabulous pictures. Ken told me about the club President, an academic, a man who had helped build on the Club’s founding father’s vision, to produce one of Sydney’s finest camera clubs, with over 100 active members, whose pictures were so well seen and with that extra edge seldom seen in camera clubs at that time. The Club President was a gentlemen named Des Crawley.
From time to time some of the club members would come into the office. Lionel Howes was one such member. He was the club’s second president, in 1965. He got re-elected seven more times. Sometime in the 1990’s I chanced upon him in Sydney when I was doing some shopping, something I do as rarely as possible. Lionel was standing in a bit of shade in a Sydney street, having been walking all day, recording the life of our fast-changing city, along with a colleague and close friend. He emphasised to me the importance of the document, of recording life that was changing and a city that was disappearing, whose character was only glimpsed fleetingly, such was the pace of change. Over the years we became firm friends. His pictures stand the test of time and are of immense historical importance.
I asked Ken Forbes if there was some way I could meet the club’s president, Professor Crawley. Perhaps I could give a talk about this new thing called digital photography. We duly met, and found we surprisingly to me had much in common. Given I never completed my academic studies, I found this man to be wonderfully inclusive and non-judgemental. The club’s members were much divided – Film proponents sat on one side of the aisle. The revolutionaries who entertained a digital future, sat on the other side. For my talk I had decided to take a huge personal step forward and print some of my own pictures, some scanned from film, others shot with a high resolution 2.74 megapixel Nikon D1, costing $13,000! I mounted them all on the same matte boards and exposed them to similar lighting and asked members to identify which was film and which was digital. They couldn’t consistently do so. Inside I was dying a thousand deaths. I was sure everyone would say something like, “well the image quality is interesting as it’s hard to tell film from digital but it’s a pity about the pictures themselves.” But they were either too polite or perhaps they were even of acceptable quality. Another long-standing member, Joy Klein, came up to me after the talk, expressed gratitude and said she was sure the future would be digital, regardless what some of the more traditional members said. That she made that remark early in her seventh decade was both encouragement and life-changing. This was a club I’d love to be associated with. But with a work schedule that prevented any form of relaxation I just could not commit to membership.
Over another decade I spoke several times to their packed meetings, on a variety of subjects, mainly technical. We provided some prizes at annual awards. And then one year I was asked to be a judge. I had never judged within the camera club movement. I had no skills. I had never myself entered any photo competition. And I was being asked to judge at a top club! I was quite terrified, but believed if they were asking me I had to give it a go.
The club used a long-time friend, Bernard Graves, as messenger. I’d had the pleasure of introducing Bernard to the Club when he expressed enthusiasm for developing his skills in photography. We’d been golf partners for a decade. On the day I worked through with two other judges, one old school but open to the ideas of others, and one with a more progressive view of photography. In the end we reached consensus. The winning image that year was a dreamy image of ‘a lady’ heading down stairs, filled with emotion and drama, misty subject movement and outline form rather than distinct location. The image was by Sue Robertson. (I only learned today that the ‘lady’ in the picture was in fact Sue’s husband, filling in as model for the shoot.) Yet it was clearly a standout image amongst many other fine pictures. And when, a month later at the annual awards night the winner was announced the club embraced the decision to nominate a picture that was not sharp, not a classic club winning image, but one that stood out for expressive emotion, movement, energy, drama, mystery. St. George had crossed a chasm. The Club’s images would never look back.
Fast forward to the late winter of 2015: By now I had been the honorary Junior Patron of the club for three years under the Senior Patron, Des Crawley. The club wanted to apply to exhibit members’ work in the annual Sydney Head-On Photo Festival. Des would lead and mentor a group with 7 monthly half-day meetings and in April 2016 we would put on a show as part of the Festival.
We had, as a group a huge diversity of interests, passions and skills. We represented families from over ten different countries of origin. We numbered 17. We needed a venue capable of exhibiting ninety images. Our 2015 president, Ilona Abou-Zolof negotiated with Kogarah Council, and secured Kogarah Library’s community arts space. We collectively filled in the formal application form to be an associated exhibition. Meantime we joined together in sharing our initial ideas, showing some possible themes or examples. We followed the rigorous guidance from our mentor Des on how to develop written expressions that could inform our work and how we might execute it. That’s if Head On would have us! After some weeks of nail-biting we got the good news. Now create the work!
In my case I was pretty certain it would be architectural – I had travelled to Europe in the northern summer of 2015 and had developed a style of symmetrical image expression that I thought could make a good portfolio of six images. I had my six pictures by late November, and showed them in the December meeting. Others showed their evolving ideas, some quick in their execution, others showing big shifts in creative execution and a couple determining that they would not complete for personal reasons. We were now 15 potential exhibitors, with defined ideas, perhaps 50% of the targeted pictures done, and Christmas holidays to further develop our thoughts and make some more work.
The late January meeting resulted in a review and feedback from fellow travellers. I brought a couple of interior images I had made over summer, as well as my selected six exterior pictures. The interiors seemed to resonate much more strongly than my building exteriors. Two of them were European and I resolved this was the start of a new body of work. I would completely change creative direction. Two others also felt their initial work needed to change. The pressure was now on. I had the idea of applying to shoot the interior of Elizabeth Bay House, built by an ancestor on my mother’s side of the family, the celebrated Colonial Secretary of 1835 and great amateur scientific collector, Alexander Macleay. To my great joy Sydney Living Museums agreed to let me have access one lunchtime, when the house was otherwise not open to the public. I made a ‘recce’ visit in public opening hours and shot off a few frames, using a new lens unlike anything that I had seen used before in the many well-known images of this remarkable colonial house of 1838. When you are shooting and your predecessors were Harold Cazneaux and Max Dupain, there is just a bit of pressure.
When I saw my initial results later that night I felt I had made a major advance. I ventured into Sydney the following week and made a series of images of the Queen Victoria Building, one of which was almost perfectly structured. But on closer examination it was just not precise enough. I returned and re-shot it, this time lying flat on my back in the middle of a busy walkway, for a slightly wider and steadier shot. Two protective friends prevented other shoppers from tripping over me. Two security guards looked on giving me 30 seconds and not a second more, they warned. I knew what I needed to do, had rehearsed it over and over in my head and had seven frames done in 20 seconds. This time I had what I had imagined in my mind’s eye.
March was now upon us. I needed just one more picture. I applied for permission to shoot in Melbourne’s historic Block Arcade. To this day I have never had a reply. So on a business visit to that city, where I also made some unusual images of the Melbourne Central Clocktower, I boldly walked in, moved among the public and created an unusual image that had a resonance in the other five images I had selected. Later that month everyone reviewed everyone’s work. Mostly we were all finished. A few suggestions in toning, discussion about size, lots of practical stuff about bump-in and set up, rosters, sharing the supervision of the work in the three weeks it would be open 7-days a week, framing and countless other issues. I then went on two weeks holiday/work to West Australia and Mauritius, as if I was all done. I wasn’t.
I missed the final briefing meeting, used email to get up to speed and did my assigned task of preparing the picture labels to hang next to each image. With frames obtained, mattes cut and artist’s statement written, I duly joined my colleagues at Kogarah Library the day before our opening. By then I had also agreed to act as MC for the night, to be opened by our Senior Patron. Regrettably due to a conflicting Council event, our planned opening day of 2nd May had been deferred, which meant the entire Head On program now had a conflict and our opening would conflict with one of the biggest events in this season’s exhibits. All this work and now perhaps no audience?
We had a clearly-defined wall layout plan. But when we got there the hangers were fewer in number than we needed, and the hanging wires would only hold two images, not the three we had believed was possible. Our frames distorted due to the unusual method of suspension. Every frame had to be removed from the wall taped up and strengthened invisibly. It took all day.
All the care to have labels individually cut, was wasted. The pictures were now much closer together than expected. As the sunlight moved across the work on the wall as the day progressed the images and their long wire suspension systems moved in the heat. New labels of a completely different style were done overnight, and after another full day, leading to the opening at 6.30pm on Tuesday May 3rd, with preening and minute adjustments, the work was on the wall. With only 3 hours sleep I was almost a walking zombie. But the show must go on.
By 7.10pm the 15 artists had their work to admire, their families and friends had started arriving. Councillor Stephen Agius, Mayor of Kogarah kindly arrived, and offered to speak, which he did in a wonderfully genuine and supportive manner. Even the Kogarah Concert Band, under Geoff Dickie, turned up with a woodwind trio, which created real atmosphere, and reduced my tensions and nerves as MC. The crowd was hushed, the evening proceeded and our mentor reviewed our work for the audience, describing the journey of creating each of these works. We celebrated. This initial journey together was over. The first red dot went up. Others followed. People wanted to buy our images.
But a much bigger journey was just beginning. With a Head-On exhibition on the wall for 2016 of our making and our own curating, we were already planning for something even more ambitious. The juices of creative energy were beginning to conceive of new projects! St. George as a photographic club of energised like-minded friends and colleagues had crossed into new territory – tentatively at first, decisively by the end, all wiser, more confident, more expressive. Much had changed. We were no longer just camera club members of a progressive photographic society.
The cast, in alphabetical first name order:
Anatoli Zehalko, Barbara Seager, Christina Brunton, Fiona Brook, Frank Dannaher, George Komatas, Geraldine Lefoe, Ilona Abou-Zolof, John Swainston, Marianthi Karadoukas, Sue Robertson, Suzanne Prouzos, Tony Naumovski, Yong Wei Ruan, Yvonne Raulston, together with Des Crawley, Course Convenor.
Thanks to our mentor Des Crawley, and the collective will of fifteen fellow travellers we had started a new artistic journey, the results of which may well be many years more in the making. That’s my journey to the walls of an exhibit.
There are many paths; the joy is being open to following your heart and allowing yourself to enjoy the journey.
Exhibition at Kogarah Library, NSW, May 3rd to May 22nd, 2016
Opening Hours: Monday to Friday 9.30am – 7.00pm, Saturday 10.00am – 4.00pm, Sunday 10.00am -1.00pm
Text and pictures are subject to Copyright. All rights reserved.
© Copyright John Swainston, 2016