Saturday, April 01, 2017

Reflections triggered by the ABC Creatives piece on photographer Robert McFarlane

The ABC (the Australian Broadcasting Corporation) Creatives series had an interesting piece on the Australian documentary photographer and writer Robert McFarlane, The Still Point.
Robert McFarlane, Charles Perkins on bus to Tranby Aboriginal College, Glebe c1964. National Portrait Gallery 
I wasn't really aware of Robert McFarlane's work, although this photograph has achieved something approaching iconic status.

Robert McFarlane was born in Glenelg, South Australia. Leaving school he began work in a small advertising agency, where his growing interest in photography was encouraged.

In 1963 he moved to Sydney, where he began freelancing for magazines including the Bulletin, Vogue Australia and Walkabout. At the same time, as editor of the magazine Camera World, he began his lifelong career writing about photography.

In the early 1970s he travelled and worked overseas. Since 1973 he has documented the performing arts in Australia, taking stills photographs on a great number of seminal Australian films and theatre productions. He has exhibited in solo and group shows and has written regular photography criticism for the Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald. His work is represented in the NGA, the AGNSW and the National Library as well as the National Portrait Gallery.

You will find examples of his work on the National Portrait Gallery's website and on his own website.

Reflecting on the work displayed in the ABC piece as well as Mr McFarlane's own reflections, I realised how much my own attitudes towards photography had shifted over the years.

Growing up, photographs were a record of a particular moment, often a moment that only had meaning to that small handful of people who knew the context and were interested. Indeed, the affliction of attendance at local photographic competitions or slide evenings was not conducive to a joy in photography. I certainly didn't see photography as an art form, although I could recognise striking photos.

That view really began to shift when I saw my first exhibitions by really good photographers, although the shift was a slow process. I began to realise that photographs could tell stories, that they had texture and composition that made them works in their own right, that a photograph could have texture beyond the flat surface that could be enjoyed and studied even if you had no or little knowledge of the specific context.

Living today in world dripping with immediately accessible visual images, we forget just how few photographs were actually around in the not too distant past. There were the obligatory photos recording important personal or official events such as weddings or openings or wars; there were the photos in magazines or newspapers covering things such as sport, society, life or war; there were the various family snaps, but the total was quite small. Today, I would see more photos in a week than I would in an entire year even twenty years ago.

The way I view and use photos has changed as a consequence. Having been caught and embarrassed by photo shopped images, I am far more distrustful of photos as an agent of record unless I know the context. However, I use many more photos to tell stories, see much more in photos than I once did, use photos far more as a source of evidence and information.

Availability is important here, as is the expansion in the absolute number of photographs for particular periods. However, the process does feed on itself in that increased visual awareness, increased study of particular photographs. leads me to ask new questions of the photos, to look at particular details within a photo, to ask new questions. The process becomes interactive, almost a dialogue between the observer and the observed.

There is no doubt that the computer facilitates this process. You can view photos in various ways, various sizes, focusing on particular features. Looking at the McFarlane photos shown in the ABC program, I found myself constantly shifting my view away from the centre to pick up secondary characters or peripheral features.This changed the way that I looked at the photo.    

The program reminded me, too, why I really like black and white photographs. With colour photos, I  find that the colour itself sometimes distracts from the photo. With black and white, details stand out that would otherwise be submerged by the colour, images become starker.
Max Dupain, Sunbather 1937.This image would be less striking, less iconic, had it been in colour. 
Of course, depending on your purpose, colour can be very important. Sometimes, it would be or is nice to see colour because the colour itself is part of the story or provides evidence that you want to draw from for your own purposes. Examples include clothing or hair but especially landscape. The iconic red and brown colours of the Australian outback would hardly be iconic, instantly recognisable, without the characteristic colours.

That said, I retain my fondness for black and white. .

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