Monday, 7 May 2007

Power of the portrait ACP afternoon

[Greg Weight - portrait photographer]

This afternoon at the Australian Centre for Photography, Robert McFarlane talked with guests, Belinda Mason-Lovering, Joanne Saad and Greg Weight about the continuing relevance of contemporary portrait photography and culture and the lure of photographic prizes for photographers and audience alike, on the site of the 'Head On' portraiture exhibition, curated by Moshe Rosenzveig. Extremely popular in attendance, the unveiling of motivations, titling, subject choice and intimacy, rapport and sensitivity to delicate subjects, contentious areas and indigenous subjects, carefully explained by the photographers. A continuous slideshow of the speakers' portraits backed the discussion.

[Greg Weight, Joanne Saad, Robert McFarlane & Belinda Mason-Lovering]

Robert McFarlane, the protagonist or interviewer and commentator throughout, is a noted Australian photographer and critic whose career spans more than 40 years in Australia. "Robert McFarlane has concerned himself primarily with social issues, with a long, but intermittent involvement with the Aboriginal community and the disabled. McFarlane has also extensively documented the world of performance in Australian Film and Theatre since 1980. McFarlane's approach has consistently used the grammar of photojournalism to get as close as possible to his subject - intellectually, spiritually, emotionally and, where necessary, physically. His objective is to achieve an intimate level of understanding of the images he creates." FotoFreo . Joanne Saad, a Lebanese Australian, talked about careful naming of images and the readings/misreadings press can interpret from these and she presented her recent series of Karaoke pictures that won the Sydney Life Photography Exhibition Prize in 2006, capturing the emotional aspirations of one-night stars performing in Karaoke clubs in Western Sydney. Belinda Mason-Lovering seems to take a more mainstream approach to photographic style and also runs a commercial (rather than art~) photography business, yet her sensitive subject matter distinguishes her agile ability to develop rapport and comfort with scarred and burned victims, people with physical disabilities, and Australian Aboriginal people from Arnhem Land. Somehow she manages to reveal glimpses of knowledge normally unseen. She is so mild-mannered and aware of the fine balance, that the potential for voyeurism or exploitation in such situations seemed to be circumvented. According to her web site, Belinda's work "focuses on taboo social issues that explore the very personal and sometimes difficult subjects of grief, body image, identity and family".

For me the highlight, however, was hearing [and seeing the images of] Greg Weight. He was the inaugural winner in 2003 of the Australian Photographic Portrait Prize, held in conjunction with the Archibald, Sulman and Wynne at the NSW Art Gallery annually [but discontinued after 2006]. His winning picture was a portrait of Jim Conway, 'Railroad blues'. Conway is a blues harmonica performer (with the Backsliders and Big Wheel) who is confined to a wheelchair with Multiple Sclerosis. Weight's book Australian Artists, portraits by Greg Weight was published by Chapter and Verse in 2004. You will notice my fascination in the photos included here: for a portrait photographer, ironically Greg Weight himself has such a richly expressive and characterful face: he is well suited to being photographed!

[full audience at the Australian Centre for Photography in Paddington]

Amongst the issues raised by the audience during question time, people were very concerned about titling or captioning photographic works, especially in exhibition, i.e. concern not to instruct or imply how how the image should be interpreted by the audience, nor verbose explanatory titles. Questions of ownership and rights for photographing indigenous people were raised and well handled by Mason and Weight, both of whom give copies of their images to the subjects and, by definition, portrait photography is complicit imaging. The subjects are consulted every time an image is published or exhibited. McFarlane surprised me by raising the issue of photographer rights (being taken away), referring to the escalating number of situation in which photography is not permitted. I was surprised because I already find this phenomenon fairly pervasive, especially in entertainment or performance and commercial events and in art galleries and museums. The latter, in a way, protects the intellectual property and rights of the exhibited artists so I support this kind of restriction. He criticised the former regulation of taking photos at concerts, for example, as the motives are clearly ulterior or adhering to an agenda. I think that agenda is so blatantly commercial that it is, frankly unsurprising but he makes a good point that these restrictions detract from the livelihood and validity of the photographer's documentary. Conclusion: if you have the chance and are in Sydney, see the Head On exhibition at the ACP. It demonstrates the diversity of approaches to portraiture and its associated issues.