Public Image, Private Lives: Family, Friends and Self in Photography

AGSA Private Lives Mervyn BishopHighlighting the close connections between the photographer and subject, Public Image, Private Lives: Family, Friends and Self in Photography delves beneath the surface of familiar (and some unfamiliar) images in Australian and international photography at the Art Gallery of South Australia until 3 July 2016.

“Many of the works are not portraits per se, but are instances where family and friends have been drawn into the photographer’s creative vision and process.” says Julie Robinson, Senior Curator, Prints, Drawings and Photographs. “There is often an element of reciprocity in the image-making, based on the familiarity and rapport between the sitter and the photographer.”

“The images exist as works of art but also provide a fascinating insight into the photographer’s world – as unofficial portraits of family and friends – and inevitably reveal as much about the artist as the sitter.”

Providing the impetus for the exhibition, the acquisition of a group of photographs by Australian photographer Carol Jerrems embodies aspects of the social, sexual and cultural politics of Australia in the 1970s. Her most famous image, Vale Street, 1975, resulted from her inviting two of her students from Melbourne’s Heidelberg Technical College to be photographed with her friend Catriona Brown.

The subjects look to the camera in an apparent moment of chance encounter, yet the shoot had lasted all day. Jerrems was in search of an indefinable quality and in the late afternoon she asked her subjects to remove their tops.

Brown remembers that “we just got to a quiet time of day and we weren’t laughing and joking any more … Carol was obviously looking for something and pushing the moment.” Together with the photograph Waiting, 1975, taken earlier in the day, these images reveal the changing mood and dynamic between the participants over that time.

Spanning a period from the nineteenth century to the present, Public Image, Private Lives includes more than sixty works by Australian and international photographers as diverse as Julia Margaret Cameron, Harold Cazneaux, J.H. Lartigue, Max Dupain, and Andy Warhol.

In 1905 an eleven-year-old budding photographer persuaded his elegantly dressed cousin to leap down a set of stairs. His resulting image of her in mid-flight exudes a spontaneous joie de vivre. The young Jacques Henri Lartigue was fascinated by photography’s ability to capture fleeting images of speed and motion. He found fertile source material in the antics of his family and friends in France – not only in his cousin, Bichonnade, but in his older brother, whose eccentric inventions included a tyre-boat and a flying machine.

These images are among several by Lartigue that also feature in the exhibition. Part of Lartigue’s oeuvre of more than 250,000 photographs, they are now celebrated as one of the great records of early twentieth-century French life, which resulted from his obsession for documenting his own experiences.

Diaristic tendencies are also evident in the work of Australian photographer William Yang, who since the 1970s has been documentinghis social milieu in Sydney’s gay community, as well as his Chinese heritage. The exhibition includes Allan, 1990, from the series Sadness – nineteen images annotated with Yang’s thoughts and observations, which form a moving portrait of his friend Allan during the last months of his life.

The close connection between Australian photographers Max Dupain and Olive Cotton is revealed in two photographs from the late 1930s. Dupain’s Nude, 1938 – is a beautiful study in light falling on the human form – almost like a still life – and exudes a quiet intimacy.

The model is Olive Cotton, his wife-to-be, who had been working in his studio for four years. It is displayed beside Cotton’s modernist portrait of Dupain from the following year, Max after surfing, 1939 – an erotically charged image of her husband from the first year of their brief marriage.

“By highlighting instances where a close rapport exists between photographer and subject, Public Image, Private Lives presents images that are not only memorable but which are embedded with emotional resonances,” concludes Robinson.

Public Image, Private Lives: Family, Friends and Self in Photography
Art Gallery of South Australia, North Terrace, Adelaide
Exhibition continues to 3 July 2016
Free admission

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Image: Mervyn Bishop, Australia, born 1945, Wailwan people, New South Wales, Is there an Aboriginal photography? Self-portrait, 1989, Sydney; printed c.1991, Sydney, gelatin-silver photograph, 28.0 x 40.5cm (image & sheet); South Australian Government Grant 2009, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide