Australian street photography is all about light and people who love living outdoors. You can’t escape it, you can’t ignore it: it will inevitably take over your photography. This light is just too tempting, too easy to just drop exposure by 2 stops, get some contrasty film (or fake it in photoshop) and let the colours and blacks pop. Trent Parke showed the way with Dream/Life, Narelle Autio with her beach series, Jesse Marlow with graphic colourful content and many others. Andrew Stark breaks the mold a little bit; his photography could have been in many places. And all the others have done different work as well, but at the end of the day Australian street photographers will be collectively remembered for the gloriously illuminated busy streets, parks and beaches. Personally I’m addicted, when Melbs is overcast (which is half the time) I don’t even want to go shooting.
As the sun last rolled over the equator, I found myself on the flipside of the hemispheres; a six month migration. Australia, unlike Canada, which goes Arctic, a good portion of this place sits in Capricorn’s house. Instead of light slicing on oblique angles, here, in the summer, it stamps down hard on the herd like a white-hot branding iron. Magnum’s Jonas Bendikson says: “The worse the weather, the better the picture.” It seems to me that Aussie photographers might adjust that the quote to read: the more extreme the weather, the better the picture. Melbourne has a far different feel than my home city of 8 years where clouds reign supreme for much of the year. While my move north of the 49th parallel wasn’t related to photography or the weather, I can’t help but recall the impressionist painters, like Van Gogh and Cezanne, both of whom migrated periodically to the south of France for its quality of light. And while Vancouver is referred to as Canada’s Riviera, it is nothing of the sort, excepting cold sea water, imported palm trees, and that massive French enclave only 4000km to the east. Life down under is different. Even with its brightness, this is Trent Parke‘s “dark country.” Like its history, the shadows have weight. They give structure to composition. The cowboy Ned Kelly once roamed these parts. He wore a dark armoured suit made of cast iron. While this protected him from bullets, the sun was another likely other adversary. With a small slit made for his eyes, I can only imagine how the light blazed through as the bushranger rode high atop his horse during the midday. If nothing more, it must have cooked inside that iron stove. Though, if his last words were any indication, the conditions in that suit were no trouble for the bandit. As he said: “Such is Life.” I’ll take it too, at least, for as long as I can muster.
Nowhere Man (aka Andrew Stark)
I would suggest that there probably is, (a distinct uniqueness of Australian street photography) however I feel it’s so understated and undefined as to be almost uncharacterizable (that’s 3 ‘un’s’ in the one sentence – unbelievable ! (Unreal – Ed).).
It’s certainly not stylistically based, for the ‘Down Under’ range is vast – from Trent Parkes cinematic, almost special effect outlook through to Roger Scott’s sociologically driven, gentle observation. There is no discernible uniformity to be found …
I do feel the common thread lies however with the personality of the nation. For any Aussie street photographer I’ve ever come across has had a fairly laid back or laconic persona; a trait which of course mirrors the well ingrained, Chips Rafferty meets Paul Hogan Australian characteristic.
… and the more I scribble (by way of a response), the more I’m drawn toward that humble yet magically multi faceted adjective, “dry”. For as a race of people, Australians tend toward the quietly ironic – we are sardonic, understated and deviously droll …not aggressively insistent like the Americans nor do we posses the refined qualities of European urbanity. No, Australia is a parched and thirsty nation, and this I feel is self evident when interpreting our street work.
Our climate is a deathly dehydrated one (except when it’s bucketing down with rain), our humour is moisture-less, and I’d proffer that Aussie street photography is as philosophically dry as the proverbial ‘dead dingos donger’.
…and of course a further commonality is that we all work using the same harsh, unforgiving light … that unmated solar beam which courses into our UV friendly corner like sleepy dust into a well rested, bacterially conjunctive left peeper.
I’m not sure I buy the “uniqueness” of Australian street photography but I would agree with others who describe a distinguishing quality to the Australian light. Paul Kelly, as usual, put it best when he sang; “Sydney shines such a beautiful light”. It takes a poet to describe in 6 words what others have taken pages to do.
I first saw the light in Sydney during what I considered a holiday but has been described by family members as an odyssey; an ordeal. In the end, it was an awakening.
To me Sydney was, and remains, the spiritual home of Australian street photography. Trent Parke’s office worker with backpack in the summer storm and “Today Coldwater” are as iconic of Australian photography as the Coat Hangar is of the Harbour. Roger Scott, John Williams, Philip Quirk and Robert McFarlane shot some of their best stuff in Sydney. And of course it’s the home of the enigmatic Andrew Stark: street photographer, rock aficionado and existentialist essayist, whose book; “Escaping into Life” opened my eyes to the strange back-story of street photography and those that practice it. It was Andrew who described street photography as the “visual documentation of a long walk”. Or words to that effect.
But I don’t live in Sydney, I live in Adelaide. What I have learned though is that the “light” is everywhere given the correct conditions and proper time. You just have to be patient and learn where, when and how to look.
I haven’t quite got there yet. I’m still practicing, looking and learning.
I don’t think there is such a thing as a “unique aesthetic to Australian street photography” nor do I believe there can, or even should be. What is unique about Australian street photographs is that they are made of people in Australian environments. When all said and done, no honest street photographer can or should create an environment. All he or she can do is report on it, hopefully seizing on its essence, if you like.
Having said that, “great” photographers do clearly have the ability to transform a situation by putting a stamp of their own upon it. Robert Frank (a Swiss), Henri Cartier Bresson (a Frenchman) and Andre Kertesz (an Hungarian) leave us with images of the USA that add to our understanding and knowledge but which are distinct to each. In other words, their ‘ways of seeing’ matter much more than their nationality.
I suppose the nearest thing a national school of street photography that I’m aware of, would that represented by the likes of Winogrand, Harbutt and Uzzle (to name but a few) in the 1970s. This could be called American if you like, but is really (in my opinion) Robert Frankian, or least deriving from and inspired by his seminal work of the 1950s.
For what its worth, I am the photographic product of “The Family of Man” (which I saw in Sydney in the late 1950s) mixed up with Frank and Kertesz. Does that make me Swiss, or Hungarian, or American? When I began taking pictures seriously there were only camera clubs. I can honestly say that Australian influences upon me — and predominant influences are necessary in the creation of any national aesthetic — are nil.
The photo was made in Martin Place Sydney a couple of years ago. Nowadays almost everything I shoot is a panorama. But I’d still like to think that there’s a persistency of vision that links this picture to the photos of Sydney I made in the 1950s and 1960s.
Keep up the Good Work.
I think it’s great that things are stirring and people are thinking about photography as an insight into our lives and times.
To me, perhaps the one most unique thing about Australian street photography is purely geographical –intensity and harshness of light are unlike anywhere else. It might take a photographer from, say, Europe some time to adjust. European light is gentle, caressing almost. Australian light is no less exciting though – in fact, once you’ve worked out how to use it in your favour rather than against you, it is exhilarating. You find yourself forever chasing, as if you were performing a never- ending, invisible Waltz. It changes so fast. The difference is in the visual aesthetic – images made on Australian streets draw upon this intensity. They are the perfect synthesis of light and dark, of singing colours and deep shadows. Australian exemplars of the genre that have mastered the Waltz with the light are photographers such as Narelle Autio and Trent Parke. While street photography is specific in telling the story of a particular culture at a particular time and place, it has a thread running through it that defies boundaries of any kind – it speaks about public lives of a 21st Century global community. Common visual languages are those that search for humour, absurdities of the everyday, and feelings of isolation and alienation, to name a few. These languages, I believe, are cross- cultural.