looking back at sydney

If I get a new roll (or rolls) back that I want to post about, I usually choose the most interesting images, then basically forget about all the others until I have to go back through the library for some reason. This weekend was one of those occasions, and I've been revisiting my photographic memories of Sydney.

I've been to Sydney a few times now, and each time I find new things to photograph. And each time I also photograph the House and the Bridge extensively (an obsession I have documented in the past). These images aren't the best, but they still hold some interest. The first of these three shows a group of school kids, most likely on an excursion, who had stopped exploring for a lunch break. I don't love the middle image but the third one is kind of fascinating in its ambiguity; it's actually an extreme close-up of the Opera House facade (the wonderfully arranged tiles) exposed over a long shot of the House.

Still in the Harbour, but focussing on less famous views, these two make the most of the unusual slide film colourings. The sun looks fabulous in the first one, while I love the second one just because I love the architecture of Circular Quay Railway Station - and the great typeface.

And now to the Gardens. The middle image, showing bats in a palm tree, is a bit bland and indistinct for my liking, and the bottom image is, for lack of a better word, ugly. The top image, though, really appeals to me. I think it's partly because it seems different from a lot of my other photos; it's not the kind of photo I often take. It was just a pretty amazing scene: these two girls sitting on a ledge and seeming to have the whole of Sydney at their feet. It's a simple photo but that's one of the reasons I adore it.

So there are hits and misses here. Some perhaps better left in the archives, no doubt. But with the benefit of distance and hindsight, there are also some lovely images, and memories, that don't deserve to be forgotten.


a trip to panama

I've been doing so many bits and pieces for other people lately that I haven't had much time to work on my own projects. In one way that's great, because I'm always flattered and honoured when I'm asked to shoot for other people. But it's also potentially frustrating when I'm not getting the chance to shoot my own stuff. Sometimes, though, what I do for others gives me the chance to also do what I really love, without many restrictions. 

I recently did a shoot for Eagle and the Worm, and we took a lot of photos for press purposes. For a variety of reasons, they didn't work out as well as we had all hoped, and for other reasons, I don't think they will be used. Which isn't a bad thing - if work that I don't love doesn't get used, it's almost a blessing in disguise. But that doesn't mean it was a fruitless exercise. For one thing, I always learn a lot with each new project. And, more importantly, after we did the press stuff, I got to shoot them just hanging out. And these photos I am completely in love with.

When Jarrad and I were looking for a location for the shoot we were kind of stumped. I had recently been to the Panama Dining Room for the first time, and I was blown away by the beauty of the place, and especially the stunning arched windows - I really wanted to photograph it. So I suggested it to Jarrad, who got in touch with the restaurant, and luckily they gave it to us for a Saturday afternoon.

It isn't just the windows and the interior design that I love about these photos. I was using a film that I hadn't tried before and the contrast and smoothness is so gorgeous. Then there is light - the way it glows, and the way it falls so naturally on the subjects. 

And let's not forget the subjects themselves. Everyone was pretty relaxed seeing as it was the end of the shoot. After having a camera pointed at you for hours on end I suppose you get used to it, and perhaps the initial discomfort gives way to a kind of nonchalance. While I like the long shots that include most members of the band and make the most of the glorious windows, I have to say it's the individual portraits that I like best. I'm just going to show you one each of all of them, because they are pretty stunning:

Phew. See what I mean? What an amazingly photogenic bunch. Things like this remind me that while I love to experiment with all kinds of photo types in all kinds of situations, the power of a simple, black and white portrait is hard to beat. There were so many great photos from the three rolls I took for these shots; it was one of those rare occasions where there were more winners than losers. As a result, it's difficult to choose which ones to post and which to leave out. So at the risk of throwing the image-to-word ratio of this post way out, I'm going to finish with a few more of my favourites, because they say as much as any words I could write about them.


a portrait of a band (an ode to soul)

Though I have done a couple of significant photo shoots with Saskwatch, the band didn't ask me to shoot these images. In fact, I asked the band if they would allow me to take them.

This is an important distinction, and let me explain why: when I am asked to take publicity shots for a band, they usually come to me with some pretty strong ideas and we work together to achieve a visual representation of how they see the band, and how they want others to see the band. It's a really wonderful collaborative process. In this case, on the other hand, I had an extremely strong idea for a portrait of the band – my interpretation of the band, quite separate from (and perhaps even contradictory to) how they see themselves.

There's a slight danger here that people may take my interpretation of the band as the band's interpretation of the band. Image is so important in the music industry, so I was reluctant to even post these photos in case they were misinterpreted. But I figure that if I explain it really clearly in this accompanying text then it is probably OK. Plus the band is happy for me to post them, even though they are not images they would ever choose to publicise. And besides – how many people really read this? Hmm?

Why did I want to take these photos? No money changed hands. The band won't use them. The preparation took a lot of time, effort and expense (the letters are handmade using hand-cut A3-sized foam board, a lot of glue, and LED lights covered with cellophane. This was not an easy task). What's in it for me?

Perhaps it's my stubborn nature; I had this idea in my head a long time ago and, unlike many ideas that develop in my mind, this one wouldn't weaken. The more I thought about it, the more determined I was to do it. I suppose I also wanted to undertake a project where I was composing a portrait of a band instead of a person (or group of people). This band has no shortage of unique personalities within it. But this is not a portrait of Olaf, Ed, Tom, Liam, Nkechi, Rob, Nic, Sam and Will. This is a portrait of Saskwatch. I was excited to realise a vision that had become so clear in my head. And despite the extreme effort required and the limited actual usefulness of these shots, I am so thrilled that I followed it through.

So, what is my interpretation of the band?

Seeing Saskwatch play live floors me every time – and I've seen them play a lot – because the sounds that these nine people make are so consistently powerful. It is music the way I think it should be: when they drop back and allow Nkechi's vocals to gently break hearts, it's exquisite, and when the band slowly builds to (or hits the crowd straight up with) its full power the adrenaline in the room is palpable. The songs are composed and performed in a way that inescapably captivates people – at times it feels as though your pulse is responding directly to the sounds – and they make me fall in love with music again each time I hear them.

This is not mere hyperbole; I want to convey the power of the music as a means to explaining the visual approach I took. I wanted the band's name in lights because the music presents such an assault on the emotions: just like a blinding neon sign, the music's power is unavoidable and undeniable. It's no coincidence that soul music has been traditionally associated with vibrant, knock-your-socks-off aesthetics. The lights, the sequins, the matching suits, the impeccable make-up, the irresistible album art: these consistent visuals that accompanied the soul of the sixties and beyond did so because they visually communicated the impact of the music. Soul unapologetically manipulates your emotions in the most glorious way. Who can listen to Otis Redding's voice and not share his exquisite pain or infectious happiness? Who can hear Aretha Franklin lament being in an abusive relationship and not immediately understand what it might be like to never love a man (the way I love you)? And anyone who witnessed Charles Bradley at Golden Plains earlier this year and wasn't immediately moved by his heartbreaking voice, even if they had never heard of him before, might actually have no soul.

Having said that, there is a difference between the approach to visuals that classic soul bands took and the approach that Saskwatch takes. Where the former announced themselves as a very specific genre, Saskwatch lets the music speak for itself. A recent review of a live Saskwatch show applauded the music wholeheartedly but criticised the members' appearance and onstage presence, suggesting that they should incorporate more synchronised moves and more impressive (perhaps matching?) clothes. I think this is an ignorant and uninspired opinion. I don't think the band is a revivalist band. While soul was arguably most prominent several decades ago, that doesn't automatically tie today's soul to the superficial elements (such as costume and band art) of those older artists. Though it's a route many bands today seem to take – from skivvy-wearing sixties-sounding rock-n-rollers to long-haired seventies-loving dirty garage rockers – it is absolutely not essential, and to assume otherwise is narrow-minded at best. Regardless of music style, each band should form its own unique identity.

It is for this reason that I absolutely didn't want the focus to be on the band members. The juxtaposition between the powerhouse letters, which represent the music this band puts out, and the modesty, obscurity or total absence of the band members is what I was trying to achieve. I shot them in their casual clothes instead of the slightly less casual clothes they wear when they perform. I shot them during soundcheck and told them to pretend I wasn't there: no poses, no orchestration, no focus on their 'performance'. I used long exposures to reduce the clarity of the people, and intensify the strength of the lights.

In many ways I think the photo at the top of this post achieves my aims most successfully. While the letters represent the incredible music, there are no people. But there are instruments – because if nothing else, the people in this band are nine extraordinary musicians whose instruments represent their finely honed craft. Combined, these musicians (represented by the instruments) make this music (letters).

Like most of these images, the shot at the top features the iconic red curtain of Melbourne's Cherry Bar, which is where Saskwatch has played countless residencies over almost three years. These photos were taken during the band's last ever Cherry residency, so I'm really pleased to be essentially capturing a significant point in the life of Saskwatch: acknowledging and farewelling what some have referred to as the band's 'home'.

While the top image most successfully meets my thematic aims, from an aesthetic standpoint I think those with the band members on stage are equally successful. The lack of visual performance is a really gorgeous contrast to the letters: a group of (mostly) modest musicians at work – getting on with making excellent music, not buying into the hype that this kind of music can bring about.

And from a purely aesthetic point, this image is very close to my favourite. I absolutely adore the fact that every band member is blurred – except Nkechi, whose gorgeous stillness captures what her performance is often capable of: quieting chaos; bringing the freneticism of a bustling gig to a complete standstill with her restrained power.

So these are my portraits of a band. There was no collaboration, just a group of musicians who were willing to allow me to shoot them for my own purposes. It was such a worthwhile exercise for me – a chance to really construct something from scratch (literally and figuratively) in order to communicate a very specific perception. It also helps me to define the important difference between creating a visual representation of a band's self-imposed image, and creating a very subjective interpretation. This is certainly the most significant photographic project I have worked on this year, and it provides encouragement for me to pursue other ideas that are not designed to serve other people. Whether this kind of project will have any worth beyond that remains to be seen. But that's OK with me.