Thursday, January 27, 2011

Big Pictures/Tiny Cameras

Annie Leibovitz: "A Photographer's Life" at the MCA
Sydney is again the site of two of the most important exhibitions seen this year - Annie Leibovitz's sprawling retrospective "A Photographer's Life" at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Jeff Carter's sadly posthumous survey of his life's concerns at the NSW State Library entitled "Beach, Bush + Battlers". For forty years, Leibovitz has been the great entertainer of American editorial photography, firstly with Jann Wenner's pioneering rock newspaper Rolling Stone, and more recently with Vanity Fair magazine. This MCA exhibition details the extreme range of imagery of which the American photographer is capable: from the most glossy, entertaining recreations of Hollywood glamour using contemporary luminaries such as Nicole Kidman in 2003 (pictured, above) to the tragic calligraphy of war, personified by Leibovitz's simple, graphic black and white 1993 image of a child's cycle lying forlornly next to bloodstains left by a sniper's bullet in Sarajevo. (pictured, above right) The archive produced by this unique artist is broad, deep and occasionally merely diarist, as in the generous selections of images from her family. "A Photographer's Life" presents one woman's collage of imagery made as the last decades of the 20th Century faded into the first five years of the 21st. Between fame, war, trivia and tragedy an essence of our contemporary existence emerges - and ample evidence of an artist struggling to balance her links with celebrity against her expressive sojourns exploring the most tragically real of days. Until March 27.
Peter Carrette's Remarkable Dream
Adelaide professional photographer Milton Wordley dropped in the other day with a copy of the order of service for the funeral of Peter Carrette, held recently in Sydney. As I wrote in a previous blog, there were many surprising facets to Carrette's life - as a photographer, mentor and a humanitarian. At his funeral, mourners for the charismatic Carrette were invited by his family not to send flowers, but instead donate to Krousar-Thmey the Cambodian orphanage this photographer had visited and helped support. Their website (Krousar-Thmey means "New Family" in Khmer) gives a detailed insight into this organisation's realistic ambitions (including literacy for the blind, pictured right) for their many unfairly distressed children. Clearly Carrette believed no child should live their life with the deprivations faced by orphans in Cambodia. To transfer money in AUD, please contact the ANZ Banking Group and quote the Swift Code ANZBAU3M.
Jeff Carter's Beach, Bush + Battlers comes to SLNSW
Photographer Jeff Carter (pictured, below right) was, by his own admission - and the wording on his letterhead for many years - Australia's photographer by appointment to "The Poor and Unknown". Sadly Carter died at the age of 82 on October 25 last year. This photographer understood deeply, from personal experience 'humping his swag' around "The Bush" as a young man, what hard work meant (pictured left, his iconic "Tobacco Road, 1956") and throughout his long career he never lost his rapport with Australian working men and women. This affinity is ever present in his photographs, adding to their already powerful archival value. Curated by Sandra Byron, "Beach, Bush + Battlers" is not to be missed. There will be a panel discussion on February 18 at 6pm at the SLNSW to acknowledge Jeff Carter's contribution to Australian documentary photography. Until February 20.
Distinguished Photojournalist Penny Tweedie dies. (1940-2011)

Penny Tweedie (pictured, left) has died in Britain on January 24, aged 70. It often seemed to me as if this remarkable, talented photojournalist had seen and done everything - and perhaps knew everyone. Tweedie had, at her considerable peril, covered several wars from the Middle East to Bangladesh, and made enduring portraits of celebrities as wildly differing as Twiggy, Muammar Qaddafi, Princess Diana and John Lennon. I once worked at the Daily Telegraph Colour Magazine in London in the early 1970's when Penny Tweedie was also there and discovered by accident how far this diminutive, elegant, feisty woman would go to complete an assignment. One morning I walked into Picture Editor Patricia Elkins' office and was surprisingly offered a job photographing the CIA in London, which I knew Penny Tweedie had originally been commissioned to do. However, as Tweedie worked on her last task, photographing illegal airport abortion touts at Heathrow, she been caught and savagely beaten by thugs, leaving her unable to start the next assignment. An Australian photojournalist based in Hong Kong, Bob Davis, has just sent me this photograph (pictured, right) he made of Tweedie in dialogue with the late George Rodger, legendary British documentary photographer and co-founder (With Robert Capa, David "Chim Seymour" and Henri Cartier-Bresson) of Magnum Photos. The British Guardian newspaper also recently published the following tribute by Mike Wells and Duncan Campbell:
Discovering Indigenous Australia
In 1975 Tweedie flew to Alice Springs as part of a BBC documentary film crew filming the story of Burke and Wills. This assignment would change her life. Tweedie discovered Aboriginal culture and began a lifelong commitment to documenting indigenous Australia. Tweedie moved to Australia and several affirmative books exploring Aboriginal society followed, including This My Country (William Collins) in 1985 and Spirit of Arnhem Land (New Holland) in 1998. Penny Tweedie's enduring legacy can be viewed at
She is survived by
her son Ben, mother Anne and brothers James and Charles.
Point & Shoot goes Wide & Fast
Having a fast medium wide-angle lens has been part of my documentary camera outfit for over forty years - first with an early version of the classic Nippon Kogaku Auto-Nikkor 28/2 - and later, after I switched to Canon SLR's, their fine FD 28/2 SSC Canon. In the late 1970's I also bought an early version of the 35/1.4 Summilux-M for my battered Leica M2. The Leitz lens tended to flare when used wide open (as can be seen, below, in a photograph I made of that remarkable performer and writer, the late Nick Enright, at Sydney's Nimrod Theatre in 1978) but from f2 on, the Summilux's definition, contrast and colour were wonderful. Such medium wide-angle lenses broadly approximate the eye's main area of comprehension and their added speed gave me confidence to work in low light levels and still make sharp pictures - whether using either a SLR or Rangefinder camera. Now a new generation of digital compact cameras, nominally considered point & shoot, are emerging that feature wide, fast and sharp lenses - ideal for carrying when a bag full of cameras is inappropriate. These modestly priced cameras are eminently pocketable and produce results that are clearly of publication quality. Though more expensive than P&S digital cameras with slower lenses, a camera such as Canon's Powershot S95 (pictured, above left) is still well below the price of a 28f2 lens for a DLSR. I recently spent time using the Canon S95, an upgrade of their S90, and found the results from this camera impressive. Old photojournalistic habits die hard, so most of the photographs taken with the S95 were made at the zoom lens's widest focal length and at its maximum aperture of f2. Even a test I made of the macro abilities of the S95 - using a rose from my garden, with the lens set at f2 delivered more than acceptable definition (pictured, above right). No lens is really worth having (with the exception of that Summilux I owned) unless it performs well when used wide open. One of the hardest tests I then gave the S95 was a portrait I made of a friend, psychologist Michelle Sexton, as she stood, heavily backlit, before a window. I also had to add 2/3 of a stop exposure compensation - easily set by rotated a wheel on the back of the camera. The result (pictured, above left) was sharp with no visible flare. Controls for this camera will be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of digital cameras (especially Canon's cameras and I confess I have yet to open the instruction book. The Canon Powershot S95 lens has an image stabilized 3.8X zoom where the maximum aperture drops to f4.9 at its telephoto equivalent focal length of 105mm. The S95 also has the ability to shoot HD video and has RAW capture. As if to prove Canon are serious about low light shooting the S95 can make pictures at up to ISO 3200 at full 10 Megapixel resolution. The Powershot S95 is currently selling at retailers such as Ted's Cameras for $569.95
A Surprise Lunch With Sculptor Ken Unsworth

During my last visit to Sydney I received a surprise invitation from arts journalist Ann Berriman to come to a lunch at short notice with eminent Australian sculptor Ken Unsworth. (pictured, left) A photographer friend, the late Robert Walker, had once shown me part of the extensive documentation he had produced of Unsworth's remarkable vision and I soon found myself sitting opposite the 80 year old artist, who discussed his art with the enthusiasm of someone sixty years younger. As I love the diarist nature of photography I asked Unsworth whether I could photograph him and whether I could publish the picture in my next blog. "Do anything you like with the pictures! I am from the generation that just wants things seen," said Unsworth with some generousity. Again, I set the S95 to aperture priority and the lens to wide-angle, and f2 (the latter by simply twisting the knurled ring around the lens) and made an un-posed portrait of the artist sitting in a naturally lit room at the rear of Berriman's house. The Canon S95 demonstrated how tenacious is the lens's resolving power when used at its limits. But you be the judge. In future blogs I will look at some of the S95's competitors - the Lumix LX5, Samsung's EX1 and the recently released Olympus XZ-1.
Surrealism's Enduring Appeal
Of all the revolutionary art movements of the 20th Century, Surrealism has endured to the point that it has now entered everyday speech in the 21st Century. During the recent disastrous Queensland floods, television showed video footage taken with mobile phones of cars being tossed along like toys by torrents of flood water. While watching, I just managed to catch the voice of an amazed onlooker who said: "Man, this is Surreal ... " as a car bounced over a tree protruding out of the rushing water. Mischievously, I noted how his first thought was to say 'Surreal' rather than 'Cubist'. During a recent extended assignment in Western Australia I saw a remarkable photograph, constructed by digital means, by Perth artist Gary Parris. Titled "Diamonds and Heart", it reminded me again that as artists and communicators we are never far from the language of dreams, with Surrealism still a dominant influence when a picture needs to go beyond the literal. As Parris admitted, "Surrealism plays a key role in my ... art. I love creating photorealistic images that have surreal forms that mean something to me and maybe something to the viewer too. Its the subconscious getting out through the artistic creativity of photography or through software to create 3D photo realistic images that model nature itself. I like the added element of trying to work out what the subconscious is telling me without the full conscious reality. (Salvador) Dali is by far my most influential artist.”
Discovering HP Photo Books
While in Sydney, I was invited to spend Christmas with friends in Bowral. As usual I carried a small point and shoot digital camera (this time a Samsung WB500 with an excellent 10X Schneider Zoom lens) I made only a handful of pictures of the enjoyable day and a half I spent in the country, but my companion Louise Havekes supplemented my meagre take with her series of photographs taken with an Olympus film (!) camera. As a gesture of gratitude to our generous hosts, we decided to have a book made of our collective 'take'. I didn't want to use any form of half-tone reproduction (with its inherently intrusive screen pattern) so I thought I would try HP Photobooks available from Kmart and other outlets. After downloading our selection of images onto a Sandisk 4GB Cruzer Blade USB drive I took it to Kmart. Our helpful salesperson Kelly guided me through a series of touchscreen activated menus (some manipulation of photographs was possible, coupled with a choice of simple, graphic layouts) and our sixteen page A4 book, complete with a spring-loaded maroon cloth cover (and a window through which the first page image was visible) was printed and assembled in an hour. HP claim 200 year archival permanence for their (presumably pigment) inks and the cost was a modest $25. My only reservation was in the choice of paper HP offers, a basic semi-gloss, fairly lightweight stock. A heavier paper stock, with a choice of surfaces from matte-art paper to glossy would be a sensible addition to what was a very positive experience.
Text: Copyright Robert McFarlane 2011


  1. I like the added element of trying to work out what abstract canvas art is telling me without the full conscious reality.

  2. I agree, that's very true. Love the work and article!

    modern canvas art

  3. I wish I had a slr camera for arty shots as good as this, great stuff.

  4. What an awesome article, it's a great story about Tweedie!

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