Portraits of Artists

Portraits of Artists

My Life in the Australian Arts

It was shortly after a six month stint working as Martin Sharp’s studio assistant during Martin’s preparations for his first solo exhibition that I developed an interest in photography. It was 1965.

So when Sharp left for the UK I formed my own photographic studio, working in advertising, fashion and theatre.

When Sharp then returned to Australia in 1969 he invited me to join him and a group of other artists in ‘The Yellow House,’ an artist’s co-op in the old Clune Galleries in Victoria Road, Potts Point, Sydney.

It was here that I met artists Brett Whiteley, George Gittoes, Garry Shead and Bruce Goold - and I took the plunge to become an exhibiting photo media artist myself. So on the first of September 1971 my ‘Infinity Room’ installation with photographs of Cronulla Sand Dunes opened along side Brett Whiteley’s Bonzai Room, Bruce Goold’s Belgium Salon, George Gittoes ‘Puppet theatre and Martin Sharp’s ‘Magritte Room.’

There would be no turning back. Commercial work continued, but it served mainly as a support system for my more ambitious interests, to use the camera as a device for delivering images regarded as works of art.

I was interested in portraits of artists which coincided with my move away from the advertising market and into fine art photography. I had been commissioned to photograph paintings by Russell Drysdale, Brett Whiteley and Arthur Boyd for book publication, and worked continually for the AGNSW and the MCA. It was during this time that I took the initiative to make portraits of artists, which became a body of work that gradually grew in number and stature.

In 1975 I was one of the inaugural photographers to exhibit at the Australian Centre for Photography. My exhibition ‘Time and Space’ travelled throughout NSW and to Victoria.

I secured a position lecturing in photography at TAFE Colleges, working for the National Art School, Hornsby TAFE and the Sydney College for the Arts between 1980 and the year 1995, but also continued to have solo exhibitions.

I continued to meet more artists including, Lloyd Rees, John Olsen, Rosalie Gascoigne and Arthur Boyd which could be likened to being introduced to some of the foundation blocks of modern art in this country. These artists believed that nothing mattered more than attempting to describe the indescribable, using their own unique voice. ‘We are mark makers,’ Olsen would say, and those marks are important messages to others… ‘Look at the Parramatta River,’ said Lloyd Rees, ‘it stretches up into the landscape around Sydney like the roots of a giant tree.’

During the eighties I was commissioned to photograph Aboriginal art by some of the greatest indigenous and other mixed race artists in the country. Every object had to be considered for what it was and photographed accordingly. It was very technical and demanded sharp accurate exposures with 5x4 and 10x8 studio film cameras. It was clear that Aboriginal art was having a bigger impact on the market than any other art movement. Australian Aboriginal Art was selling better here and abroad.

By 1993, after building a solar house with my wife and children at Cattai, west of Sydney, near the Hawkesbury River, I pinned a map of Australia on my studio wall and drew a circle around Alice Springs. For the first time I noticed how this town with its beautiful name was bang in the middle of Australia. ‘I have to go there,’ I thought, ‘here I am at forty six years of age and I haven’t been to Alice Springs, and I’ve been photographing art made out that way since 1980.’ As if it was written in the stars, within a few months I received a call from a man who runs a cattle station in the Northern Territory. Don Holt was a third generation grazier and owner of a huge cattle station. His station, Delmore Downs covered so much land that it included aboriginal communities occupied by important aboriginal artists, including Alhalkere, on the edge of Utopia.

Don needed to have some of his paintings photographed and he commissioned me to sort this out for him when he brought them to Sydney the following week. As it turned out some of the paintings were by the incredible Emily Kame Kngwarreye, who I met the following year when Don invited me to his station to do some photography.

Emily was surprisingly diminutive, standing approximately four feet six inches tall, she had no children and following years of working in batik which she began in 1980, she made her first painting on canvas in 1988. When I met her she was 84 years old and more than half way through her meteoric late life rise to international stardom.

She was like a Queen, everyone wanted a painting by Emily. The dealers couldn’t get enough Emily’s. When she was in the mood, Emily would sit on the ground, or tarp, under the talking tree, chew tobacco, sing her yam-dreaming story and paint canvas after canvas, day after day. She was supporting her whole family and much of her community. During the last eight years of her life she painted over 3000 paintings, approximately one painting a day. In 1992 when Emily received the Australian Artists Creative Fellowship award from the Prime Minister Paul Keating, she famously said, ‘good, now I don’t have to paint anymore,’ and laughed her big toothless laugh. She painted ceaselessly for another four years and died in September 1996.

In 1995 my exhibition ‘From a Distance’ was opened by the director of the AGNSW Edmund Capon at Michael Nagy Fine Art in Kings Cross, and featured the now famous profile portrait of Emily. Later in the same year my first public exhibition of Portraits of Australian Artists opened at Manly Regional Gallery.

In 1996 I met another significant artist who had produced a ground-breaking exhibition titled, Site Seeing. Carol Ruff had worked extensively in Alice Springs seeking out and painting Arrernte sacred sites. Sacred sites that had been virtually ignored and, in some cases, all but destroyed by European development and intervention. She was a political artist who was also responsible for some of the most well known murals around the country including the Redfern Railway Bridge Mural, The Domain Mural, The Adelaide Festival Theatre and the Bush Tucker Mural on the Yeperenye Centre, Alice Springs.

By this time, my portraits of Australian Artists had reached a level where the body of work had a shape and I could see what was missing so spent the following years trying to fill the gaps, seeking out access to certain indigenous artists, more women artists and other important artists I could locate.

In 2003 I moved away from the Hawksebury River property and was living North Bondi when the AGNSW announced that it would be hosting a National Photographic Portrait Prize, which gripped my imagination. I had many recent portraits that would be good contenders, but wanted to make a work specifically for that competition.

I had taken an interesting black and white portrait of the blues harmonica player Jim Conway a few years previously and felt compelled to make a new updated attempt at a portrait of Jim, someone I admired and respected.

Like any major film shoot, it was necessary to find a good location and after considerable research and location-hunting I decided Platform 4 at Central Railway Station would be the best place, with it’s longest platform in the station. Trains and train tracks have a long history of association with blues music and I love that train sound some harmonica players duplicate, something Jim could do with his hands tied behind his back.

Jim had suffered from multiple sclerosis for time before and was confined to a wheel chair. But despite the difficulties associated with this terrible degenerative disease he continued (and continues) to make his way to gigs throughout the country and is widely regarded as the premier blues harmonica player in the country. To top it off, he never really complains about his condition, and refers to himself as a Gimp who just happens to play the harmonica. Ya gotta love that guy.

The first shoot went OK, but after a few days I decided to call Jim to see if he was up for a second shoot explaining that the shots could be better. Without hesitating Jim said, ‘OK, how about next Monday?’ It was like we had done a rehearsal and now we were going in for the curtain raiser. The final result from that second shoot was better than I could have hoped for and as I pushed Jim back along the platform, he looked back at me and said, ‘I’m very intuitive, you are going to win.’

A few weeks later I entered a small print of the portrait into the competition and titled it ‘Railroad Blues.’ And a month later I received a call from the Gallery informing me that the entry had been selected as a finalist and that I needed to get the completed print into the Gallery by a certain date.

The following few weeks were nerve-wracking. I knew so well that for a photographic print to work it has to be the best print possible and in 1993 it required several attempts by different printers to produce a one meter print to the standard I wanted from the 6x7cm transparency. Finally, within a day of closing time for final entries, I managed to get a print produced that I liked - only there was no time to get it framed, it had to be entered unframed.

On the day before the winners of the Archibald, Wynne, the Sulman and the inaugural National Photographic Prize was announced, I received a call from the AGNSW asking if I would be able to be at the Gallery tomorrow. Needless to say it was the little tap on my shoulder I had been hoping for. The next day it was announced, Jim was right. I had won the inaugural National Photographic Portrait Prize with ‘Railroad Blues’.

Two years on I was also awarded the HeadOn Photographic Portrait Prize with my portrait of Chinese artist Jaiwei Shen.

Some publishers approached me interested in discussing a book of my portraits. Finally it was settled that Chapter and Verse would publish that book. And a year later, in 2004, the director of the AGNSW Edmund Capon accepted an invitation to launch the book ‘Australian Artists, Portraits by Greg Weight,’ to a packed audience at Australian Galleries, Paddington.

Carol and I continued to travel to Central Australia yearly and produce combined exhibitions sourced from the desert landscape. These exhibitions ‘Desert Air,’ ‘Love Creek Bitter Springs,’ and ‘Formations and Ancient Land,’ at Australian Galleries, Sydney saw a progression in collaboration for two artists working in the same landscape using different mediums.

Then in 2011, Sydney Artist Margaret Olley commissioned me to photograph her final exhibition. Margaret requested that I collect her paintings from her studio as she finished them and take them to my studio to be photographed. On the last day when I picked up her final paintings there was one last painting to finish and she asked me to come back the following day.

The next morning as I was working in my studio, the phone rang. It was Stuart Purves from Australian Galleries who broke the news that Margaret Olley had died. Here I was surrounded by all of the artist’s final paintings and she had just died.

Margaret’s 88th birthday was the week before so her studio was still filled with flowers. I knew he had to go back to her studio and photograph it, just the way it was when she died.

A year later to the date a memorial exhibition with those photographs was shown at Australian Galleries, dedicated to the memory of Margret Olley. The suite of 30 archival prints of Olley’s studio home was donated to the gallery at Margaret Olley’s birthplace, the Tweed River Art Gallery.

Last year Carol and I completed an artist’s residency at Hill End and this year I travelled to France, courtesy of the Tweed River Regional Gallery to photograph the late Australian artist Fred Jessup’s studio in the South of France for an exhibition celebrating a life-long friendship between those two artists, Margaret Olley and Fred Jessup at the Tweed River Gallery due to open in the middle of 2019.