Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Dewi, one of the issues we discussed the other day was portraits and style, approaches to subject matter etc.  When you explained to me your motivation for your current project I felt: "Great, this is coming straight from the soul".
I'd also say that approach is a long way removed from the overly contrived photography which is swamping the planet. There would be many reasons for that.  Not looking at it from an intellectual standpoint a principle reason for this flood of what in many instances amounts to junk is the onset of the digital era where the camera actually takes care of too much. It removes the need for talent, training, and thought. People simply shoot, look at the image and feel very clever.
Our approaches to portraits differ widely.  I come from a media background and often it is necessary to make a single picture tell a broader story. I'll post an example with this.
When we spoke I did make the point that viewers do like some information about pictures. I'm a bit tired of the Paris, 1938 style of caption. Again, that comes from a media background where often a picture had a great deal of value added by way of an extended caption.
Your current portraits, the style of shooting - the simple lighting, plain background and very simplified technique which boils down to a couple of sheets of film, is courageous and allows no room for an error of judgment. The end results show something of the soul of the subject and to be able to achieve that is nothing short of a minor miracle. The whole approach demonstrates the KISS principle - Keep It Simple Stupid - works.

I'll drop in one of my favourite pics and caption here followed by one which I snapped after your recent shoot. 

Joe Sommerfield and Agnes, Kingston's Rest, The Kimberley 1993.                            © Roger Garwood & Trish Ainslie
When I spoke to Joe Sommerfield at his camp in Kingston's Rest, south of Kununurra, he was happy to tell me pretty well his whole life story. When he was kid his mother was the post mistress of  the Fink River Post Office, east of Alice Springs. Joe, at the age of twelve, was a camel driver and would take camels across the desert, carting supplies to communities. Nights were freezing cold in the desert and Joe would sleep cuddled into the camels for warmth. When cars and trucks became popular, displacing camel trains, Joe simply let his team loose into the desert.
Joe and Agnes have been companions for much of their lives. Agnes was married to a tribal aboriginal who had excessively associated with white people and for that he was speared to death. Before he died he last request was to Joe, asking him to look after Agnes. Joe did that until the day he died. A week after joe's death Agnes was moved into an aged care facility in Derby. A week later the camp was looted.
Joe wears a belt in the picture and he said that he stole the buckle from the bodies of one of two  members of the Durack family who had been speared and killed by local tribesmen. He quoted, " ... and they didn't kill people without good reason ..."

The picture was shot on 4x5 neg by Trish Ainlsie and me while we were working on "'til She Dropped Her Strides" a book about the Kimberley which we produced in about 1993. The one thing about shooting with a large camera on large tripod is that you have the undivided attention of the subject.
I've used this picture, not just because it's one of my favourites but because with a wider viewpoint, taking in the camp, clothing and other detail, like chooks and water tanks, a great deal of information is given to the viewer. The caption helps to round off a bigger story.
Now, if you don't mind Dewi, I'll post a shot of Shan taken when I was there recently.  I have to say I take no credit for this. I simply moved in when you had finished your shoot and squirted off a  digital pic.

Shan, Esperance March 2011
I think this will be a bit wider than your shot Dewi. It will be nice to see the comparison but I liked the way the arms formed a nice a nice arc to loosely frame the face. I'll leave it to you to post yours.

In a day or two, for the next post, I'll outline my system of contact printing which is a very important link to film exposure, processing and to dispensing with test strips in the final printing process. I'd like to demonstrate it to you on my next trip.


  1. Roger, than portrait of Shannan is divine.

  2. Sometimes this 'service' pisses me off like when I post a lengthy carefully thought out comment and it disappears after posting

  3. I said something about a lesson learnt at the portrait session with Shannan which Roger observed and recorded.

    The image of Shan you posted here is strong and lyrical Roger. It was made after the formal shoot had finished and as often happens in studio sitter and photographer chat and debrief following the concentration and tension of the sitting... we relax. That few minutes can provide opportunity for portraits of a different kind if smaller cameras are left ready for the moment and used without disturbing it.

    Observing you doing this and seeing the result of Shan's portrait has taught me to be prepared for this opportunity in future work. The little Leica digital you used is a great tool for these moments, but a small Rollei or even 35mm camera can be used effectively.

    Whatever tools are employed is secondary to the artist's eye and recognition of defining moments so eloquently 'captured' here by Roger.