Surveying the scene

By Stephanie Bishop

Art Gallery of NSW celebrates the work of iconic Indigenous photographer Mervyn Bishop

Mervyn Bishop Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pours soil into the hands of traditional land owner Vincent Lingiari, Northern Territory 1975 type R3 photograph 30.5 x 30.5 cm Art Gallery of New South Wales Hallmark Cards Australian Photography Collection Fund 1991 © Mervyn Bishop/ Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Photo: Felicity Jenkins, AGNSW

The woman in the photograph cuts a figure of the kind Bernini might have sculpted: a modern-day St Teresa as she raises one arm to the diagonal to shield the distressed boy from the flash of the cameras. Or is the raised arm restraining him? The boy’s fists are clenched, his body leaning away from hers ever so slightly, while her nun’s habit clings in windblown folds to her stocky frame: thick legs, a belted broad waist. She could be made of marble, with the baroque drapery and the wimple conjuring otherworldliness: the saint in visionary ecstasy, the angel.

So much of this is dependent on her garb – the ruffled garment that makes her appear to be in motion, to be of the air, caught here in Anchormedias res as she rises or descends with the boy. The pointy tips of her black lace-up boots are well polished – their sheen, and her imbalanced stance, compounding the sense of this being a glimpse of a lumpen figure in sudden and unnatural transit. The diagonal configuration of the scene further destabilises – the nurse’s face and arm echoing the grey line of the kerb and street-markings that divide the image in half from the lower left to the upper right, this vertigo countered by the car in the background that has hurriedly pulled in across the footpath, as if to prevent the woman’s escape.

It was this photograph, Life and Death Dash (1971), that won Mervyn Bishop the Australian News Photographer of the Year Award. One of Australia’s best-known Indigenous photographers, Bishop, born in Brewarrina in 1945, began his photographic career as a cadet at the Sydney Morning Herald in 1962, and it was while working for the Herald that he took this image.

Although the image is often falsely interpreted as capturing the trauma of an Indigenous child being taken away, its origin is more banal. It depicts a nun making a “mercy dash” in the face of a medical emergency in which the boy had swallowed his mother’s prescription medicine. The nun holds her arm up to protect him from the reporters that had gathered outside St Margaret’s Hospital in Darlinghurst. It is a photo that stands out in the Art Gallery of NSW’s Mervyn Bishop exhibition (until 8 October 2017) because of its kinetic quality – most of the others are of static subjects and portraits. And while this is not the image that opens the exhibition, it is perhaps the one that most powerfully displays Bishop’s hallmark ability to infuse the documentary mode with a narrative pulse, and through which we can discern the key to Bishop’s compositional mode: the tilted foreground and persistence of diagonals, the pops of white directing the focus around a human subject.

On display in the gallery are 24 photographs, accompanied by a slide show of images selected from Bishop’s archive. These images appear and stay for a few seconds before vanishing: a small girl in a shack sitting in front of a bar heater – a collection of shiny silver teaspoons mounted in the corner; a man in a bare kitchen holding some food, his T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Mourn 88, Don’t Celebrate”; the Aboriginal flag painted on a front tooth.

It was photography, Bishop has said, that gave him a way of taking part in the Indigenous rights movement, and while his work includes art photography as well as press photography, the exhibition – framed as a celebration of his career – is selective, leaving out many of the more intimate and domestic images from Bishop’s first solo exhibition, In Dreams: Mervyn Bishop 30 Years of Photography 1960–1990. The current exhibition emphasises his achievements as a photojournalist responsible for capturing key cultural moments in the lives of Indigenous Australians.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the opening image, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam Pours Soil into the Hands of Traditional Land Owner Vincent Lingiari, Nor​thern Territory (1975). This is the only framed colour image. It is supported by documentary footage in which Gough Whitlam pours a handful of red soil into the palm of Gurindji elder and traditional landowner Vincent Lingiari, in recognition of the handover of land to the Gurindji people. In this footage, the handover is conducted in the dark of a shed, and in an accompanying interview Bishop recounts being sent to record this event for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, only to be disappointed by the dim environment in which the ceremony occurred. He asked the men if they’d mind repeating it outside, for the light.

The resultant iconic photograph shows Lingiari and Whitlam dwarfed by a giant deep blue sky, but the look on their faces is one of mild distraction: Lingiari is glancing sideways, not watching the fall of soil; Whitlam is focused but almost too earnest, anxious to get it just right – to make it look like this was in fact the first time.

This image is large: as you stand before it, the palm full of soil is mid-centre, eye level. But the eye is then drawn down to the small section of hand-mended seam in Lingiari’s trousers. The image commemorates a highlight in Indigenous Australian history and has come to represent the land rights movement – but it is this section of rough white stitching placed to gather the trousers tighter at the hip that catches us up, inviting us to scrutinise the image for its human range (Lingiari’s shirt too large at the neck, the slightly rubbery look of Whitlam’s sweat-sheened face). It is this surprise detail of stitching that punctures the official gloss of the image and that gives the photograph its intimate potency – one otherwise diluted by the picture’s more pressing public function.

It is a detail, too, that hints at the poverty beyond the frame, a subject that Bishop so carefully attends to in some of his best work, much of this undertaken while working as a photographer for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in the 1970s, where he was assigned the task of documenting Indigenous living conditions. Several of these photographs are on display. At first sight, these images both distress and captivate because of the impoverished conditions. But their deeper impact ensues, as the common objects spotted across separate images start to tell a story, not of individuals but of a whole community viewed from shifting angles.

Central among these is a trio of photographs taken in 1988: Pool Game, Burnt Bridge; Woman Standing Near Electric Power Cord in Water, Burnt Bridge; and Girl Pours Tea, Burnt Bridge. The vision of each is one of significant deprivation. In the first, two men play pool at a table set up in a clearing in the bush where they appear to live. The table is presented at an angle, abutting the front edge of the frame. One man is bent down, readying to take a shot. Behind this are some makeshift sheds and a caravan, the ground muddy, a child’s bike dropped on its side. Garbage litters the scene.

In the second photograph, a woman stands on part of a wooden crate in the mud, in her nightdress – holding what appears to be a cake tin full of water. In front of her, and heading diagonally across mud and puddles, is a live white power cord. The accompanying blurb tells us that this cord brings electricity to the surrounding sheds and caravans. We peer closer: behind her, a tiny segment of cord is visible at the back of one the sheds. Next to this is the bike from the first image, but seen now from a different angle.

The images start to form a sequence in the viewer’s mind, and culminate with an interior view: the last of these three photographs taken inside one of the sheds that has been seen in the background of both previous shots. At a table covered in a floral-patterned cloth sits a young woman and a child: the daughter and grandchild of the older woman. There is a vase of fake flowers – roses or peonies – one full mug of tea, and the young woman is about to pour a second. Is she pouring it for Bishop? For her mother who is outside? She looks steadfast, but tired, the child bored. We might guess they have been awake for a long time, despite the early sky seen in the previous image. High on the left wall hangs a loop of white cord, and the communal scene falls into place, the people linked by this snaking electrical wire, although very little of this is made clear in the accompanying words.

The photographer, Susan Sontag argued, is an extension of the original flâneur, an “armed version of the solitary walker” who “is not attracted to the city’s official realities but to its dark seamy corners, its neglected populations – an unofficial reality behind the façade”. This flâneur-like preference for chance sightings makes the photograph a medium that is “weak in intentionality”, dependent, John Berger noted, on “a single constitutive choice: the choice of the instant to be photographed”.

This is Bishop’s mode, an unassuming and perambulatory presence waiting for the telling moment, his emphasis on the diagonal suggesting a preference for standing in the corner, as if he has just stepped into the room and is surveying the scene, considerate of the lives he is observing, careful not to impose. Thus Bishop’s photographs never seem to be an act of voyeurism – the subjects are canny and alert, more often than not highly conscious of Bishop’s presence. Nor do the photographs idealise a scene: the tenor is that of keeping a record, and keeping it straight – documenting the pride taken in difficult lives that nonetheless appear joyous and playful. They are lives presented without fanfare: a human observing, and commemorating, how other humans live.

Stephanie Bishop

Stephanie Bishop is a lecturer in creative writing at the University of New South Wales. Her new novel is Man Out of Time.

Mervyn Bishop Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pours soil into the hands of traditional land owner Vincent Lingiari, Northern Territory 1975 type R3 photograph 30.5 x 30.5 cm Art Gallery of New South Wales Hallmark Cards Australian Photography Collection Fund 1991 © Mervyn Bishop/ Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Photo: Felicity Jenkins, AGNSW

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