Thirty years ago I photographed Sidney Nolan.
One of the most important Australian artists of the 20th Century, Sir Sidney Nolan was in Melbourne for an exhibition, and he generously agreed to a portrait which was to be taken at Rob Imhoff’s studio, The Lighthouse in Prahran. The studio was also a gallery space where in 1985 I held my first exhibition of portraits of musicians and comedians from The Last Laugh and Melbourne’s music scene.
The session went well. Nolan was wearing a grey suit, a nondescript tie and shirt: “Dress like a banker!” his mother had always told him. He was relaxed and accommodating.
I had a small surprise for him: a black cardboard cut-out mask in the manner of the stylised and instantly recognisable Ned Kelly helmet. Nolan’s first major breakthrough came with his iconic Ned Kelly series, now a prized part of the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. My brother-in-law, the highly regarded graphic designer, David Lancashire, had suggested the idea to me. I was a little concerned that Nolan might think it a bit gimmicky, so it wasn’t until the shoot was nearing its end that I asked somewhat nervously: “Would you mind using a prop I have made for you?”
To my surprise and relief, he began playing with it immediately and the shoot progressed with Sidney holding the mask up to his eyes and then putting his hand through it. As he was leaving, he looked me in the eye. Quietly and conspiratorially he said: “They were just for us!”
The shots taken that day were to prove important pictures, as Nolan rarely sat for portraits.
With the shoot a very relaxed affair, I took the opportunity to mention to Lady Mary (Sidney’s was knighted in 1981), who was with us in the studio that I was living at 38 Wentworth Avenue in Canterbury. She looked slightly shocked because she knew this address intimately. But Mary seemed genuinely happy that I was now living in the house and had rescued it from disrepair.
After marrying her brother Arthur’s good friend, and fellow artist, John Perceval, Mary and John had lived at 38 Wentworth Avenue for 20years. Perceval was best known for his brilliant Williamstown series which was also co-incidentally, the first major exhibition at Australian Galleries shortly after it opened in 1956.
Mary had left Perceval to marry Nolan after John’s descent into alcoholism and the death of Sidney’s wife Cynthia.
(Note: Cynthia was the sister of John Reed, who with his wife Sunday established their home, Heide, an old dairy farm on the river flats at Bulleen, as a collective for Modernist Australian artists. The Reeds mentored Nolan and it was in their dining room that he painted his original Ned Kelly series.)
The young artists Boyd, Perceval and Nolan were also all members of the avant-garde 1940s literary and artistic movement: The Angry Penguins. So Mary had carried three of the greatest surnames in modern Australian art.
Who would have guessed that my photograph of Nolan with the mask would have hit the mark so squarely. It has now been reproduced many times in magazines and press, most recently in Bonhams’ Summer 2017 Catalogue, where it accompanied an article written by the noted art writer/critic John McDonald for Nolan’s centennial. The photograph was on display at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, as part of a long-term hang of Nolan’s 9-panel Riverbend masterpiece, while a purpose-built gallery was designed for it, at its ANU home.
The Age newspaper used the photograph as its April 28, 2003 front-page illustration of a story about the bitter Supreme Court battle between Lady Mary and Jinx (Nolan’s step-daughter from his marriage to Cynthia) over the ownership of three paintings, following Sidney’s death.
The photograph is also in the permanent collection at The Heide Museum of Modern Art.
Thirty years later: July 2017
Stuart Purves called me to say he was planning an exhibition of John Kelly’s work at Australian Galleries in Melbourne. Stuart had a long relationship with the Nolans and recently started to represent John Kelly – no relation to Ned Kelly!
John Kelly had been very respectful to Nolan and influenced by his work over a long period of time, notably Nolan’s Moon Boy series painted in 1939 on the eve of the Second World War.
John Kelly was born in Bristol, England, and like Nolan, also chose to live in Europe. Nolan (although with Irish origins) lived in Wales at his property, The Rodd, while Kelly has chosen to live across the Irish Sea in southern Ireland.
Stuart asked me to photograph John Kelly with a view to matching the photographs taken 30 years earlier as part of an upcoming exhibition of Kelly’s work, along with a selection of Nolan’s original Moon Boy works-on-paper from the 1950s from the collection of Lady Nolan.
I decided to bookend the portraits of Nolan and Kelly to ensure the intertwining of the remarkable connections as an intrinsic part of the proposed exhibition.
First, I called Rob Imhoff to find out what had happened to the painted canvas backdrop which I had used as a background to photograph Nolan at Rob’s studio 30 years before: “Yes, of course I still have it!” exclaimed Imhoff.
He not only had the backdrop, he had also kept the original studio lighting I had used in 1987. It almost seemed too good to be true. It meant that I could technically replicate, as closely as possible, the original idea for Nolan’s Ned Kelly mask with John Kelly. We were going to shoot in Rob’s studio in South Yarra, with Rob (one of Australia’s best photographers) as my assistant!
John Kelly arrived from Ireland and three days later we were in the studio. Rob and I had arranged the studio and the lighting, re-hanging the backdrop to ensure the markings were as close as we could get to where they had been for the Nolan shoot. Kelly came wearing a dark suit with a black polo and with his large rusted steel sculpture inspired by Nolan’s original Moon Boy image.
The photo shoot was every bit as smooth and as painless as with Nolan all those years before. But this time we were working with all the advantages of digital which allows you to see exactly what you’re doing on the fly.
There we have it. Thirty years between sessions and a close approximation of two photographs born of the same idea, with the same environment, the same technical equipment (albeit with very different cameras) and with the same eyes melding it together. An epic adventure in its own right!
And importantly, here is living proof that in this far-flung and extraordinarily complex world, everything still seems connected: More closely than we could ever imagine.
With special thanks to Sir Sidney Nolan, Lady Mary Nolan, Stuart Purves, David Lancashire, Robert Imhoff, Greg Elms (Photographic Assistant for the Nolan shoot), John Kelly, and Bryan Gracey, Roger Stewart and Darren Rokahr (CPL Digital – printing and mounting). Photographs framed by Greg von Menge.
John Kelly: Sunshine and Moonlight.
Accompanied by a selection of works on paper from 1962 of Moon Boy by Sidney Nolan and photographs of Sidney Nolan and John Kelly by Michel Lawrence.
Curated by Dr. Damian Smith
Australian Galleries Melbourne
Opening Tuesday 3 October 2017