Ideally we expect a steely detachment from our arts professionals, but Barry Pearce, the retiring Curator of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of NSW, recently admitted that he couldn’t be objective about the works of Justin O’Brien. At the State Library last week I had the same feeling about the late Jeff Carter, one the greatest photographers of Australian life in the last half of the twentieth century.
Over this same period, for both artistic flair and sheer versatility, it would be hard to deny the supremacy of Max Dupain. By common consent his closest rival was David Moore, who left a legacy of iconic images that has become part of Australian popular culture. There have been many other local photographers of outstanding ability, but there was only one Jeff Carter (1928-2010).
He may have lacked the finesse of Dupain and Moore, but no photographer was more devoted to the portrayal of Australian life and manners. In the course of a career that stretched out over five decades, Carter tracked back and forth across the continent, capturing the distinctive character of the Outback, the cities and beaches, leaving an archive of more than 50,000 negatives. The title of his retrospective at the SLNSW provides a typically blunt summation of his interests: Beach, Bush + Battlers.
It makes a peculiar contrast with the Library’s other current exhibition featuring the ethereal paintings and drawings of Kahlil Gibran, whose 1923 best-seller, The Prophet, is the ancestor of all those spiritual self-help books that take up such a disproportionate space in today’s bookshops. The contrast of styles tends to emphasise the earthiness of Carter’s work, making Aussie pragmatism seem rather more attractive than middle-eastern mysticism.
One thinks of a photographer such as Bill Henson as essentially an artist, no other label seems appropriate. Jeff Carter, however, was always reluctant to accept this title. On his letter-head he styled himself: “Photographer for the poor and unknown”. He liked to say he was a story-teller who used both words and pictures. As a hard-working photojournalist, Carter was a regular contributor to magazines such as The Australian Women’s Weekly, Pix, People and Woman’s Day, but also to overseas publications such as National Geographic. He produced a string of books, including Stout Hearts and Leathery Hands, All Things Wild, Outback in Focus, and the eminently practical, Jeff Carter’s Great Book of the Australian Outdoors.
His unashamed populism, and the fact that no picture came without a story, rendered Carter a marginal figure among the art crowd. Until late in his career he did not identify with those photographers who hung their work in Paddington galleries, although he would eventually join their ranks. His preferred peer group was drawn from the drovers, swaggies, rural workers and beach bums that he immortalised. It was many years before curators such as Sandra Byron, Gael Newton and Alan Davies recognised the quality of Carter’s work and set about acquiring his images for public collections. When planning the Federation exhibition of 2001, at the National Gallery of Australia, it seemed as though we could fill the entire show with his photos.
Looking at the survey of 100 images Sandra Byron has selected for the SLNSW, it is clear that Carter’s best work needs no explanation. Although many viewers will find their appreciation of this show enhanced by the extended captions, they also lead us to sentimentalise these subjects and underestimate their aesthetic qualities.
He may have portrayed himself as a man of the people, a kind of sophisticated primitive, but Carter was a much greater artist than has previously been acknowledged. He said he fantasised about being an Antipodean Cartier-Bresson, forever hunting for the decisive moment. That moment arrived with such frequency we cannot put it down to luck. It’s there in The drover’s wife, Urisino Bore (1958), where the young mother looks directly at the camera while her husband in his tattered shirt peers intently at their baby. It’s there in Tobacco Road, Ovens Valley (1956), where a cow glares at two stout ladies pushing a car down a muddy track; in Joie de vivre (1963), in which a pair of small boys skip along a sun-drenched walkway of the Harbour Bridge; and in Morning break, Marree (1964), with its vision of a huge Aboriginal man dozing in such a way that his hat forms a circle over his face, like a collapsed halo.
In recent years each of these images has become progressively better known, to the point where they may be considered classics. We don’t really need to know that the cow’s name was Jill, or the young mother was called Mavis and now lives in Borroloola in the Northern Territory. We don’t need to know, but there is something in these images that cries out to us, whetting our curiosity. One suspects this is exactly the reaction Carter would have wanted to provoke.
He wrote that his aim was to document the human condition, not to make statements or dazzle audiences with special effects. He pursued this goal with such dedication he gave a dignity to subjects that privately filled him with dismay. A lifelong conservationist, Carter took a memorable photo of tree fellers cutting down an ancient eucalypt in 1954. His double portrait of two Wauchope forest workers from the following year shows how much he enjoyed the trust of these rough-hewn labourers. He documented whaling off Byron Bay, and many forms of fishing that have since proved unsustainable. Even his beach photos show people frying themselves in the sun in a way that seems unthinkable today.
Carter declined to pass judgement on any of his subjects. They were honest men and women making a living as best they could in an era when we believed the forests were full of timber, and the sea held a constantly replenishing supply of fish. When it came to leisure time it was considered healthy for adults and children to be baked brown. Everybody smoked, and smoked.
It’s impossible to look at these images and not feel nostalgic for days when life was not hedged in with so many anxieties and taboos. We are less naïve today but infinitely more neurotic, and there is no going back. There is a melancholy aspect to this show that slides easily into sentimentality, but this is something that has grown on these photographs over time. What began as straightforward reportage has become an elegy for the lost innocence of a nation.
The controversial painter, Nigel Thomson, believed that Australia was changed irrevocably with the Graeme Thorne kidnapping of 1960. When the Thornes won the first Opera House Lottery, only to lose their son to a botched ransom attempt, an element of fear and distrust was implanted in the public mind. In the decades that followed, these feelings have continued to grow.
While it’s doubtful that such a change could be traced back to any single event, Australia was a fundamentally different place in the 1950s. Life in the bush was especially harsh and many of the inhabitants had evolved to match that environment. The generation of migrants toiling on farms, on fishing boats, and on the Snowy Mountains Scheme, hailed from the Mediterranean, from the Balkans and the Baltic States. The remote communities had not been transformed by the Aboriginal art movement or blighted by petrol sniffing. Land rights had not arisen as a political issue, and for most white Australians indigenous people remained a mystery to be met with paternalism or suspicion.
The old people in Carter’s photos form a direct link to the nineteenth century and the pioneering traditions of the bush. The drovers and farm hands plied a trade they had inherited from their fathers, and would pass on to their sons. Women’s expectations centred on their roles as wives and mothers, although they worked just as hard as their husbands.
In these pictures the bikini was still a sensation at the beaches, while a night at the Cross represented the height of risqué entertainment. Many now-fashionable suburbs were little more than slums.
This is the world we discover in Carter’s photographs, and for many viewers it will bring back the past with a giddy rush. Call it story-telling or photojournalism, but Carter’s work does everything we expect of great art. It takes us out of ourselves and out of the moment, it shows us our homeland in an entirely different light. It makes us feel proud of this country, and perhaps a little ashamed. In this unvarnished portrait of a land and a people, we see that history is never simply documentation. It sleeps and smoulders, and needs only the spark of recognition to be rekindled.
Published for The Sydney Morning Herald, February 12, 2011
Beach, Bush + Battlers: Photographs by Jeff Carter
State Library of NSW, until 20 February.