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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Back track

by Penelope Grist, 1 July 2020

Around the corner from student photographer Matt Nettheim’s dilapidated Melbourne share house lay the Malvern Tram Depot. One day, camera in tow, he started hanging around, sensing the potential for some experimentation with lighting and composition. After a few months, having gained acceptance (unofficially) and permission (officially), Matt began heading out on the trams and asking the conductors if they’d pose for a portrait. It was 1990.

Matt was in the second year of his fine arts degree – majoring in photography – at Victoria College, Prahran Campus. Numerous artists represented in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection either taught or studied at this legendary college, including Athol Shmith, Carol Jerrems, and John Gollings. Matt was one of the last students to graduate under esteemed photographer and educator John Cato, whose eleven years as head of the photography department was coming to an end. With the aspiring photographer required to submit portfolios of his work each term, the depot and its people became his subjects.

The last time I chatted with Matt was in a 2018 public conversation at Adelaide’s Samstag Museum of Art, as we discussed the NPG’s touring exhibition Starstruck: Australian Movie Portraits. His motion picture stills photography work featured prominently in the show, with images from Rabbit Proof Fence (2002), Somersault (2004), Jindabyne (2006), and The Eye of the Storm (2011). More recently he’s shot the stills for Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, the Storm Boy remake, and Tim Minchin’s television series Upright.

This time – mid-June 2020 – I spoke to Matt by phone. With the film industry (and consequently his everyday work) at a standstill as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown measures, he was at home in Baudin Beach on Karta (Kangaroo Island). He’d been going through his archive and working towards a book, which is what led to him revisiting the tram portraits. ‘In hindsight,’ he mused, ‘I became kind of like an artist in residence at the Malvern depot’.

Struggling to scrape by as a student, Matt began offering $10 portraits to anyone working at the depot. He remembers how enjoyable it was giving his sitters their portraits. Many of these images, no doubt, found their way into family albums. Of those featured here, Matt reckons the picture of the man with the warm half-smile, conductor’s bag open, hands thrust into pockets, might be one of these. The sign behind him bears the earnest missive ‘look out before you step out’. Such are the serendipitous titles that life’s text can lend to a photograph.

The early 1990s was a time of transformative change for Melbourne’s public transport system, known as The Met. Within a few years, both the wooden trams upon which many of these portraits were taken and the tram conductors themselves were phased out. Matt doesn’t remember it being sad or dramatic. He does remember considering it a chance to capture a quotidian reality that would, in time, become a document of the past. Eschewing homage or mythology, the series doesn’t glorify or eulogise the moment; it’s not titled ‘The Last Melbourne Tram Conductors’. Rather, consistent with a tradition of documentary photography, the practitioner is present and aware – that is all. Kind, unassuming and simply there, Matt’s lens did not see these people at work become symbols. Instead, they become stories.

1 2 Untitled, Conductors, Tramways series 1990 Both © Matt Nettheim.

A woman sits on the doorstep of the depot. The patterns in the bricks and her long, glossy, plaited hair draw me into the moment. Inspired by Robert Mapplethorpe’s work, Matt’s evolving style would be marked by clarity and precision, and he chose to work with ‘beautiful and challenging’ medium-format film. In this quiet moment, there is a blur of movement leading into the disembodied shoe of someone stepping past. In both this portrait and that of the evocatively ‘1990s’ figure of the young conductor with tousled blonde hair (no tie, bag open), the surrounding movement becomes a counterpoint to the stillness of the gaze.

Matt was struck by the diversity of The Met’s workforce, not only in reflecting Melbourne’s growth as a multicultural city, but in its embrace of people of all ages and walks of life. Taken in the depot’s trenches, where the rails were laid, the tram rises up behind a young man in thick-rimmed glasses. Matt recalled that he was a member of a band, and that all the group’s members lived together and worked for The Met. The depot’s monumental symmetry highlights the natural asymmetry of the human face – flooding it with character and defying any attempt at a neutral expression.

1 2 Untitled, Conductors, Tramways series 1990 Both © Matt Nettheim.

Two guys pose tough, as Matt remembers them often doing, wearing their conductors’ uniforms and holding their torches as if they are security. Another man’s bespectacled eyes meet the camera’s gaze in matter-of-fact fashion, as he stands projecting quiet assurance in front of an exit door. There is a woman seated on the tram, seemingly impassive, and in focus just enough to identify an introspective expression peculiar to passengers on public transport. Another subject’s gentle, direct gaze holds the viewer, his dark turban holding its contrast, rather than disappearing into the background. An admirer of Brazilian social documentary photographer Sebastião Salgado’s work, Matt carefully managed deep and distinct tones in developing his technique.

1 2 Untitled, Conductors, Tramways series 1990 Both © Matt Nettheim.

The titling of the portrait series preserved subject anonymity, leaving identity anchored in the workplace. That said, now, Matt is always excited if these sitters of thirty years ago, or their families, get in touch. ‘There is a charisma about many of these people’ Matt reflected, looking back at the series – a quality he was reflecting not creating.

There is both a mystery and privilege in seeing a photographer’s – or any artist’s – early work. There is a temptation to pin it to fate and say: ‘Here were all the clues of what was going to happen!’ – it’s a beautiful fallacy, and a hard one to escape. A tram depot and night rides on trams are evocative sets. Tram conductors are a strong ensemble cast. A time of transition at The Met is a solid scenario for plot development. Is there a confirmation bias of sorts!? Do I feel a powerful narrative energy in these portraits only because I know that Matt later became one of Australia’s most accomplished film stills photographers?

Working on another portfolio for his degree, Matt embedded himself with the ‘Cave Clan’, the controversial urban exploration group founded in Melbourne. But that’s another story.

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

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