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Lewis Morley

Myself and Eye

Friday 14 March until Sunday 29 June 2003

Lewis Morley has a great eye for a shot and a sharp ear for a pun. He invented the title for this exhibition - Lewis Morley: Myself and Eye. Lurking in the double-entendre of the title are two truths about his photography. He has lived his photographs: so his work has a particular historic interest. But, at a deeper artistic level, he has achieved a personal engagement with his subjects that has allowed him to get in close, and to take our eyes in there with him.

Barry Humphries, 1962 by Lewis Morley
Barry Humphries, 1962 by Lewis Morley

Lewis Morley is an artist, and I hope this exhibition creates a wider public recognition of this fact. It is significant that Lewis Morley came to photography at a time when he aspired to be a painter. You can see his painter’s eye at work in his photographs. There is a distinctive compositional dynamism in many of his pictures in which tonality is balanced with a delicate linearity (with a preference for the Matissean arabesque). And he loves rusticated and worn surfaces, soft light and warm shadows.

There remains a prejudice regarding photographic portraiture that is entirely unjustifiable at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Painting, good or bad, still has a privileged position. Yet, to look at the work of a great photographer such as Lewis Morley, is to understand some of the things the photograph can do that painting can not. Only photographs can portray contemporary sitters in the complexity of their social relationships. Only photographs can present the natural settings of the subject without contrivance or staginess. Only photographs can admit the truly informal or accidental rather than the invented. Lewis Morley exploits all of these characteristics; the energy and intimacy of his portraits come from his engagement with the subject’s milieu combined with a fine sense of the dramatic possibilities of everyday life. And underlying it all, a terrific openness to chance.

The National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, since its inception, has been committed to presenting the works of leading photographers. As a relatively new institution we have benefited from the determination by our sister institutions overseas to take photography seriously. Lewis Morley’s immensely popular exhibition at the NPG in London in 1989-90 was a significant part of the presentation of this heritage of the recent history of photographic portraiture. The London exhibition focussed on the 1960s, but we have taken both a wider view (including many works made after the photographer emigrated to Australia in 1971). The exhibition curator, Magda Keaney, has taken a characteristically fresh approach and has worked with Lewis Morley to present a body of work that highlights the different areas in which he has worked and to bring out both unfamiliar works and those which define his essential world-view.

I would like to thank Lewis Morley for his continuing engagement with the National Portrait Gallery and for the great generosity he and his wife Pat have shown towards us.

Andrew Sayers
Director