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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.

Observation Point

by Brett Canet-Gibson, 3 May 2018

The Life of Riley, 2014 by Brett Canet-Gibson
The Life of Riley, 2014 by Brett Canet-Gibson

Portrait photography, by definition, is a collaboration. It is also the grandest of lies masquerading as the ultimate truth. The desired outcome is always something beyond a mere likeness, an image that transcends the now and connects directly to the viewer like an arrow to the heart.

My portrait practice takes me onto the street and into the lives of complete strangers; the sidewalk is my studio and the street my casting agency. I see, I approach, we make and we part. I use no fancy lighting set up – my preference is subdued natural light. I remove any jewellery, earrings or headwear that may indicate status or signify a certain era, and I almost always have my subjects wearing black, standing against a black background. I don’t wish to distract the viewer with anything other than the face or, more importantly, the eyes. I want direct contact between the viewer and the subject – my main goal is to ‘get out of the way’.

Most days invite inspirational imagery; some days, those very rare days, transcend the usual possibilities. Meeting Riley was one of those days. Riley had been severely bullied at school. He had been punched several times, and was eventually knocked out in his classroom. He’d been harassed and ridiculed and felt alone and isolated, with little or no help from teachers or the school principal. He was devastated, as were his parents. I photographed Riley on the eve of the family relocating to New Zealand. I set up my background and explained the process; we made several portraits, then suddenly Riley descended into a deep silence. For a split second the distance between us dissolved, we connected, and I released the shutter. I only have one frame with this intensity and knew immediately I had my portrait.

The Life of Riley is more about the sitter and his willingness to be open to the experience than the photographer and his ability to make an image. What is the secret to a great portrait? I can’t say, but maybe this quote from The Little Prince helps: ‘A very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.’ 

Related information

Portrait 59, Autumn 2018

Magazine

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The girls, 2017 by Tamara Dean
The girls, 2017 by Tamara Dean
The girls, 2017 by Tamara Dean

Snap decisions

Magazine article by Robert Cook

NPPP judge Robert Cook provides irreverent insight into this year’s fare, and having to be a bit judgemental.

The Window Seat, 1907 by Frances Hodgkins
The Window Seat, 1907 by Frances Hodgkins
The Window Seat, 1907 by Frances Hodgkins

Kiwi magpie

Magazine article by Penny Grist

Penelope Grist finds inspiration in pioneering New Zealand artist, Frances Hodgkins.

The artist and her family, c. 1854 by Martha Berkeley
The artist and her family, c. 1854 by Martha Berkeley
The artist and her family, c. 1854 by Martha Berkeley

Presence and absence

Magazine article by Joanna Gilmour

The art of Australia’s colonial women painters affords us an invaluable, alternative perspective on the nascent nation-building project.

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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.