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by Dr Sarah Engledow, 21 January 2019

Jacki Weaver, 2018 John Tsiavis
Jacki Weaver, 2018 John Tsiavis

What’s your preference: flagrantly theatrical portraits, in which the subject appears to be playing opposite the artist in a drama they’ve devised together; or portraits in which we forget the involvement of the artist, for the subject seems to appear as pure self, every mask of convention and conformity dropped, all artifice fallen away?

Amongst the twenty portraits commissioned to mark the twentieth anniversary of the establishment of the National Portrait Gallery, nine photographs fall at both poles, and along the axis between.

From the actor Jacki Weaver – renowned locally for effervescence before taking on dark roles that won her exceptional success in her sixties – John Tsiavis has coaxed a face from mythology. She’s a fury, a sorceress, a seer; a woman who will be avenged; a mother defending her young. She’s Bellona, Boudica, Medea, Scáthach. Weaver’s nasolabial folds – the lines from nose corners to mouth corners – are pronounced. Commonly they’re called laugh lines, but there’s no hint of humour here. This is a woman who’s had it with being called cute.

But Weaver’s expression is staged. She’s putting it on; we know it, and we’re supposed to know it. The makeup on her face is plain to see: the foundation and concealer around her eyes and on the bridge of her nose; her eyeliner; her false eyelashes; her contour medium; her eyebrow pencil; her powder. She looks defensive as well as fierce; but the garment she draws in close is an ordinary coat, not a cloak. She’s not on a battlefield, at the entrance to the castle keep; she hasn’t swooped in like a Harpy or appeared on the rocks like the angriest of the Valkyries. Her hair’s being blown by a carefully-trained fan. Her look belongs to a woman who’s wild, but her one visible nail is manicured. Weaver appears to possess the unusual talent of being able to lift her right eyebrow (it’s said this is a skill that can be learned, and it’s surely a good thing to know how to do). I’d guess more actors are able to do this than, say, curators, accountants or plasterers.

Narelle Autio’s portrait of the cycling champion Anna Meares demonstrates the fact that, to many observers, an utterly calm face combined with a direct gaze expresses determination and resolution. We sense that in this case the photographer’s asked her subject to look straight at the camera, smile very slightly and let her strong hands dangle. A ‘relaxed’ pose feels very unnatural to most people, and it’s difficult to stand still in this way before an observer.  If a person can do it, and a photographer can capture it, the resulting photograph will convey inner strength. Those knowing something of what Meares has endured, and that she’s recently retired, may incline to interpret her long stare as a focus on the future, too. The bent tree in the foreground is indicative of resilience, the tree in the distance of individuality, a capacity to be alone. Her feet, bare as far as one can tell, indicate her ‘groundedness’ as well as her toughness (anyone who’s seen footage of her leaping from a standing start will feel that she could reach those rocks in a single bound). Meares occupies an insignificant proportion of the large image – she seems almost to have been positioned there for scale. But she’s radiant against the big evening sky of the arid Murraylands, dulcet violet shading into brilliant blue. The bodice of her dress, fitted over the swell of her bust, confers an affectingly womanly quality on the image. In her statuesque isolation she’s reminiscent of Marianne, the embodiment of the French republic. (Yseult Digan, the most recent artist to depict Marianne – whose face changes regularly – stated ‘I wanted this Marianne to be strong, proud and determined, with an unflinching look to the future’.) Distressingly, the hem of the lining of Meares’ dress is wobbly for all time; but that’s the wayward element in this very artful scene, a photograph that strongly enhances the Gallery’s collection of portraits in the Australian landscape.

For the photographer, the willingness of the subject to collaborate actively in the achievement of a portrait is a perpetual variable. More often than not, a person’s earmarked for a portrait because they’re a high achiever in mid-to-late career. It stands to reason that some subjects may feel that making an hour available and turning up is contribution enough; an effective businessperson, for example, may feel that the creation of a successful portrait is the artist’s brief, not theirs. They might be too busy to travel to a location favoured by the photographer.  They might not be a person who enjoys playing a role, or even changing into an unaccustomed outfit. Some people – including those schooled from infancy not to skite, thrust themselves forward, make a spectacle or blow their own trumpet – are simply diffident.

In photographs on Anna Meares’ website, she wears cycling gear – in which she looks magnificent – or the occasional casual outfit. She was prepared not only to drive an hour and a half to a harsh bit of country, but to put on a lace dress for her portrait, which both does, and doesn’t, look like an image from a high-end fashion magazine. There’s a sense that the quantum physicist, mother and Australian of the Year Professor Michelle Simmons put on her dress-up turquoise ring and most striking formal trousers for the session with Selina Ou. She wears the same stand-collar black jacket in other ‘official’ photographs. We don’t feel that the international pioneer in atomic electronics thinks about clothes very much; we sense that grabbing her laptop at lunchtime, she’s more likely to be assessing a submission to npj Quantum Information than hopping onto The Iconic. We discern no makeup on her handsome, open face. We infer that for Ou, asking her to go too far from her beloved lab wasn’t on; ultimately, she photographed Simmons on a flight of steps on the campus of the University of New South Wales. Yet in the portrait on the wall, there’s an element of playfulness, as the phenomenal thinker adopts the pose of someone wondering. Between them, Simmons and Ou have come up with an image of sweet quirkiness, a little audacious in its corniness, both endearing and inspiring.

The basketballer-turned-coach Andrew Gaze is a down-to-earth individual of a fine Australian type – although for a time in the early 1990s he numbered amongst the International Basketball Federation’s 50 greatest players. George Fetting describes the sports star as ‘utterly humble’, which could be portrait photographer’s code for ‘bloody impossible’. Fetting, who’s tall, photographed Gaze, who’s taller, at Qudos Bank Arena as he put the Sydney Kings through their paces. In the short film of the process, viewable on the National Portrait Gallery website, there’s a touching moment as Fetting, on the sideline, holds a black t-shirt in readiness, hoping he can get his subject to change out of his nylon Kings training top into something, er, a bit more, well, stylish for the shot. Advancing toward Gaze with it, he fingers it nervously. He turns down the collar of his subject’s jacket, patting the lapels with tender solicitude, praying, by the look of it, for some magic from the camera. Fetting’s portrait gives no clue to the profession of his sitter – in his black collarless shirt and suit coat, stubble on his sculpted face, he could be a partner in a Melbourne architectural firm. Watching the film we learn that Gaze is sitting on a little stool before an unfurled paper backdrop in a makeshift ‘studio’ courtside, and that, out of shot, he wears shorts, white socks and trainers. Fetting has done wonders with the self-deprecating star.

Jessica Mauboy, not yet 30, is as used to being photographed as any Australian could be. She’s been a household name since 2006, when she was a finalist on the pop-talent identification television series Australian Idol. The 2018 Eurovision contestant has her own website and YouTube channel; she’s been ‘styled’ for countless music videos, magazine and advertising shoots. She’s been the girl next door, the sultry temptress; had her hair blown straight and blown around; writhed in water and squirmed before flames; gone high-heeled and unshod, made-up and fresh-faced. By default, though – in reality, as it were – she radiates sincerity and sweetness; she speaks frequently of her obligations to her parents, her Darwin community, and young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (Mauboy’s mother is a Kuku Yalanji woman and her father is Indonesian, from West Timor). She speaks guilelessly of learning to be ‘kind’ to aspects of her own character, and advises other young women to try it.

Renowned for works of a grave character, Melbourne-based artist David Rosetzky was bound to bring forth a different kind of photograph from those resulting from publicity or magazine shoots. Yet he was also challenged to convey Mauboy’s essential optimism and authenticity. He used a low-tech, purposely risky process of ‘double exposure’ in which a single film is run through the camera twice, and a successful outcome depends on the photographer’s lack of control. For the commission, he used more spools of film than usual: about fourteen (this is no process for an impecunious amateur). For the first pass, Mauboy kept quite still, wearing little makeup and casual clothes topped with a fringed bolero that’s really a hi-vis lime colour. For the second, she moved gracefully on the spot, as she does when she sings. Amongst scores of contenders, Rosetzky found the image that realised his vision. While the young woman’s face announces she’s the gentlest of people, there’s a kind of magnificence in her direct look – brave, frank and ingenuous. Her other self, released wild and alive into the ether, has her back.

If a person sat with a clipboard by John Tsiavis’ portrait of  Tan Le and invited visitors to choose from a list of adjectives applying to her appearance, ‘dignified’, ‘composed’ and ‘serene’ would soon forge ahead of the pack. Having toddled onto Australian soil as a four year-old Vietnamese refugee, by the time she was 21 Le had achieved so much that she was named Young Australian of the Year. In 2011 she founded a neuroinformatics company that develops mobile electroencephalography systems used to advance the understanding of the human brain. Seven years later she received the Achievement Award from the Industrial Research Institute – a US organisation established in 1938 to enhance the effectiveness of technological innovation by networking the world’s best practitioners and thought leaders – in recognition of her ‘outstanding accomplishment in individual creativity and innovation that contributes broadly to the development of industry and to the benefit of society’. Accordingly, Tsiavis envisaged the application of innovative processes to his photograph of Le, in which she sits regally in a black lace dress, her satiny skin gleaming against a gloomy ground. The photograph was treated with a mirror coating developed by Industry Associate Professor Colin Hall of the Future Industries Institute at the University of South Australia. It’s displayed in a lightbox. As a result, the viewer has to commit to looking properly at the portrait. It can’t be seen by a passer-by at a glance; it must be viewed straight-on. Although Le is delightful in person, the total experience of viewing her portrait is akin to approaching a royal personage according to protocol, straight up the carpet to the throne. Up close, catching your own reflected face muddled with Le’s, you tend to think about what you’ve achieved yourself, dodging and fidgeting in front of her as she sits with supreme assurance.

As it transpires, a substantial proportion of the photographs amongst the twentieth-anniversary commissions are black-and-white shots of men in their sixties, taken on their verandahs in Queensland. One’s of rugby great Tony Shaw; the other’s of, well, philanthropy great Tim Fairfax. Both men are looking straight at the photographer, but Shaw appears to be looking harder, somehow. His eyes are narrowed, as if appraisingly; he’s turned slightly, with his powerful right shoulder forward. Shaw’s portrait comprises straight lines: weatherboards, door frames, nose, pinstripes, set lips that neither smile nor frown. The only diagonals are his nasolabial folds and his lapels; the only curves in the composition are supplied by his skull, his ears and the umbrella handle. It’s that umbrella that gets us thinking about Rhodes’ orchestration of the shot. Maybe it was there, by the door, but why leave it there? It may be a playful element on the part of the photographer – who invokes Magritte – but it’s not a cheerful one. Its primary contribution is blackness – for this is a very black-and-white image. The dome of Shaw’s head and his white shirt are set off by the velvety darkness behind him. It’s an uncompromising representation of an irresistibly no-nonsense, decisive and charismatic individual.

1Tony Shaw, 2018 Sarah Rhodes. 2Tim Fairfax, 2018 Russell Shakespeare.

The portrait of Shaw looks considered, constructed and posed compared to the portrait of Tim Fairfax by Russell Shakespeare. Fairfax is less formally dressed than Shaw; his clothes, while neat, look soft to the touch, and his supple plaited belt loops back on itself. There’s spangled foliage in soft focus in the background, and he’s supported by a curved, turned verandah post. His expression is actively benign, as if he can see children out of the corner of his eye, but he also looks to be remonstrating mildly with Shakespeare about having to go through the procedure at all. It feels as if the photographer has led him out of the house shortly before lunch, for a session with neither props nor lights, telling him it’ll all be over in ten minutes. One can imagine the subject wondering where to put his hands – which are a particularly appealing element of the finished image. The portrait expresses Fairfax’s essential gentlemanliness, courtesy and kindliness, but it’s also redolent of a certain kind of Australianness, in which warmth, integrity, scepticism and unpretentiousness combine.

The face isn’t much, is it – two eyebrows, two eyes, one nose, one mouth; most people have them. The elements can’t change position; their movements are quite limited. In many cases, though, there are no words for the complex meaning we infer from movements of muscles around that simple combination. Whether unwitting, feigned or assumed, whether natural or forced, an expression lasts for a moment, and is gone. Pity the artists commissioned to create a portrait of a person that expresses their distinctive way of being in the world; pity the subjects charged with being themselves, or different from themselves. As the charming American portraitist Elsa Dorfman wrote decades ago, in her essay ‘Portrait of the Portrait Photographer’, ‘Can there be dishonest portraits? My answer to that is “sure.” A photographer with a bag of tricks can do anything. But there is something to think about. Personality is elastic. Each of us has a range of possibility. In my self-portraits some days I look like a prisoner and other days I look like the warden … What kinds of portraits are possible in a single image? Are you asking, is a single image enough? A single image is like a kiss. One is enough; a whole lot is enough too. One tells you something. A whole lot might not tell you that much more.’

© National Portrait Gallery 2019
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Canberra, ACT 2600, Australia


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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Ngunnawal people, the traditional custodians of the land upon which the NPG stands.