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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.

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Moving still

by Anne O'Hehir, 5 July 2022

Judy Davis and Sam Neill in ‘My Brilliant Career’, 1979 David Kynoch
Judy Davis and Sam Neill in ‘My Brilliant Career’, 1979 David Kynoch. National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. Photo courtesy and © Margaret Fink

I watched Tea with the Dames again recently. Eileen Atkins rather dramatically recalls pre-stage nerves: on the way to the theatre she often ponders ‘would you like to be run over now?’. Judi Dench and Maggie Smith agree that they find performance scary and indeed that it is ‘scary every day on a film set’ – all the people involved, all the barely suppressed eye rolling and sighing when you flub a line and everyone has to go again. When we see the women for the first time in the garden of Joan Plowright’s delightful country house in Sussex we are given a view of the cine-camera and all those seemingly endless crew people needed to make a film. Then you notice a photographer has origamied himself in amongst it all and is shooting away. Intermittently the Dames somewhat good naturedly but also, to be honest, a bit tetchily complain when the photographer, Mark Johnson, takes shots of them that they think aren’t flattering. Smith asks him if it is his first day at one point and at another, tiring, she dismisses him.

The role of a stills photographer on set is nicely straightforward and transactional, and agreed upon by all, a necessary part of the whole thing. Made for publicity and promotion, a good film still is meant to make us want to get out of the house and into the cinema. The still stirs a desire in the viewer to find out what the plot of the film actually is, to arouse the potential viewer’s curiosity. The image may not appear in the film at all. We are in the territory of what we know photography does so well: arouse our desire to consume things. So manipulative. But also inspiring and seductive. Sexy. Addictive. Current stats around the proliferation of image making and consumption confirm that we can’t get enough of it. (I’m a part of the most photographed generation ever, Marc Fennell laments in a recent interview with Geraldine Doogue on Compass in reference to his struggle with his relationship to his body image.)

But watching the Dames reminds me that we often don’t love being photographed even when it’s part of our job and we’ve signed up for it and the camera loves us. And reading curator Penelope Grist’s catalogue essay in Starstruck: Australian movie portraits (2017) I am struck, as I should be, at the complexity and difficulties the photographer can face in making film stills. Despite a portrait being created from a relationship – of whatever nature, professional, adversarial, intimate, playful – between the photographer and the sitter, the most important thing, the photographers Penny spoke to agreed, is the need for them to be invisible. While still getting the shot/s that will convey the feeling, the overall atmosphere and meaning of the movie. While it is still in the process of coming into being. With limited ability to control the set up or direct the action. That’s the magic of it. Instinct combined with acute observation and a bit of good luck. Good film stills photographers get good at it.

It is a bit of a tightrope walk. The photographer understanding and being able to capture the vision of the director, while staying true to their own. Loyalty to the image but also sensitive to the concerns of the actors. In the Starlight: 100 years of film stills catalogue long-time hugely successful stills photographer Rolf Konow recalls having shots that he thought were marvellous rejected by Julie Christie. ‘Rolf, it’s not your photos I don’t like – it’s me I don’t like,’ she told him. Also, a strange thing: knowing that the images you make may become (fingers crossed) an important part of the cultural landscape while few people outside the industry will know your name – name five important film stills photographers working today.

Looking at the film still is a curious experience, especially in an age when actors are almost beyond famous. (Though that has been the case for a long time, from the thirties perhaps, evidence of the important role they play in embodying something important and primal for us, the storytellers of our collective lives – I saw Cate Blanchett and her family in Sydney a few years ago and was surprised at how starstruck I was.) It’s obvious but we experience the actor and the character they are inhabiting at the same time. Not even a fuzzy line really where one stops and the other begins but both together. When the photographer is able to create an image that captures the essence of the film and simultaneously records a moment of intensity and interiority for the actor something special occurs – the two presences seem to meld yet also pull apart. Robert McFarlane, an established and well-known art/social documentary photographer, worked on PJ Hogan’s Muriel’s Wedding in 1994. The wonderfully flawed heroine Muriel Heslop is trying on bridal gowns. Out-of-focus wedding dresses glowing behind her create a fairytale, otherworldly setting for her fantasy to play out. The gushing and the craziness of Muriel falls away as she looks at her image: the introspection foreshadows her taking on of responsibility at the end of the film, her transformative self-acceptance. Toni Collette’s life would never be the same after Muriel, she would be caught up in the fantasy world of fame and celebrity; here is a moment of quiet reflection and realisation.

Film can have such an impact on our lives. A narrative arc that digs deep down into us, that catches. When a generation of postwar raised-on-television photomedia artists turned their attention to thinking about the way that images operated in society and in our lives and influenced, formed even, the way we think, they turned and looked to the cinema. The list of artists is long, the influence of film in contemporary art huge, but two brilliant examples here – Tracey Moffatt and Robyn Stacey – made work that directly riffs off all things film, and directly used the form and seduction and drama of the film still. And then of course one of the most influential and prescient series made in contemporary photo, the American Cindy Sherman’s Untitled film stills 1977–80: a set of images in which Sherman cycles through, dresses up and enacts the stereotypical personas found in film. The scenes she creates are recognisable immediately as film stills, the way that the single image hints at an unknown storyline, but they come from no particular movie. The bombshell, tick, the ingenue, tick, the demure but undeniably sexy librarian, tick, the Vassar girl, tick. What is our identity, Sherman poses, but something we perform – and it’s sort of freeing and scary at the same time, for it suggests there is no authentic self but also that we can find agency in swapping out these masks if we have awareness, if we are the one in control.

When visual culture commentators and thinkers looked to examine notions on how we see, how we construct our identities, they too looked to film, recognising that it would be there that answers could be found. Film theorist Laura Mulvey perhaps nailed it in 1973 when she wrote the paper, Visual and narrative cinema, putting forward the idea that everywhere in film you saw what she called ‘the male gaze’, a three-way exchange between the male director behind the lens, the male protagonist and the male viewer, with the woman objectified, made passive or fetishised.

We tell ourselves and each other stories in order to make sense of the world and our part in it. We are all drawn to a narrative that speaks to us of something fundamental about how we see the world. For me I’ve come to see the pattern, the stories that track the journey of a woman through difficulty to a place of courageous compromise, somewhat destroyed but with (questionably sometimes) greater knowledge. There are films that have created in part, but I suspect quite significantly, my own identity.

The wonder, the potential of film: to have versions of ourselves reflected back in ways that can light us up, expand our sense of our own potential. So vital for everyone to see versions of themselves. So many people testify that not seeing a version of yourself in popular culture is an erasure of sorts, a trauma. People who have it probably can’t quite comprehend what it feels like not to see albeit sometimes glamorised (but not always) versions of yourself on the cinema screen – ones that are nuanced and multilayered and authentic. But also the potential of things that we will never experience ourselves – people, places that are other to us – to enrich our imaginations and openness to the world by becoming a part of that visual vocabulary. To make us realise, the cliché, we are all fundamentally the same, through the seductive power of these stilled moments from film. It is a big ask, too big I fear. But emotionally engaging us: it’s a place to start.

When a portrait speaks to us and gets in, it is because it leaves space. The actor stands still while the film moves. And their stillness gives us time, away from the hustle-and-bustle of the film itself, the story that we get lost, caught up in, to reflect. To come into a place of enquiry or connection. In great film stills there is a push and pull between the actor/s, the role/s they are playing and the photographer. Out of this dynamism, this tension, our imagination is engaged. They are sexy and glamorous and using archetypal tropes designed to draw us in and stir something in us, a desire to know more and see the film, or if we have, memories of the emotion that the film provoked in us – good or bad. Great film stills become triggers for us to remember, over which to lay our own stories. The way the film has personally impacted us becomes a part of our own narrative.

1 Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer in ‘Portrait of a Lady’, 1996 Jürgen Teller. © Gramercy Pictures / Alamy. 2 Marissa Gibson and Rowan McNamara in ‘Samson and Delilah’, 2009. National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. © Scarlett Pictures.

The film still is where we see most clearly perhaps the aspirations of a society. Film stills are cyphers of society’s concerns, both reflecting culture and shaping it. We absorb these seductive images into our own visual vocabulary, part of the kaleidoscope of influences that come to define the way we are in the world. How lucky I was to grow up here with Gillian Armstrong and then Jane Campion bringing women, complex and strong, to the screen – if you haven’t seen Nicole Kidman bringing Isabel Archer (Isabel! Lots of emoji lovehearts) to life in Portrait of a Lady you really have to! – that final scene in the snow when Isabel chooses duty over happiness and a life lived (sob), and those gorgeous film stills by German art and fashion photographer Jürgen Teller. Walking through the Australians in Hollywood exhibition on recently at the Film and Sound Archive in Canberra I heard the voice of director Rachel Perkins, a woman of the Arrernte and Kalkadoon nations, talking about the experience of making her first full-length feature Radiance. And then to engage again with the transformation of Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell into The Sapphires, directed by Batjala/Mununjali/Wakkawakka filmmaker Wayne Blair. And to sit and watch Worimi woman Genevieve Grieves’ little film on the Kaytej filmmaker Warwick Thornton: how necessary, how enriching to look and listen to these stories, to have Mark Rogers’ powerful and evocative film stills of Marisa Gibson and Rowan McNamara in Thornton’s Samson & Delilah enter our visual vocabulary alongside Crocodile Dundee and Mad Max. How vital to be a young First Nations person and grow up having these reference points: to turn on Netflix and see Rachel’s niece Madeleine Madden strutting her stuff in The Wheel of Time.

1 Sam Neill, Judy Davis and Gillian Armstrong, 1979 David Kynoch. National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. Photo courtesy and © Margaret Fink. 2 Judy Davis with director John Duigan in 'Winter of our Dreams', 1981 (printed 2017) Robert McFarlane. © Robert McFarlane/Copyright Agency, 2023.

Tea with the Dames reminded me of the complexity of being photographed, that thing that the American photographer Diane Arbus intuited: that there is a gap between how we see ourselves and how we present in the world. The portraits that interest me most are those where you can see a tug-of-war between the photographer and the subject, where the sitter pushes back, challenging, protecting themselves from the gaze of the camera. By engaging critically with the photographic process, the resulting photo has an edge, an intensity. The real within the fiction. In stills photographer David Kynoch’s images of Judy Davis on the set of Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career, she glowers at him. Just as she would at Robert McFarlane on the set of Winter of Our Dreams two years later and as she would continue to do throughout her career. You can see it: an actor with a conflicted relationship to fame, who would like things otherwise, to ‘be able to do what you love and not have your life potentially wrecked’. Davis, like Collette, in her early twenties, in the film that will bring her the fame she does and doesn’t really want.

1 Anne-Louise Lambert as Miranda in ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’, 1975. National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. Courtesy Picnic Productions © Ingrid Weir. 2 Anne-Louise Lambert (Miranda) leading the schoolgirls on their expedition to the rock in ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’, 1975. National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. Courtesy Picnic Productions © Ingrid Weir. Both David Kynoch.

A memory. Going to see My Brilliant Career at the age of fifteen with my parents. My father, fabulous in lots of ways, but a bit conservative – irritated by it, saying as we drove home in the Vdub: that’s it, that’s the last time I’m going to the cinema. We’d rather unwisely dragged him out of the house to see Picnic at Hanging Rock a few years before (no need to even start to say what watching that at the age of eleven was like. The minute I see that image by Kynoch of Anne-Louise Lambert lazing about looking through the magnifying glass, I can hear the cicadas and hear those damn pan pipes. Eleven again sitting on those hilariously uncomfortable seats at Centre Cinema in Civic), and you know, to give him his due, he stuck to his resolve and never darkened the door of a cinema again. Stubborn. A discussion that I have with my school friends. Judy Davis/Sybylla should have accepted Sam Neill/Harry’s proposal of marriage! They can’t believe it. The moment I become a feminist.

My world view has just been shaken up and put down in a different order and I’ll never be the same again. Every time I see that film still of Harry’s hand around Sybylla’s throat I shudder. 


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