In Search Of A Great Photograph

What Moves Me

Carol Jerrems

Lynn Gailey - 1976


This is an iPhone image I took recently whilst at the National Gallery of Australia of one of my favourite photos. I was in Canberra for a conference and was ecstatic to happen across a retrospective of Carol Jerrems as I have only recently discovered her this year. Jerrems was an Australian photographer who sadly died from Budd-Chiari syndrome in 1980. She was only thirty yet had managed to create iconic images of Australian art such as the 'Vale Street' photograph.

To me, her work was a representation of her era, not just because of the subject matter but also because of the way she approached it. Jerrems focussed her camera on what could be considered the unimportant members of society, amongst the backdrop of political change and emergence of women's rights.

Looking at her photos it's as if she has moved through an era of change snatching pieces of history along the way. Subjects immortalised, enabling us to reflect on the Australia of the 1970's, a time that helped to define our identity. If you are interested in portraiture and social documentary, I encourage you to take a closer look at her work.

Of course this version doesn't do the original image justice. It's a little bit pixilated, blurring the edges of the portrait's subject. But, I still had to share it because I find it such a powerful image. An image made up of a combination of elements which in turn make it great.

Photographed on film(what else?), it appears as if the subject, Lynn Gailey, has been caught, arrested even, on her way to somewhere or to doing something else. Her front on stance, the cigarette, the way she lightly touches the table to remind us her thoughts are partly elsewhere, and of course that gaze, as if to say 'yes?',  'hurry up, please', all make me feel that Jerrems and thus we, the viewer, are as much 'caught' as the subject is. Gailey is both passive and confrontational as her eyes stare from behind the window's shadow. And then, to contrast with this tension, there is a softness all over the image from the gentle light, the aged dress and the fact we are being shown someone in the context of their personal space, at least that's what I assume it is.

I love the use of light and shadows. I love the textures. I love the story. And I love the way that gaze makes me feel. Makes me stop to look closer. The more I look at it the more I feel her looking back at me, making me question myself, question if I even have the right to look at her to begin with. But, there she is, immortalised to do just that.

This portrait makes stop, makes me think and makes me feel.

In my opinion, for a photo to be truly great it must both arrest the viewer and make them feel. So to see this image up close, made my week.

"The world is a mess. You either drop out or help to change it. I want to focus on the under-dogs, the underprivileged of the Australian society and all the things that people don't want to talk about or know about.

"A face tells the story of what a person is thinking. The eyes reveal the suffering."

Carol Jerrems, 1974


'Carol Jerrems | Photographic Artist' is on at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

25 August 2012 – 28 January 2013


In Search Of A Great Photograph

What makes a great photo? Composition? Lighting? Surely subject matter I hear you ask. I'd say a combination of all three and more. Or less.

The fact is that it is a very subjective idea. What appears to be a great photo to one person can be completely overlooked by another. I could rant and rave for a couple of pages and we still wouldn't come to a definitive answer. Because whilst the word photography encompasses many things, it is undoubtedly emotional. At least in my humble opinion, it should be. And because it has an emotional component, the answer will vary from person to person and the debate will probably last as long as that other great photographic debate - "Is photography art?", which has been revolving since the first photographic print was produced back in the nineteenth century.

So, I wanted to show you a couple of pictures from the same wedding which are completely different from one another. One, in colour, could be considered great by some, and the other, in black and white, probably not. The BW image, when seen in its portfolio, is often overlooked. But I like it. It moves me. Not a great deal, but enough. The story behind the photo is not obvious, indeed it only comes as a result of the some of its parts. A head shot of a girl from behind with black hair. When viewed as an individual image, we have no idea who she is or why she is there, except for the three white roses in her hair. Although small they signify a wedding. We don't yet know if she is the bride or one of her maids, but we do know it is a wedding just from those three tiny flowers. Off to the right-hand-side is a make-up brush being held by a woman. Even though we don't see much of her, we know that she is female from her hands and her ring. She holds the brush expertly. From this we can construe that she is most likely a make-up artist. The idea that we are seeing a photograph taken pre-wedding is confirmed. The camera has caught a split-second moment where the brush has been held off the face, we know we are watching the action unfolding. Over to the left-hand-side is the outline of a window and we also see the top of a dining chair below the black hair. Instantly we know that most likely this activity is happening within the bride's home. Not a salon or hotel room where the lighting and certainly the chair would have been very different.

I like this image because it is simple but not obvious. Of course I could've just photographed from the front and the story would be the same. But then it wouldn't be quite as fun to discover. The viewer could look straight into the subject's eyes and would not have to go any further. Instead we are encouraged to take in all the information the image provides, thereby absorbing the other components which formed an integral part of the bigger event - the wedding.

The second photo, in colour, is quite the opposite. Put simply all the components telling the story are there. It is a wedding, shown by the woman, from the BW photo above, in a white gown. Her pretty maids accompany the couple whilst the men stand proudly in their suits. They are happy, their faces reflecting the joy that surrounds the occasion. In contrast to this moment we see in the background Mother Nature doing her own thing, seemingly oblivious to the day's ceremony. The clouds appear violent almost, and are swelling with promise of a heavy downpour. Sensing the movement and thunder in the air a flock of birds have flown from a background tree and are taking flight before the clouds have their say. And just as a reminder, as well as to create form and contrast, there are umbrellas and a huge puddle. We know that rain is not only imminent, but that a large amount has also been. It's safe to say this image could have been taken in Queensland, Australia. Which of course it was. After all, Queensland is known for weather like this.

They say that it is good luck to rain on your wedding day and certainly it was the weather which helped us to construct this amazing image. We had perhaps a minute and a half to create it before the heavens opened upon us. And as quickly as the moment had presented itself, it was taken away.