In the English language, there is no direct translation for the French word flâneur. Possibly over looked due to cultural differences, it loosely translates to one who strolls or explores a city on foot in order to take in the ambience of a place.
Night photography has long been a fascination of mine that goes back to my student days, photographing rusting steelworks and dockyards. Even now, as a professional photographer I’m still drawn to this type of photography. Whether it’s a bedroom light, defused by a curtain in an apartment building or an over head street lamp. There is something about the way in which light, emerges from darkness that captivates me. Perhaps it’s more of a metaphoric relationship.
When it comes to this kind of a light source, the city of Paris has a particularly special quality due to it’s traditional and contemporary landscape. I recall a recent trip during the summer month of July. The late evening sunsets, which usually did not occur until 10pm, would create an exceptional display of warmth and colour in the air. This was even more pronounced in the southern cities of Montpellier and Aix-en-Provence, where the pink and orange dust particles in the sky seemed to reflect back to the earth. In Paris, rainy nights would not only add to the depth and richness of colour, but also cause the roads to reflect neon lights from surroundings hotels and cafes, creating a river of light.
The 18th Arrondissement is a place where I’d often stay when in Paris. With it’s cobblestone lanes lined with wrought iron street lamps, you can almost feel the layers of history beneath your feet as you pass by cafes that have served as places of contemplation for artists such as Satire and Lautrec. Despite the challenge of tourism, Montmartre has still managed to retain much of it’s old world charm. I can remember stumbling across one of the original vineyards on the Rue Des Saules, still in operation today. On the other side of the hill is the Basilica du Sacre-Coeur. Best viewed in the early morning, the steps offer an uninterrupted view of the city, in particular it’s grey zinc roof tops, secluded attics and window gardens.
New York City
After a conversation one morning with a barista on Prince Street, curiosity and the need to find more permanent lodgings lead me to a hotel near Union Square. Hotel 17 was a local hub for rising artists, actors, drag queens and photographers. Thinking that perhaps this was fate, I decided there and then to make this the launch pad for my new city. The following week I checked into a room on the 5th floor. The window had a view of the neighbouring rooftops, in an Alfred Hitchcock kind of way it became a source of constant fascination, offering a ‘behind the scenes’ insight into the workings of my new neighbourhood. The room itself which was covered in original 70's flock wall paper consisted of a single bed with a chenille bedspread, a writing desk and a lamp for reading. As simple as it was it had everything I needed to begin my new life with.
It was n’t long before I was taken in by the local community. There were weekly invitations to social events ranging from talent nights at Jackie 60, a new underground club in the Meat Packing District. There were also writer’s talks held at the local bookstores, where surprise guests such as Susan Sontag, an early inspiration from my art school days would drop in.
Once a month the hotel would host an art night, converting it's spare rooms into pop-up spaces and galleries for performance based and visual artists. Walking the corridors of this 7 story building, particularly on Art Night often felt like being on the set of a David Lynch film. You could never be too sure who you'd run into around the corner or what you would find behind the next door.
The longer I stayed on the more I came to accept that random events were just part of daily life there. One morning, I'd wake and find an elaborate shoot taking place outside my door (fashion photographers such as Ellen Von Unwerth would often use the location for their editorials). Another morning, NYPD would be sealing off a door with police tape where a body had been found.
The hotel roof top had a flat, black tarred surface with a panoramic view of Manhattan. There were walls facing off in a various directions meaning it could be used through out different times of the day depending on the angle of the sun. It was by pure accident, the perfect roof top photography studio. Using a scrim which I erected on sunny days to diffuse the light, I assembled my medium format camera and quickly got to work.
New York City
Before September 11, New York City was an environment where brashness and creativity were celebrated without apology. Photographers were encouraged to take risks and push the boundaries. Nothing, could be too outrageous or controversial. Gaining access to places as a photographer was fairly easy, and so it was n’t long before I started to take advantage of the city’s unique landmarks and locations. At night, using only available light sources such as street lamps and neon signs, we would setup photography shoots in random locations. This would often include the subway, the Roosevelt Island Sky Tram, Coney Island and the Meat Packing District. In one setup, a waif thin fashion model would be pictured, eating pancakes at a diner in Hell’s Kitchen, in another, she is pictured waiting for the F train at West Fourth and Washington. Funnily enough, none of it seemed to draw more than a passing glance from the locals.
One of the things that has always appealed to me about New York is it’s overriding sense of spontaneity. This is particularly evident when it comes to events and collaborations between artists. I recall one evening, while walking past a church hall off Saint Mark’s, I heard a distant but familiar voice. On entering the hall I discovered Kim Deal from the Pixies, strumming away on an acoustic guitar, while the god father of Beat, Allen Ginsberg read verses of a poem he’d just scribbled down on a napkin. Another time, while getting coffee on Mulberry and Spring I came across the musician Moby. He sat quietly painting a mural in the playground, while further down the street, some local kids danced to the music of the Beastie Boys. The tune Sure Shot, blazing from the speakers of their ghetto blaster.
West 17th Street
A nightly visit to one of the city’s 24 hour darkrooms soon became a therapeutic ritual for me. The amber safe light and the sound of dripping water from the wash trays offered a creative sanctuary away from the stress and noise of the city during the day. It's a mediative process I think most new photographers will never get to experience due to the digital era.
The lure of Iceland was for me very much influenced by it’s strong independent music scene. In particular, the work of Sigur Ros, a band that I’d always make the effort to see whenever they were in Sydney. Coming form Australia, Reykjavik ready did feel like the furthest place on earth. It was while on a work trip to Europe in 2014 that I came to visit the island as part of a photography project I’d been working on.
On arrival I set to work on my assignment which was to comprise of a series of editorial portraits and interviews. To my surprise, finding people to participate as subjects was relatively easy. I’d heard that Iceland had a strong arts culture. What I’d never imaged though was the generosity and support I’d encounter.
Speaking with the locals, one of the first things I’d picked up on was a sense of cultural isolation. While trips to New York and London were popular amongst the younger generation, people still seemed to retained a strong sense of independence. There was a candidness and an honesty about them that really struck me. As a portrait photographer, one of the key elements when working with people is trust. To have complete strangers open up to you in this way is without doubt one of the most rewarding aspects of my job.
On the last day of my visit I decided to take a trip to The Blue Lagoon, a thermal volcanic spa in the south east of the island. It was one of the most beautiful and surreal places I’ve ever experienced. The air around the lagoon was thick with humidity. While not the most camera friendly environment, there was no way on earth I was going to leave without a few good pictures. Within minutes my Nikon was covered in a thick film of mineral salts. Wiping the condensation from my view finder though revealed a pool of pale aqua blue water set against a ridge of grey volcanic rock. I set about capturing people as they appeared and disappeared behind clouds of mist. It reminded me of some of the theatre sets I’d photographed in my earlier years at the opera. I could never have imagined back then that places like this really did exist.
According to locals, Iceland's colourful houses are part of a program to offset the climactic depression brought about through the lack of sunlight in the winter months.
La Catedral, Buenos Aires
Somewhere in the backstreets of Palermo, there is an old wooden hall, where couples dance and an old man sits with his cat playing the violin.
El Planetario, Buenos Aires
I’ve often heard the Planetario building in Buenos Aires likened to a flying saucer. After discovering that the place was still operational and screened daily shows at 3pm, I decide to go along.
I am greeted by a small meteoroid in the court year. Unable to resist the urge, I reach down and touch it, wondering how far it must have come before ending it’s travels here. After entering a glass foyer, I scale a steel staircase. There is a sense that I am embarking on a journey. Once inside, I take a seat in the theatre. Gazing up into the spherical ceiling, I am captivated by an image of the galaxy. I sit, patiently awaiting transportation.
Night Markets, Morocco
In a roof top cafe in Marrakech, light from the setting sun, is reduced to a ball of amber, as it filters through my glass of apple tea.
In the town below, a labyrinth of streets feed into an 11th century square. Vendors, begin to wheel their carts and trollies into position, in preparation for the Jemaa el Fna Night Markets. Aside from the invention of the gas cylinder and the electric light bulb, it’s a procession that I can’t imagine would have changed much over the last few centuries.
Along with the restaurant carts, there is a young boy with a snake in a basket, a small troupe of dancers, and a story teller. All of which will provide entertainment for the hungry crowds of people that are being to gather.
I’ve often thought of Hong Kong as ‘the New York of Asia’. While it’s a business powerhouse, it’s distinctive lack of ego gives it a warmth that is often lost in other cities it’s size. I’ve worked there over the years as both a photographer and a model. I recall one of those occasions, in 2005. I’d been offered a contract by Models International and was to be staying at the model’s apartment located on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong harbour. My room mate was to be Dora, a slender German model from Berlin. We had met a year earlier, forming a friendship that had gotten us through some challenging times while working in Guangzhou.
It was n't long before I got around to meeting the other models from the agency. Each assigned to various levels of the New World Apartments. Basically when you sign with a model agency as an overseas model, the agent sets you up with accommodation on-arrival, a metro card and a city map for castings. They later deduct it all from your earnings. Most agencies are connected to sister agencies around the world, making it easier to fly in and out of cities and work for short periods of time.
On Friday nights everyone would meet at a club in Soho called Dragon-i. It was an opportunity to catch up and talk shop with the other models in town. With their flawless olive skin and chiseled bodies, it was hard not to notice the Brazilian models when they entered the club. Amongst the other regulars were a group of Australians, some Dutch, and a Latvian by the name of Olga. I recall meeting her for the first time. Wide eyed with translucent skin, Olga walked with the grace of a gazelle. Through her many travels and her love of books, she had a quiet wisdom about her. One of our favourite topics of discussion was to compare the traits of cities as if they were people, dividing them into masculine and feminine. Paris and Riga were both feminine, London masculine, while Hong Kong was left undecided. Perhaps one has to spent time away from a place to truely have an objective view.
Because we’d all come to the city for work, the idea of having a night out on the town, and paying for it the next day was indeed rare. Often, we’d leave the club by ten in order to make the last ferry crossing for the night. From the outer deck of the Star Ferry, we’d sit, watching the neon lights of the city as they danced their way across the waves. For less than a dollar a ticket, it was easily the best show in town.
A great advocate for movements like Buy Nothing Day, Julie drove an old bottle green Toyota Hilux. I always had a great respect for her, particularly for the way in which she remained true to herself while living in a town, in awe of fame and status.
I recall seeing her for the first few times on the big screen. Working with directors like Jean-Luc Godard and Krzysztof Kieślowski, both of whom were a great influence on my work during my art school years. Later co-staring with Ethan Hawke, Before Sunrise became a personal favourite. Not only for it’s use of real time intimacy but also for the way in which it explores coincidence and fate.
Aside from acting, Julie had the ability to use any medium on hand to express her thoughts and ideas. I got to know her as a painter, a writer, a singer and even a photographer. In her handbag she kept a collapsible vintage Polaroid, which would spontaneously appear in her hands during moments of inspiration. At night, she would sing and play guitar. Writing love ballads, and eventually releasing her own album the following year.
The goings-on behind the scenes at the Oscars can often be far more fascinating than the actual event itself. PR companies and designers jostle to get their dresses and jewellery onto the red carpet. Julie had been approached by Dior, and was to attend a fitting the week before.
The night of the Oscars, we attended the Vanity Fair Party. A wall of photographers had taken up position on large teared platform at the entrance way to the venue. When you’re a photographer, there is something about being on the other side of the camera that never quite sits with you. Inside, seeing the familiar faces of the people you’ve watched for so long on a TV screen can be quite a surreal experience. Especially so when they’re all in the same room together. I spotted a face from back home, Naomi Watts, who I’d met earlier on a feature film. As the place began to fill, I took a seat at a booth. The woman next to me was singling along to a tune in the room. I tuned to her, realising I was a one person audience at a Diana Ross concert.
Hibernian House, Sydney
Having spent three years with Opera Australia as their company photographer, I felt it was time to take a leap and make a go of it on my own. My then partner, actress Miranda Otto and I made the decision to lease a large warehouse space in the inner city neighbourhood of Surry Hills. Hibernian House was a 1920’s style building. In it’s heyday, it’s art deco facade was rumoured to have originally housed poets and artists of the time. It was now the late 90’s, the era of heroine chic, grunge and Nirvana. The building had since taken on a far edgier theme.
The floor we moved into had previously been home to a garment factory. There was a great deal of work to be done, from dismantling the lighting fixtures that would once have hung above the many rows of sewing machines, to removing the hundreds of sewing needles that had lost their way over time into gaps between the floor boards. For this, we devised a simple tool consisting of a magnet attached to a string. Running the magnet along the floor length ways enabled us to collect cluster upon cluster of rusty needles and spikes.
Eventually, after a mountain of sawdust and numerous coats of paint, the studio began to take shape. For our bedroom, Miranda had constructed a circular ruched curtain. Made of rust red silk, it could be raised and lowered whenever guests were over. In the bathroom, we installed a cast iron tub complete with its own cast iron feet.
A week after opening, I had my first commissioned photography shoot. It was to be a marketing project for Belvoir Theatre. I‘d already known the art director Baz Luhrmann and his partner Catherine Martin from a number of previous productions we’d worked on together while at the Sydney Opera House. Their energy was infectious. The shoot was to consist of a series of black & white portraits, featuring the principle actors that were to appear in the next season’s line up. They included Robyn Nevin, Richard Roxburgh, Jaqueline McKenzie, Jacek Koman and Neil Armfield. Hair & make-up was to be done by Chris King, whom I had worked with earlier at Vogue.
Having an abundance of space gave me free reign to collect a diverse range of props, and paint an ever growing collection of back drops. My connection to the opera company enabled me to borrow costumes and wigs from almost every era of fashion. Eventually, Miranda and I would discover other artists, designers and fashion photographers in the building. Although people kept to themselves, there was still a sense of community.
The 5th floor of Hibernian House was home to the Korean Pool Parlour. Behind closed doors, the club attracted a constant flow of visitors, many of whom would come to pick up and drop of mysterious packages throughout the night. Above the parlour was a communal roof top, which for a photographer, opened one up to limitless potential of natural light photography. Once scrimmed through a white sail cloth, the sun’s rays could be refined to a soft translucent glow, perfect for beauty and fashion photography. In good weather, I would often find myself up there each week, photographing fashion editorials, writers portraits, model portfolios and actor headshots. Hibernian House was very much the beginning of a new era for me, both in terms of creativity, and more importantly independence.