Art maker, patron, lover: portraits by Gary Grealy

A series of photographic portraits of the unique characters of Australia’s art world will be the focus of a major exhibition at Sydney’s Mosman Art Gallery.

Professional photographer Gary Grealy began his personal project to photograph artists he admired, after the untimely death of Brett Whiteley in 1992. Since that time he has not only portrayed important Australian artists who have since passed away including Robert Klippel, James Gleeson, Martin Sharp and Adam Cullen but has continued to pursue artists and art world identities who inspire him.

Grealy originally trained as a commercial photographer and has long held a fascination for the creativity of photography and its kinship with the art-maker. In this series of portraits ART – maker, patron, lover, Gary Grealy captures some of the unique characters in Australia’s art world.

This world inhabited by the talented, strong, generous and at times eccentric collection of art patrons, gallery directors, art lovers and artists is portrayed as a carefully constructed and realised universe with film noir overtones. In this exhibition, the sitters await the gaze of the viewer in much the same way as their curated, purchased or created artworks.

From the doyens of public and private galleries such as Edmund Capon, Frank Watters and Geoffery Legge, to art patrons and collectors, Gene Sherman, John Kaldor and Dr John Yu, to renowned artists Rodney Pople, Jenny Sages, Tim Storrier and Jia Wei Shen, Grealy has followed his passion for recording these important contributors to Australia’s cultural heritage.

What led you to begin this project?
The project began as a result of the death of Brett Whiteley. Apart from the sadness of his passing I felt a frustration that I had never taken the opportunity to try to meet and make a work of an artist that had inspired me. Shortly after Whiteley’s passing I saw a documentary on Robert Klippel. I wrote a letter and to my surprise I received a reply. We made a portrait and he in turn gave me an introduction to James Gleeson.

How do you select your subjects?
My subjects are selected in two ways. First it would be an artist or individual from the art world I admire or more frequently after I have viewed an exhibition, a documentary, listened to a radio interview or read about the person. After my initial interest I will make contact via their gallery or through the office of the individual.

Your work maintains a strong and recognisable aesthetic – how do you approach composing the image? Do you have an idea about what sort of image you want to create before the day or does the sitter(s) guide you at the time?
The image is completely pre-visualised. Every work is drawn in a book, the lighting style is planned through the process of lighting myself days before working with the subject. When I arrive at the home or studio of the person I am working with I have a complete lighting diagram even to the extent that I have measurements of the distance and height of each light. I don’t want the sitter waiting while I fiddle with my lights.

Once my lighting is arranged the subject is asked to sit and I can begin to make the portrait. I don’t want to take a thousand frames, I want to see how my light is working on the face and then capture the mood, and likeness and I hope emotion of the sitter. I try not to ask for an expression – that is up to the sitter to offer – however I really don’t want a smile. I direct head position, angle and eye line and look for the play of light. I am not looking for a pretty image I want the character of the subject. My preference is to photograph the subject, not their environment, for me the sitter is the hero, I want to see the history in the face.

What do you think the face of your subject tells viewers?
I think each individual is different. If I were to select a couple of images, say Brian Sherman, I would say a sensitivity and calmness. Del Kathryn Barton’s portrait was created with the knowledge that drawing was her solace as a child who suffered anxiety. For me there is a vulnerability in the work. I recall when I made the first frame, I commented you should see this because it is very sad. Del replied no I don’t need to see it and then something along the lines of I am happy with sad.

Again, Jenny Sages said to me at the beginning of the session ‘please don’t make me look sad’ but after the loss of her husband it was difficult not the see a little from a remarkable lady. So I guess the answer to your question is probably what they want to show me and on rare occasions what I can expose.

What is it about artists you find so compelling subjects?
I often ponder this question. Art has always been an important part of my life, even though as a child I had never been to an art gallery. I always drew and to a degree I still do. I can remember when I had my first job in photography my boss asked me to make a portrait of an artist, Col Jordan, a hard edge abstract painter in the 1960s. I can’t comment on the standard of the portrait I made of Col, but I can still remember the smell of the oil paints in the artist’s studio, it was intoxicating.

Mosman Art Gallery
Featured exhibition of Head On Photo Festival 2015
09 May – 12 July 2015

Courtesy the artist, the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra and Mosman Art Gallery, Sydney

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