Mick Richards

Long overdue, the Brisbane-based photographer Mick Richards has an impressive survey exhibition commencing at Redcliffe Art Gallery at the end of April that displays his unique vision of people living, working and enjoying life – from the mining villages of South Wales to the far reaches of India and Venezuela, to familiar and unfamiliar locations in Fortitude Valley and other parts of Queensland.

I’ve known Mick Richards since 1992. Knowing Mick is special, but it’s also – as the photographs in this exhibition testify – an experience that large numbers of people across the world have enjoyed. This show shares 200 images of his work to date, culled from an archive of over 500,000, a forty-odd-year survey of the connections he’s made to the lives of other people.

Richards’s work sits somewhere within the broad church of social documentary photography, but it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where. Definitions don’t help, and it really doesn’t matter. He has been inspired by photographers such as Rennie Ellis, Nan Goldin, Brassaï, Weegee and William Yang, but after so much work and so many years, the influences and historic antecedents fall away. The work transcends classifications and, invariably, it’s always about people (even the landscapes).

It’s not just the rich and famous who interest him by dint of their hard work (e.g., Jessica Mauboy, Lionel Rose, Slim Dusty, and others), but grafters, doers, battlers and workers who labour in hospitals, pubs and clubs, boxing rings (e.g., Fred Brophy’s Boxing Troupe), The Ekka and so many other places, here there and everywhere. Each picture is a story of a way of life – there are portraits of artists, makers, performers, people protesting, people having a night out, the footy team in their best strip, the police at ease, media “press scrums,” and locals having a pint – and they are about the best in people, not the worst. In many ways, these images are a record of his vision; they are a reflected view of what he holds to be dear and important. So this survey, like most shows of this kind, is also an unwitting (even sometimes unkempt) self-portrait of Richards himself. (And he’s rightly in the show – spot the fresh-faced young man recorded at Yarrabah in 1992, with Joanne Brown, and Angus and Richard Bell.) So, for me, the man comes before the photographs, and all the photographs are a part of Richards.

Accepting that there are one or two tense night club photographs – booze, drugs and peacock strutting always make clubs somewhat uneasy – Richards reaches out to people and does the polite thing of checking if it’s okay before pressing the shutter button. I’ve seen him work. He does the meet and greet, gathers details of his subjects, but it’s the gentle and reassuring visual contact of looking and meeting another that comes before the words and the pictures. His pictures reveal the rapport he establishes with his subjects and the ease with which people regard him. Without these personal qualities, these pictures wouldn’t exist; they wouldn’t have the same emotional weight and visual dexterity, and they wouldn’t have been taken with the same closeness. Unlike the modern iPhone, which allows a collective license to make photographs anywhere and everywhere, Richards’s single lens reflex camera (plus flash and extra lenses) is heavy and conspicuous, especially when using a flashlight in bars, night clubs and other places where people sometimes want to remain unknown and unseen. So, even the equipment tells a story of a rapport that gets the job done.

Across the exhibition we see Richards’s deep commitment to sharing the stories of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, sometimes connected to the Campfire Group of artists based in Brisbane from the 1990s to 2005 (see the picture of the late Robin O’Chin and Mark Garlett laughing at a road sign – it says “You Are Here,” as if they didn’t know) and sometimes as a loner working independently. But look back at his early work, such as Beard Salesman, The Red Fort, New Delhi, India, 1984, and we see the same concerns that inform all of the work: a respect for his subjects, without fawning, sucking up, or overlooking their individuality. He has a commitment to both places and people and the particularity of “now” before it slips into the past and becomes the kind of history in a “living” museum. This commitment to community is evident throughout – whether the Welsh and the Wales of Richards’s childhood and youth, his ever-changing home in Fortitude Valley (the subject of much of his work), or the disparate wonderful mob that, somehow or other, are Australians by birthright, emigration or settlement. This survey show is a record of unsung and under-sung Australian life, with a respectful nod to Richards’s work made elsewhere, including photographs of his mum Helen and his dad Alun. 

But don’t take my word for it. It’s not about words. Take a look for yourself at the pictures in Redcliffe Art Gallery.   

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 58, 2022

Above and Below
30 April – 16 July 2022
Redcliffe Art Gallery, Queensland

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