Looking at Graham McCarter’s work, it might seem difficult at first to locate a central focus. He has been everything: fashion photographer, commercial photographer, gallery photographer, photographic teacher, photographic student, photojournalist. He is often thought of as a portrait photographer, which is getting closer to the truth. Graham himself, if forced to define his approach, finally describes himself as a “people photographer”. But it isn’t simply people whom McCarter photographs; it is almost always people in their environment. Their work environment, their home environment, in their landscapes, in their studios, in their bedrooms; and often their environment is almost as important, pictorially, as the people themselves. The environment often synthesises and reflects back something about the character of the person, illuminates them in a way which a straightforward studio shot wouldn’t.
In other words, Graham McCarter is a contextualist.
There is a texture, a surround, an encompassing vision to his best work which is unequivocally powerful. It can strike you like a blow. A visual blow, at least. There is a directness which communicates immediately. Nor is it melodramatic, though many of his subjects are quite obviously posed within the context that McCarter has decided projects their character; in that sense he is an inheritor, and a conscious one, of the tradition of European photography which includes August Sander and Bill Brandt (“the complete photographer,” says McCarter) and which espouses a more deliberate, a more introspective approach than run-of-the-mill photojournalism. This is clearest in his now famous shot of German chimney sweepers in their traditional uniforms in a wintry pathway, which led David Moore to ask of McCarter: “Where did you get that Sander print from?” But it is even clearer in his shot of boxer Jeff Fenech and trainer Johnny Lewis in a Redfern gym, which I have long thought to be one of the great photographs of Australian portraiture: Fenech as aggro and defiant as a cock-sparrow, Lewis the avuncular patron, captured in the grimy pugilist ambience of punching bags, posters and stained walls. Another parallel image: the three boys on their bikes at Trunkey Creek, islanded in a ne 19A ar-wasteland of Aussie bush suburbia, but as confident and cheeky as you could wish. There is a frontality about these photographs which is one of the signatures of McCarter’s work; I also find them quite heartwrenching in a totally unsentimental way. I look at them and I think it is a tribute to Graham McCarter’s own honesty of purpose that he should be able to come up with such remarkably honest images.
Not all of his portraits conform to this contextualist approach. His portrait of Brett Whiteley, which is possibly the best known of all his photographs, is very much a studio piece, but it has a sombre, haunting quality to it which lifts it beyond normal studio portraiture; again, it has the sort of frontality which one associates with Richard Avedon at his best. The same applies to his Balmain boy in a beret, and some of his Glasgow kids, and his aboriginal boxers - though by now we are back on familiar contextual territory, with the background/foreground/sideground infusing the images of people with a sort of geographic richness, a sense of social and mental location, which transforms them from portraits into almost iconic statements of being. If ever you wanted to know what it is like to live in Balmain, or Trunkey Creek, or Glasgow, at a particular time in the 20th/21st century, and at a particular place, and within a particular social fix, this is the man who will show you.
After you get to know Graham McCarter’s work certain other themes emerge. They are often, though not always, linked to specific environments. There is his series inside a mental home in England, which resulted in what he regards as some of his strongest work ever and which points to a continuing subtext in his career: a strong feeling for the underdog in our society and for people down near the bottom of the social/class system. “It’s something to do with helping people, I wanted to show that there is a lot of unhappiness and underprivilege in the world,” he explains. He links this with his own despair when, at the age of 20, his fiance was killed in a car crash; he tried to take his own life, was taken by his brother to New York to recover and stumbled across Steichen’s Family of Man exhibition. It not only helped him decide to become a photographer, “it made me realise other people had problems too, not just me; since then I’ve always wanted to take photos of people less fortunate than me so that, in some small way, I can have an effect.”
The same philosophy can be seen in his photos of slum kids in Glasgow, Liverpool and London, and of working men in the CSR sugar factory, and in opal and coal miners’ families. Not long after the Australian Centre for Photography was set up in Sydney it commissioned four photographers to shoot miners in the Newcastle coalfields; McCarter was the only one who actually went down the mines, and into the changing sheds, and ended up with his epic image of a young helmeted miner, standing alone and vulnerable, with his workclothes hanging by chains above him like carcases in a slaughterhouse.
Then there is his work with artists, typically photographed in their studios or homes. Understandably for a visual creator McCarter seems to have a special affinity with painters and has counted Brett Whiteley and Tim Storrier among his closest friends; his portraits, if you can call them that, of Joel Allenberg and Donald Friend are triumphant evocations of the grottier side of the bohemian life, but in Allenberg’s case a darker tonality permeates the entire picture. It is not dissimilar, indeed, to that which is evoked by his Whiteley portrait (Allenberg died of cancer, Whiteley OD’d in a Thirroul motel).
The Dylan Thomas series might be explained by the fact that, as a quasi-Celt, McCarter has been reading his poetry ever since he was a young man. There is more to it than that, however; McCarter grew up in Scotland and though he has spent most of his life in Australia he continually returns to his homeland…to see friends, to reconnect with his origins, and to take photos. He doesn’t see himself as a landscape photographer; the Dylan Thomas series, and some of the Trunkey Creek shots, depend upon a quite evocative response to natural environments; but once again it is the interior of Dylan Thomas’s writing shack, untouched through all the years since his death, which jumps out at you.
Photographers, like all artists, have weaknesses. I don’t respond to McCarter’s advertising and fashion work. He’s proud of his expertise, which can occasionally lead him astray. But throughout all the vicissitudes of trying to make a living as a committed, creative photographer in a comparatively small society such as Australia, where photography can sometimes still seem to have to establish itself as more than visual reportage, he has cleaved to a consistent vision of photography as a serious art form and himself as a serious artist. Which he is.
McCarter prefers shooting in black-and-white to colour, prefers natural light to artificial, and does most of his own processing. “I love it,” he explains. “But you know, I still open the camera with a bit of trepidation; I’m still distrustful of my own ability. When the film comes out of the development tank there’s a sense of relief, and then when the print comes up in the developing dish there’s a feeling of magic”.
Looking through the spectrum of work which he has created over a lifetime, and which he is still creating, the same qualities appear and reappear: honesty, clarity, and an open-eyed directness of response to people and the contexts which shape them. And there is a current of emotion which runs through these images too, a sense of responsibility which somehow links the artist to the subject. It’s a very subtle subtext which is linked to McCarters’s own social conscience and gives these pictures their characteristic edge. You look at the images, you absorb them, and think: here is someone I can trust to make expilicit the interiority of our time.
Graham McCarter can be contaced on 02 4787 5169 or at email address email@example.com
Text © Craig McGregor