Some people just have a look. You don’t have to be beautiful to have it, or young, or famous or notorious. You don’t have to dress on-trend, or even neatly. It’s just a look that’s particularly striking in one way or another; a quality that makes you look twice, without really knowing why.
Inspired by this ‘look’, Canberra’s National Portrait Gallery has put together a collection of photographic portraits of extraordinary Australians, reflecting a wonderful range of Australian achievement; and they’ve just launched it at the Geelong Gallery.
Aptly titled The Look, the visually stunning exhibition consists of 68 portraits that have been meticulously selected from the NPG’s 3000-strong collection. Featuring depictions of extraordinary Australians from a multitude of spheres including politics, exploration, the arts, science, business and sport, including the young, old; Indigenous, non-Indigenous; women and men; household names and people who may be completely unknown to many of us —the National Portrait Gallery’s collection highlights the diversity of Australian experience and achievement, but also that attesting quality; the look.
“The Look just emerged very organically; there wasn’t actually any sort of strong theme guiding the collection,” explains National Portrait Gallery Curator, Joanna Gilmour. “These are all photographs wherein the subjects are just completely themselves. Completely comfortable in their skin and comfortable with who they are.”
Spanning five decades, you’ll find works from the George Spartels early 1970s portrait by Ivan Gaal to Tilman Ruff 2019 by Nikki Toole, as well as works by photographers Adam Knott, Julian Kingma, Michael Riley, Petrina Hicks, Tracey Moffatt, David Rosetzky, Ingvar Kenne, Andrew Maccoll and more. Famous faces in the exhibition captured by these photographers include the likes of Nicole Kidman, Heath Ledger, Carla Zampatti, Bryan Brown, Lee Lin Chin, Megan Gale, Cate Blanchett, Nick Cave, Rachel Griffiths, Ian Thorpe and Layne Beachley, just to name a few.
As one of the most ancient forms of art-making, especially thanks to photography since the dawn of the 20th century, Gilmour explains that portraiture can mean a number of different things, with this exhibition seriously dismantling the misconception that portraiture is all about crusty, old oil paintings of deceased people of power.
“Owning and rocking an individual’s distinct ‘Look’ can mean different things,” she reveals. “It might be a model like Maggie Tabberer [2015 Alana Landsberry] who is very consciously projecting a particular type of look, or it could be someone like Ian Thorpe [photographed by Brett Canet-Gibson in 1998] where at 15 year’s old, he’s about to dive into a pool and he’s completely unaware that there’s a camera on him; he’s just kind of in the zone and in the moment and just completely himself at that moment.
“It’s an exhibition wherein we’re really sort of trying to dismantle the idea that portraiture is a very formal kind of genre. It can be relaxed, it can be intimate, it can be happy, sad, all sorts of things,” she continues.
“It’s a much more varied than a much more fluid and contemporary genre than you might expect, and with photography, in particular, you have the opportunity to capture all sorts of guises of a person – including these unguarded, private and intimate moments as well as formal ones.”
Even if you’re not into art, Gilmour says this exhibition is accessible for everyone – all you need is a sense of curiosity.
“People love people. We are fascinated by other faces and other people and no matter who it is, we can have an exhibition of 68 different people in the show and there’ll be at least one person that all of our visitors can really relate to or really connect with through the image and through the photograph.
“With portraiture, you don’t necessarily need to know anything about art to enjoy it. People are just curious about people, and if they only find one sitter in the whole show who they really sort of feel a sense of connection with, through the photograph, then we’ve done our job, we’ve succeeded in demonstrating what a powerful genre portraiture can be.”
Whether you go for a steamy look, a sceptical look, a sardonic look, or an icy look, one look at this show, and you’ll have to look again.
Geelong Gallery is the first stop on a national tour for The Look, and the only Victorian stop on the tour. You can see the exhibition in Geelong until May 3.
Photo credit: Cathy Freeman 1994, by Bill McAuley – National Portrait Gallery, Canberra.