December 8: Angel

8December 8: Mark Strizic, who died on this date in 2012, migrated to Australia from Croatia in 1950 and became a widely published architectural and industrial photographer and portraitist of significant Australians. He taught photography at tertiary level in Melbourne from 1978, and in 1984 he became a full time artist, photographer and designer.

He was self-taught, his physics training having prepared him to courageously tackle a new technology. You can see his transformation into a professional by going to the State Library of Victoria website. They have in their collection his entire output; 5000+ negatives, gorgeous prints, and slides. These are available as thumbnails online and I have spent hours trawling through them, revisiting the Melbourne of my father, and of my childhood.

contrejourThis visionary has left behind an unmatched record of Melbourne’s Modernist transformation. Strizic documented the innovations of its prominent architects certainly, but you can also see the change in culture at work on the streets and the people in his images as the Victorian era is swept aside by Whelan the Wrecker to be replaced by some quite beautiful, and many quite ugly, modernist buildings.

Many are familiar with his strikingly graphic contre-jour street photography of 1960s Melbourne. His contribution to modernism in Australian photography is worth recognising [I have contributed his biography to DAAO and Wikipedia].

What I am interested in here is Strizic’s portraiture.

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Mark Strizic (1959) Shulim Krimper

Shulim Krimper (1893-1971), furniture designer and cabinetmaker, with a reputation for the superb construction of his custom-made modern furniture came from the Austro-Hungarian province of Bukovina. Strizic’s lucky break came with a commission to photograph for a catalogue for a show of Krimper’s furniture at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1959. The portrait (above) looks middle European in manner, reminiscent of the Neue Sachlichkeit adherents with its severe lighting that carves the two-thirds profile out of blackness, adding detail to the eye in front with a spot of light that crosses the iris to produce a highlight on the right hand edge. While it is dramatic, it tells us little about he subject, making him appear severe and formal.

Nearly ten years later he photographed Krimper again;

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Mark Strizic (1968) Krimper

This time Strizic includes Krimper’s furniture in the portrait by seating him amongst it. The lighting is unobtrusive, only evident in the hard shadows on the floor that fall from a spot on the left that sets highlights in both eyes, and an additional fill-light flood on the right that is battened off so that it casts a soft shadow on one side of the chair cushion. The subject engages with the photographer with a familiar half-smile while asserting his craftsmanship of the furniture with a proprietary hand gesture. The shot is from the large-format camera Strizic habitually used for his architectural shots and here he has applied a tilt and swing of the lens-board to pick up the exquisite detail of the decorative dovetail at the corner of the chest in the foreground while keeping the turned wooden cigarette-holder on the glass tabletop sharp along with the upswept corner of the sideboard behind it and the fore edge of the platter on top. The photograph is as finely crafted as the furniture, but Strizic is not satisfied…

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Mark Strizic (1968) Shulim Krimper, printed 1985.

…and gets out a his Nikon F single lens reflex camera and fits an 85mm lens. Krimper leans forward from his position in the large format photograph and clasps his hands, echoing the dovetail joint which Strizic keeps relatively sharp in the front right corner. The arrangement hints that the light in the background (a table lamp by Krimper) is responsible for the side-lighting, but of course it is still the same spot or flood as in the previous image. A shaft of timber, completely out of focus looms in the foreground leaving room for us to see the curved leg of the glass topped table. This is a far more engaging image and it is typical of the approach Strizic was to take forward, even his photograph of architecture; a mobile, spatially aware, subjective image-making.

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Architect Robin Boyd’s Living In Australia was first published in 1970 and promotes Boyd’s philosophy with which Strizic sympathised and which influenced the trajectory of Australian architectural design toward an open plan Modernist style not unlike its Californian contemporary, but that made the transition between inside and outside more fluid, more transparent and in tune with a growing love of the Australian bush, evidenced by the increased use of native plants in informal gardens.

John Gollings, a leading photographer of buildings by Australia’s most significant architects; from Glenn Murcutt to Harry Seidler, revisited the Boyd commissions, rephotographing those originally shot by Strizic. In a radio interview Gollings says of Strizic:

…he trained as a physicist and he loved the chemistry and the physics and the optics of photography, but his father had been an architect, and Mark…I believe his first love would have been to be a painter…certainly saw himself as an artist who could use technology to evoke a whole new spirit in the world. He was one of those photographers who broke away from the stiff formality of fifties cameras and theoretical approaches into a much looser wild 35 mm grainy approach to…shooting architecture, and it was a revolution in its day.

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Mark Strizic (1970) Robin Boyd, gelatin silver photograph

Strizic’s entrancement with focus is palpable in these portraits which envelop the viewer in an almost architectural proprioception; your eye can reach into the space occupied by the subject as you enter the photographer’s experience. He had taught himself the use of the large format camera with all its movements, but preferred 35mm, adapting the capacities of the view camera to this smaller format (still called ‘miniature’ in those days), relishing the freedom of seeing through the lens the exact effects of focus that the Nikon’s quick depth-of-field preview button enabled (a quick press of a button next to the lens would snap it to the preselected aperture and back).

When photographing medical scientist Sir Gustav Nossal in 1979 Strizic relishes the opportunity to refer directly to metaphoric focus by including microscopes in this image in various states of sharpness and blur, underlining the symbolism by shooting directly into his flash unit placed in a background doorway, deliberately generating flare that washes over his warmly smiling subject.

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Mark Strizic, 1979 Sir Gustav Nossal (gelatin silver photograph printed 1981)

Strizic made portraits of numbers of artists, and retired more than once to photograph John Perceval, enfant terrible, member of Australia’s renegade ‘Angry Penguins’, youngest and last of the ‘Antipodeans’, seen her in his studio foregrounded by profiles of some of his ‘angel’ ceramic sculptures. He is suitably angelic himself with his pageboy haircut, but with a touch of the devil (his schizophrenia and alcoholism) in his intense stare…

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Mark Strizic (1967) John Perceval.

…a touch too strong in his tragic relationship with Anne Hall, who eventually became his wife but whose talent was submerged by his. Herald Art Critic Alan McCulloch praised her work as “highly imaginative, strong in observation of character and understanding of distortion”, while Patrick McCaughey of The Age described her as “an heir to the Antipodean Movement”. Strizic photographed both of them in their crowded shared studio. The shots are held by the State Library of Victoria whose cataloguing of the series is erratic (they don’t identify her) and the date of 1987 that they give cannot be right; the couple divorced in 1981. They met in 1967 when the portrait above was made, and married in 1972.

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J. Brian McArdle (1966) Anne Hall at the Tolarno

My father photographed Anne Hall (then aged 21) at Georges Mora’s Tolarno Restaurant in 1966 (left) and in that photograph she wears a beatnik fringe in the style of Judith Durham of ‘The Seekers’ (Australia’s ‘Peter, Paul and Mary’).

In Strizic’s photograph (below) she wears her hair longer, in a looser style. Both that and her striped long-sleeved top is typical of the seventies, and she appears not much older. Perceval spent a lot of time in a mental institution, Larundel, from 1977.

Strizic here has switched to medium format colour negative film (for his Hasselblad), if the State Library site is correct, but it may more likely be colour transparency…it was not possible to get this saturated colour out of colour prints in the mid-seventies – prints then always had an ugly nicotine-stained yellowness.

The shoot is extending into the late evening hours (is it 10 to 12, or 10 o’clock on Anne’s watch?), as evidenced by the other shots which reveal a garden in darkness, and here we see a window in the background projecting a quite blue light upwards onto the wall. This is a psychologically charged portrait, the sort of thing that happens when you photograph people at a later hour when defences are down.

The camera is at waist level, perhaps Strizic is looking down into the finder, or he may be standing beside the tripod, looking at his subject; is it him that Anne regards so pensively, or is she lost in her own thoughts and staring a thousand miles away, waiting for Strizic while he adjusts his camera?

She steadies herself on the arm of her chair which forms a kind of floral barrier, a rosy ‘front’…perhaps that’s what she’s like. But at the end of the arm of the chair is th distorted face staring one-eyed wearing a Madonna-like shawl. The blues in the image, or the shawl, Anne’s top, the window light (a flash unit placed on the verandah) and the sky in one of Perceval’s landscapes resting on the mantel; all are intensified by the cast of tungsten-balanced room lights. Anne’s face is a pronounced magenta/red on the right, white-balanced on the left. Most likely Strizic has placed a flash unit to the left, balancing it with the weaker room light through long exposure.

She pours John’s whisky down the kitchen sink, leaves full bottles of beer out for the garbage men to collect, watches as John loses his boyish looks. She fits her painting in when the coast is clear. She’s the angel in the life of…

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the man manically painting on the other side of the room…

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