March 14: Today while out walking in Happy Valley, Ruthie and I encountered Rocky.
Ruthie, I should explain, is my dog, and Rocky was a stout little fellow belonging to another be-hatted grey-haired chap shouldering a handsome leather bag. From it he extracted some dried liver in order to bring Rocky, who had decided to follow us, to heel. Ruthie rushed to take advantage of his largesse, seating herself expectantly at the stranger’s feet.
“Don’t see many other dogs out this way”, the man said. By way of explaining, as one is obliged to do, that one’s muscly miniature staffordshire terrier poses no threat, he said it was Rocky’s interest in chasing kangaroos that was the concern. We agreed, this was a big mob, regularly to be seen in these paddocks adjoining the dry Moonlight and Forest Creeks, and flippantly we imagined what a tourist bonanza it could be for some entrepreneur.
After sharing the customary comments about the kangaroo invasion of Castlemaine streets by the poor animals in the bone-dry conditions, the man said “I’m on my way to my café, the Dove, to read the Thursday Age and the Green Guide...though that’s not what it used to be when it ran Terry Lane‘s column on cameras. He’s now writing a blog, still good stuff, mainly about the Micro Four Thirds system which he’s devoted to, but also writes a bit of philosophy behind it. I’m a photographer.”
“Oh, so you’re a photographer too!” he exclaimed, asking my name and saying he’d heard of me (I doubted that), and went on; “There you go…and neither of us with a camera. People expect you to always carry a camera. I explain that if I’m out for a walk, I’m there to smell the grass (when the roos haven’t eaten it all) and to get some exercise, and that if I see a lovely sunset, I just want to see it.”
“Yes, the world has enough photos of sunsets,” I agreed, asking his name. “Michael Rayner,” he replied. “Ah, then I’m walking with a celebrity!” I said, thinking of the number of times I had seen his byline under pictures in my once favourite newspaper, The Age. Michael wasn’t having such flattery. He’d joined the paper in its heyday in 1968, and from it, he, like so many worthwhile and long-serving photographers and journalists, has since retired. Now the desultory products of a thin crew of casuals and hacks, and generic stock photographs, populate the pages, or should I say pixels, of the once-great daily that is now owned by a television station.
Rayner’s shot of Gough Whitlam addressing crowds at City Square in Melbourne after his government’s controversial dismissal by the Governor-General typifies the photographer’s determination to get ‘the shot’ and his preparedness to do anything to get it. In the thick of the action of the huge public protest, Whitlam looks directly into the camera lens, his gesture a mixture of regal blessing, farewell, a plea for calm, and surrender. Though it seems improbable, in the heat of such a moment, that it was deliberately aligned by Rayner, the Whitlam hand resting against the tilting Town Hall clock tower ironically evokes the Australian Labor Party (ALP) slogan “It’s Time” that rocketed him to power in the 1972 election.
The Age is still using Rayner’s shots…most recently for a March 6, 2019 article, on laws compelling priests to break the confidentiality of confession to report cases of child abuse, days after Cardinal Pell’s child abuse conviction was published in Australia on February 26, 2019 when a suppression order was lifted.
He told me he was still a photographer, doing a little of this and that, including a recent all-expenses-paid cruise ship assignment from his daughter, who no doubt expected it to be a holiday for him. Nevertheless, she received far more than she’d requested, since a few ‘happy snaps’ and ‘couple of paragraphs’ of copy could hardly satisfy her father as a proud veteran of the lens.
He asked what I did, and before we parted ways, he over the hill and into town, and I along the parched creek, I mentioned this blog.
Our meeting prompted me to contemplate, as I continued walking, what does it mean now to say; “I am a photographer”. Everyone is, surely? We’ve never taken so many pictures. But the act of simply recording something through the lens—a sunset, or kangaroos, or a car in a tumbledown shed that we might encounter while doing something else—is that photography? No more, I would argue, than does your hasty text message resemble a considered and well-researched report by a journalist or the oft-quoted sentence of a great novelist.
To study pictures like those of Michael Rayner and others at the top of his profession is to comprehend their intense level of engagement and visual consciousness of an idea that produces an image that communicates in a novel way that makes you look and think—call it artistry if you will.