On March 26, 2022 at the Centre for Contemporary Photography in Melbourne M.33 launched the long-awaited survey publication of Rod McNicol’s portraits. Entitled aptly A PORTRAIT, the book is described in the promotional blurb as:
‘…the first comprehensive publication of Rod McNicol’s distinctive portraits, ranging from those of his peers in his first exhibition in 1978, through to his now iconic ‘time’ series and his acclaimed portraits of the ever – changing denizens of his neighbourhood or his ‘village’ as he terms it.
Each image is rooted in a time and place but shares a rigorous approach and a disciplined formality reminiscent of the mug shot. But in contrast to the sterility of the mug shot, each of McNicol’s images is imbued with the sense of our common human condition.
Photohistorian and curator Gael Newton AM attended the event via an online hookup from Canberra and spoke about Rod’s very particular approach to portraiture and its significance within Australian photographic practice. In her launch address she made the following comments:
Thank you and my regrets that I cannot be with you in person, so I’ve conjured myself a backdrop inside the Theatre de McNicol in Smith street which is familiar to those sitters and friends who have been invited to visit Rod McNicol at home since 1978.
If I was wearing my art historian’s hat I would have delved into Rod’s early life and influences, books and experiences that made portraiture his metier. Was there a single portrait somewhere back there that spoke to him?
But this is a book launch of Rod McNicol – A Portrait. Aptly named it is a suite of portraits by Rod McNicol. Those portraits so specific to a time and single place are like a google map that as you zoom out are no longer Smith street Fitzroy or just Melbourne or Australia but us humans.
The book is an exemplary artist photobook in which the porridge is ‘just right…!’ For a start it is properly stitched so it opens nicely, the monochrome and colour reproduction is equally superb, the paper a lovely off-white so no worry about fingerprints ruining books with gloss pages, the black linen cover demands consideration and pause in handling though – mine is already in a plastic case, the design is spare but full of grace, the sequencing progresses through the major bodies of Rod’s oeuvre interspersed with his own lucid texts on his evolution.
A sensitive interpretative essay by curator Pippa Milne further articulates and adds personal reflection about what is so fascinating about a body of work in which sitters are invited (you don’t commission a portrait from Rod) into the equivalent of chair-yoga. They sit in a straight-backed chair against a plain background and stare straight ahead, no smiles, no coy lady business with doe-eyes.
It is well to remember that the format also imposes discipline on the artist, as Rod mentions in his texts that he practises yoga and was dedicated for some years to the bodily discipline of dressage.
What we see and learn is that while the images look like mug shots on one small level and are seemingly so time specific, they are a little history of Australia too – it’s so nice to see the faces change and change colour. Because everything in the picture is equally registered you as a viewer find yourself looking at a particular button, a crease, how clothing makes us and how we also stay the same, wear the same style over time.
Photography has been declared prematurely dead on many occasions most recently in the digital age but here we are, and may I salute everyone who helped make this book from my hero Helen Frajman, to the designer Yanni Florence, producers and a hug to Bill Bowness as one of the best ever private supporters of the art of photography for its own sake, not celebrity.
But first and finally the artist… THANK YOU
Like an ancestral hall with portraits of illustrious forebears the gallery of Rod McNicol’s villagers inhabits the mansion of the mind.
I have trained and worked with artists since 1970 and with every year my respect and love for photographers and photography grows…
I’ll never age while that elixir is on tap.
SOME IMAGES OF THE LAUNCH
Supplied courtesy of Helen Frajman M.33
ABOUT THE BOOK:
The book is divided chronologically into 7 sections each presenting the subjects from around McNicol’s studio location in Melbourne. Each section is accompanied by a brief commentary from McNicol about the subjects and the times in which the photographs were made.
A Portrait 1970s
I was drawn to portraiture, yet even at that early stage, I became intrigued by the utter simplicity of the gauche, self-conscious stare back to the camera …
Portraits from last century 1998
There was a younger generation congregating near my studio at that time, drawn to the Friends if the Earth café opposite and the Soul Food health store a couple of doors down.
Portraits from my village 2004
… recorded this new, younger generation that had become so much part of my life at that time. Young performers, circus people, puppeteers, musicians, Uni students working in the local cafés; all were cherished fellow-occupants in my local village.
A Portrait Revisited: 1986, 2006
… during the year 2006, I made contact with many of the sitters from the original series, bringing them back to my studio, placing them against the same wall…
Newcomers to my village 2009-10
… I set about portraying something of the variety of these newcomers, so as to celebrate rather than denigrate their presence here.
Pillars of my village
Let me tell you of these pillars of my village.
Portraits from my variegated village 2016
… I cherished the chance to celebrate this local inclusive embrace of ‘otherness’ that surrounded me here.
ESSAY: Just looking at you by Pippa Milne
Excerpt from Milne’s essay:
We so seldom look into each other’s faces; the chance to do so is generally thwarted by social norms. Essentially, it’s rude to stare. But McNicol’s portraits – modest in size, restrained in format, rigorous in dedication to a process – allow, even entice us to stare and think, not just about who this is in front of us, but who we are as we look.
Rod McNicol: A Portrait
Published by M.33, Melbourne, 2022
Design: Yanni Florence
Essay: Pippa Milne
220 x 220 mm
Cloth bound hard cover
$60 (& gst in Australia)
Printed by Adams Print
This publication was made possible through the generosity of Bill Bowness AO.
TO BUY THE BOOK:
All good booksellers and M.33 online