Portrait

Street photographer Jonny Lewis is documenting and preserving local and global communities. By Sarah Price.

Photographer Jonny Lewis

Jonny guides me through his collection of portraits, reliving moments in time. One after the other, their faces appear, strangely familiar, yet random, unknown. Nameless people documented in black and white. A mother with her swaddled baby, Buddhist monks and men from Nepal, an Egyptian woman, two Aboriginal men who have travelled from Moree. There are young people and old, some who smile, others who are serious or solemn.

Around Jonny’s neck is a wad of shirt and jacket collars, a knotted scarf, the thick strap of his camera. He moves slowly, lingering at each photograph. Beneath the brim of his woollen newsboy cap, his dark eyes study the images, as if seeing his subjects for the first time. “It’s a mystery to me why some work and others don’t,” he says. “I love saying to myself, ‘How did that happen?’

I’ve got no control over it. I just work away and all of a sudden something gets in the way, and it means something. I can’t explain it. Francis Bacon was asked by an arts editor to explain his painting. He replied, ‘If I could explain it I wouldn’t have fucking painted it.’ ” He laughs, “Excuse the language, but isn’t that right?”

For the past three years, Jonny has walked the streets of inner Sydney, taking more than 600 photographic portraits, 19 of which are currently on display at the State Library of New South Wales. In the tradition of the street photographers of the 1930s to ’50s, he approaches random people and asks if he can photograph them, recording no names or details. An image without a name emphasises the person, he says. “The less we know of the image by title or interview, the more the photograph has to do its job.”

Pausing in front of a photograph of an elderly woman, her hands tossed jubilantly in the air, he turns to me. “Isn’t she great?” he says. “I’ve met this woman three times now, on City Road at Chippendale. She’s always dressed up. On this particular day, she said, ‘You’ve made my day. It was so terrible, but now you’ve photographed me.’ It’s the opposite of what you might think: photographing people often makes them feel happy, and validated.”

Starting out in the late ’60s, Jonny lived in the Yellow House at Potts Point, taking his place alongside Brett Whiteley, Martin Sharp and George Gittoes. “From the beginning I knew I had found the people I wanted to spend my life with. I didn’t bat an eyelid, just sort of wrestled my way in and eventually people started taking me seriously. At the Yellow House I got a bit of an education – the art scene in the ’60s and ’70s was so fantastic – it was seamless. These people were out doing stuff, trying to change the world.

“I was lucky to have wonderful mentors. Martin Sharp helped me more than anyone. He had an old Nikon camera covered in paint. I started using it, thinking I could do something with it. It was a gradual love affair. Then other photographers really got me going: Diane Arbus and Max Dupain, who I adored.”

Jonny went on to teach photography in Paris, and helped to found Greenpeace, before travelling to Timor, Bougainville and Kiribati, expressing his social and environmental concern through art. Now, he says, he is at home on the street, seeking beauty in difference. “I’m comfortable with strangeness. Everyone is a bit strange. We’ve all got our dreams and hopes, and our awkwardnesses.” Aiming to show the city’s humanity, he trusts his intuition, “a mysterious hunch”, in deciding who to photograph and what will work.

We stand in front of a photograph of a man on a ferry, studying his young and euphoric face. “That’s a lovely smile,” says Jonny, “it’s a real one.” Next, we move on to a photograph of a woman from the Cook Islands, then a man from Afghanistan, and another, dressed in a Scottish kilt.

There’s a truth in black and white, Jonny says. The viewer has to work harder to put the colour in themselves, use their imagination to complete the image. “In this way, it makes the viewer a participant, not just an observer.” He reminisces about the old days in the darkroom, watching the fade-up. “I loved the black and white coming out from the ether. I went kicking and screaming into the digital age. Something has been lost – I don’t know what it is – but we all know it is lost.

“I tease the young photographers today because they’re like penguins, always looking down. The self-gratification is quick. They take the photo, then want to look at it. While they are looking at it, 20 good photographs have gone past.”

Moving on, we stop at a portrait of a woman in a decorative hijab. Jonny places his hand on my arm. “Now I’m going to get emotional,” he says, his voice trailing off. “This photograph was taken at Martin Place. Initially the woman said she did not want to be photographed, but within 10 minutes she was back again, saying, ‘You can do it now.’ I asked why she didn’t let me do it before, and she said: ‘I didn’t want you to see me crying.’ ”

 “I don’t know what I’m hoping to capture, but I know when I see it,” he says. “With portraits you just muddle around, trying to find the truth in something, scraping away to get to something beyond the surface. Arbus said: ‘It’s what I’ve never seen before that I recognise.’ What a gorgeous thing to say.

“My memory isn’t what it used to be – it’s not going so well. But I continue to have a really interesting life. Recently there was a get-together with Peter Kingston, Guy Warren and Elisabeth Cummings. The talk got around to intuition and art. They just put paint down and say, ‘Now what are we going to do?’ And they don’t know. How can you know what is going to happen? They trust their inner-selves to create something. Photography is perfect for that. It is a real insight into the inner person.”

Leaving the exhibition, we pass a slight, short-haired woman on the stairs. Jonny stops. “Look at her,” he says. “Isn’t she incredible looking?” What is it, I ask, that makes a person incredible looking? Without pause, he replies: “Difference.”

When we part, he hands me his business card. Walking away, camera bag slung over his shoulder, he waves to a man seated at the information desk. I look down at the card in my hand. In unassuming, loose script it reads: “Jon Lewis – human being”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 5, 2017 as "Ways of seeing". Subscribe here.

Sarah Price
is a Sydney-based writer.