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As Australia’s first Aboriginal press photographer, Mervyn Bishop created history, helping to take control of how Indigenous people were portrayed in images. Five decades later, his passion for observing the human side of daily life has not diminished. By Drew Rooke.

Indigenous photographer Mervyn Bishop

Mervyn Bishop.
Credit: CHRISTOPHER SNEE / AGNSW

Two flowering bottlebrush trees stand in the small front yard of the one-storey beige weatherboard house in Dubbo. As I walk towards the front door, a voice yells out the window: “Come round the back.” The door swings open just before I reach it. Mervyn Bishop, one of Australia’s foremost news photographers, stands smiling.

A short, portly man, Bishop, 72, is dressed in dark grey tracksuit pants and an unzipped black hoodie. On his feet are well-worn brown leather brogues. His eyes are big, looking out from behind a pair of silver-rimmed aviator spectacles. He is bald bar a band of white hair running the sides and back of his head.

I follow him to the kitchen and he takes a seat at his laptop on the cluttered table that doubles as an office. He has spent the afternoon going through his portraits of a good friend who recently died, deciding which one will be used for the funeral. Flicking through the images, Bishop shares stories about the old man and their friendship. He can, I realise, spin a yarn as well as he can take a photo. He is charismatic, funny, mild-mannered and absorbing.

“Anyway, enough of that,” Bishop says after 15 minutes. “C’mon, I’ll take you to see something special while there’s still some daylight.”

Bishop stands and closes the white lace curtains on the kitchen windows. He slings a bumbag over his shoulder, puts on a herringbone cap, and walks outside to his station wagon.

Driving north along the Newell Highway, Bishop tells me more stories – about Dubbo’s history and several of its local characters. Soon we arrive at Terramungamine Reserve on the banks of the Macquarie River, where several campers have already set up for the night. Bishop leads me along a walking track to a platform above a rock outcrop. It is covered in more than 150 grinding grooves formed over several thousands of years by members of the Mungah clan of the Wiradjuri nation.

It’s a beautiful place, even more so at this time of day. The setting sun has painted puffs of cloud salmon pink. Grey kangaroos graze nearby and a flock of cockatoos perch in the limbs of the river red gums lining the bank. “Pretty special, aye,” Bishop says, snapping some photos on a small point-and-shoot camera he brought in his bumbag.

We walk back along the track after the sun dips below the horizon. Driving out of the reserve, Bishop stops the car beside a retired couple drinking red wine around a campfire. He winds down his window and says: “Wow, what a spot you guys have. Lovely.” They chat for a few minutes, with Bishop cracking many jokes. “Enjoy yourselves – and safe journey,” he says, before winding up his window.

Bishop looks across to me as he drives away. “It’s always good to have a bit of a chat,” he says. His eyes widen and a cheeky grin appears. “You never know – they might have invited us over for a drink.”

 

Born and raised in Brewarrina – a small town about 400 kilometres north-west of Dubbo – Bishop’s boyhood dream was to become a pilot. But his passion and talent for photography was clear from an early age. At 10 he was already taking photos on his mother’s Kodak 620 of his family and of planes and helicopters at the local aerodrome. By 12, he had saved enough money from mowing lawns and recycling glass bottles to purchase his first camera: a 35-millimetre Acon Rangefinder. With his new toy, Bishop chronicled local life in Brewarrina and regularly hosted slideshow nights in the backyard of his family home.

About the same time, he learnt the art of developing and printing film from a local amateur photographer named Vic King, who had built a makeshift darkroom in his house. “Every few weeks I’d go around to his place and have a paddle in his darkroom,” Bishop says. “The first time I saw a print coming up in the developer on a blank piece of paper was just magical. I couldn’t get enough of it after that.”

When Bishop was 17, after completing high school in Dubbo, he moved to Sydney. He worked briefly as a copyboy at the ABC before applying for a photography cadetship at The Sydney Morning Herald. “I went along for an interview. I dressed up. Put a tie on. Looked smart, you know,” Bishop remembers. “The photography editor asked me, ‘What do you know about photography?’ I said, ‘Well, I took some photos when I was a kid in Brewarrina.’ I didn’t have any prints to show him; I only had colour slides. So I pulled them out and put them on the light box. I guess he was impressed, because I got the job.”

In getting the job, Bishop – whose ancestry is a mix of Muruwari, Kamilaroi, Ngemba, Yualwarri, English, Irish and Punjabi – made history: he became the first Aboriginal Australian to work on a major metropolitan newspaper and the first Aboriginal Australian to be a professional photographer. He felt, he says, “tops”. He was “somebody”, at a time when the White Australia policy was still in force and Indigenous Australians were not yet considered citizens.

Bishop remained a largely unknown figure in Australian photography during his first years at The Sydney Morning Herald. But in 1971, he shot to prominence when he was named Australian Press Photographer of the Year for his photo Life and death dash. Taken outside St Margaret’s Hospital in Darlinghurst, it shows a panicked nun carrying a crying, dark-skinned boy who had accidentally ingested his mother’s prescription medicine. Much to Bishop’s frustration, this image is frequently misinterpreted as depicting the moment an Aboriginal child is taken from his family during the era of the Stolen Generations. “It’s got nothing to bloody do with blackfellas,” he says.

It was custom at the time for any photographer at the Herald who received the country’s highest press photography honour to be promoted. Bishop, however, wasn’t – an explicit reminder for him of the ongoing social barriers he faced as an Aboriginal Australian. Not wanting to cause trouble or appear ungrateful to the paper for hiring him in the first place, he didn’t protest. His anger at not being promoted, however, has grown over the decades since. “Knowing what I know now, I probably should have bucked and carried on,” he says. “In fact, I probably should’ve smacked whoever was responsible.”

Bishop went on to work as a photographer for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in Canberra before returning to the Herald for a second stint. He also worked freelance for a time and lectured in photography at many colleges in Sydney. In his 60-plus-year career – which is currently being celebrated with a solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales – Bishop has created a rich record of Australian life, especially Aboriginal Australian life. His archive is as large as it is diverse, containing more than 8000 images that chronicle personal moments with friends and family, Aboriginal ceremonies, rodeos and town picnics, and defining moments in Australia’s social and political history.

According to Cara Pinchbeck, senior curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at the Art Gallery of NSW, Bishop has also “played a major role in taking control of the lens and shifting the way Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been photographed” by creating images that aren’t intrusive, exotic or exploitative. His subjects, Pinchbeck says, “always appear at ease, completely natural and unaffected by his presence with a camera [which] brings a sense of humanity to his works, providing the viewer with an intimate insight into captivating moments of people’s lives, to which they can relate”.

This is most apparent in Bishop’s 1988 photographs of Burnt Bridge, a small community on the north coast of NSW. While they show the squalid housing conditions Aboriginal people had to endure in Australia’s bicentenary year, they also highlight the dignity, pride and strength of those living in the community.

In one image, an elderly woman stands in the mud in front of her humpy. A live electrical cord runs by her feet. Wearing a spotless dressing gown, she is beautiful. In another image, a young mother sits with her infant son at a table, pouring tea. On the table are a floral-patterned tablecloth and a vase containing flowers.

Bishop’s secret in achieving the human quality in these photographs and all his others is his remarkable ability to talk to people and make them feel comfortable. “I wasn’t just going into places and taking photos then leaving straight away,” Bishop explains. “I’d always have a bit of a yarn, a bit of a laugh. I never wanted people to feel ashamed or intimidated – I wanted them to feel at ease. I treated people with respect and acted graciously but always made sure to not be condescending.”

Bishop’s most iconic photo is of then prime minister Gough Whitlam pouring soil into the hand of Gurindji elder Vincent Lingiari in 1975, to mark the return of land to its traditional owners. But that photo – which is actually a re-creation of the ceremony held inside a bough shed where the deeds to the land were officially handed over – is not Bishop’s favourite.

That title goes to a photo of his two cousins, Ralph and Jim, rowing down the Barwon River in Brewarrina on a sunny afternoon in 1966. “It’s easy to look at,” Bishop says of the photo when I ask why he likes it. “It doesn’t make you think too much. It’s simple. It makes you feel joyful, at ease.” The photo is also, he adds, an antidote to what he calls the “war mania” of much modern-day media and photography. “Flick on the TV or go to a gallery – so much of what you see is just violence and war. There’s more to life than that.”

 

On our last afternoon together, Bishop and I visit the Western Plains Cultural Centre in Dubbo to see Portraits of Language. A collaboration between Bishop, the State Library of NSW and the local community, the exhibition contains tender, intimate portraits of local Aboriginal elders, and highlights the importance of preserving traditional language. “When I was a kid, we were discouraged to listen and learn our own language,” Bishop explains.

Sitting having lunch at the centre’s cafe afterwards, Bishop tells me he is a firm believer in the “Five P’s Philosophy” that acclaimed Aboriginal musician Jimmy Little once told him about: patience, perseverance, positiveness, punctuality and pride. “I like that philosophy. It’s good to pass it on. Whether or not someone listens – who knows.” As we talk, a woman recognises Bishop and stops to chat. After she leaves, Bishop thinks deeply for a moment. “Christ – I can’t remember her bloody name,” he says, laughing. “I must be gettin’ old.”

Back at his home, as I am preparing to leave, Bishop catches a glimpse of the time on the microwave: 4.10pm.

“Ah, great,” Bishop says, walking into the lounge room and switching on the television. “I’ve still got 20 minutes before my afternoon relaxation time.”

“What’s your afternoon relaxation time?” I ask.

Bold and the Beautiful,” he says with the same cheeky grin I saw when driving out of Terramungamine Reserve the day before. He doesn’t watch the classic soap opera daily, he says – just a couple of times a week.

“Why do you like it?”

“Oh, you know – it’s relaxing. And it has some funny things to say about” – he lowers his voice an octave and smirks – “daily life.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 23, 2017 as "Emotion capture". Subscribe here.

Drew Rooke
is a Sydney-based freelance journalist.

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